ndrew Lang gazed in wonder at the tall alien trees of the surrounding forest. The huge trunks, mottled in ebony and vivid yellow, soared above him to dizzy heights and their spreading limbs, draped with fan-shaped leaves of pale violet overarched him like the vault of a vast organic cathedral.
Bars of unearthly sunlight slanted through the forest canopy and dimly illuminated the undergrowth of shrubs whose triangular leaves, variegated in cream and purple, choked what little space remained.
Thick saffron colored vines hung above the Earthman's head -- strange lianas that bore beak-like carmine flowers. Lang jumped when one of the weird blooms unexpectedly sprang out on an uncoiling tendril, and snapped at an insect-like thing that darted past his face.
Lang swore in fright. Welcome to Planet X, he though, wryly.
The strange plant had reminded him with alarming suddenness that although this unknown world was much like Earth, he was nonetheless ten thousand light years from the planet of his birth. Ten thousand light years! It was a long way to pursue the man who had tried to kill him, and in a makeshift spaceship at that.
Lang grimaced, turned his head and gazed at the craft he'd landed in the forest glade. It was nothing more than a huge pressure vessel he'd purchased from a junkyard and fitted out with a Coleson drive and stellar compass, and various other items of equipment essential to a spacefarer.
Damn Aaron Coleson, he thought, referring to the brilliant but eccentric inventor of these devices, and the man who was partially responsible for what had befallen him. Memories of the past year came flooding back. The professor had discovered a way to achieve faster than light travel. With his space drive a thousand light years could be traversed in a single day, and the stellar compass enabled an astronaut to find his way back to Earth no matter how far or in what direction he journeyed.
Coleson could have made a fortune from patenting his inventions, perhaps even becoming the richest man on Earth. But instead he published detailed diagrams on the internet for the entire world to see -- a "gift to humanity" he'd called it. Both space drive and stellar compass were remarkably simple to construct -- all the electronic components were readily available and at no great cost, and the modular design of late twenty-first century mechanisms meant they could be clipped together with the ease of Lego blocks.
Lang had no objections to space exploration. Indeed, like Coleson, he thought it was a tremendous boon for humanity. But the way the professor had gone about revealing his discovery to the world had caused utter chaos across the globe, and it was this that made the Earthman curse the inventor's name.
By the time the various governments realized that Coleson wasn't just another crank claiming to have discovered the secret of perpetual motion, immortality or some other quackery of the lunatic fringe, it was far too late -- backyard spaceships were taking off like skyrockets on the fourth of July.
Space Fever -- that's what the media had coined it. It was like the old days of the gold rushes. A ferment of freedom and lawlessness had come upon the world. Men and women abandoned families and jobs. They cast aside all sense of responsibility and flew off by the thousands in rickety space craft and in all directions. Disruption to society was considerable and worst of all (at least to the politicians) there was absolutely no control over who went where or what they could do when they got there.
Coleson had caused a lot of problems for the world, but Lang could forgive the man for he had meant well. But there was one fellow he couldn't forgive, and that was Carson Boyd -- his assistant and the man who had tried to murder him. Hatred flared red and roaring as Lang recalled the circumstances. Both men had been working on a tracking device that was highly sensitive to the xeno particles the Coleson drive emitted. When perfected it would enable governments to at least trace their wayward citizens and mount a rescue mission if need be.
All had been going well until that fateful night of the twelfth of May, and Lang found himself reliving those awful moments in vivid detail. Boyd had been behaving strangely throughout the day, and had chosen to stay back and work late at their laboratory. Lang, worried about his colleague had called in unexpectedly that evening to check on him. The first sign that something was amiss was the orange glow of leaping flames he'd seen through the windows of the single story building.
Lang leapt from his electrocar and dashed frenziedly towards the entrance. He burst within. The laboratory was a shambles. Shattered equipment lay strewn across the floor. Benches had been overturned. Boyd stood in the middle of the room and at his feet was a pile of fiercely burning datarecords. For a moment Lang looked on in stunned disbelief. Then he swore and shouted:
"Carson! What the hell are you doing?" he yelled as he advanced angrily upon the man. "Have you gone crazy?"
Boyd's head jerked up. There was a crazed look in his eyes. His thin lips curled in a feral snarl and his apish body tensed.
"Bloody spy," he shouted. "You'll not stop me. You'll not discover where I'm going. I've smashed the prototype, burnt all your precious plans and diagrams."
In a sickening instant Lang knew it was the madness of space fever he was up against. Suddenly, he realized there was a fatal flaw in Boyd's character -- some men are kept in check by their ethical ideals and others by the threat of punishment. The Coleson drive presented an opportunity to escape the restraints of civilization, and Boyd meant to seize it firmly in his grasp, and saw Lang's invention as an impediment to his desire. Well, Boyd was a fool. He could burn a thousand datarecords. It would do him no good. The knowledge was still in Lang's brain.
Boyd's lips twisted into a malicious grin. It was as if he had suddenly read Lang's mind. The young scientist went cold as his assistant's hand darted within his jacket and drew a pistol.
Lang hurled himself aside. The gun exploded and a slug scored a bloody furrow across Lang's ribs. He crashed to the floor behind an overturned bench, cursing and clutching his bleeding wound.
Boyd's gun roared again. Another bullet smashed through the table top and missed Lang's head by an inch. He grasped a broken flask, hurled it at his attacker and rolled aside. The jagged glass struck Boyd's arm as he fired again. It ruined his aim and lead ricocheted in an angry whine off the concrete floor.
Lang rolled to a crouch and saw that Boyd had dropped the gun and was trying to staunch the flow of blood from the gash in his bicep. Lang hurled himself on his assistant as the man made a grab for the fallen weapon.
The scientist collided solidly with his foe. Both men fell to the floor and grappled madly. Boyd tried to sink his teeth into Lang's neck. Lang managed to head butt his enemy, then delivered a hammering blow to the side of his jaw that sent him sprawling.
Lang staggered up and his eyes widened in icy fear -- volatile chemicals from numerous shattered bottles were oozing towards the leaping flames.
"Carson," he shouted wildly, "We've got to get out of here. This place is going to. . ."Boyd's mad laugh cut him off like a knife. The man lashed out with a terrific kick. Lang tried to dodge the blow but wasn't quite fast enough. His leg was brutally knocked out from under him and he fell heavily to the floor.
The explosive liquid crept closer to the blazing datarecords. Boyd sprinted for the door and vanished through it. Lang struggled to his feet. Terror rode him as he made for the exit in a desperate limping run. He knew he wasn't going to make it and he was right. . .
ang was clinging to life by a thread when the firemen pulled his burnt and broken body from the smoking wreckage of the lab. He'd spent months in an induced coma in intensive care as the wonders of advanced medicine completely healed his many injuries. But by the time he was discharged from the hospital, Boyd had vanished without a trace, and the police were utterly clueless as to his whereabouts.
Lang finished his tracking device in a fury. A visit to Boyd's residence confirmed his suspicions. Xeno particles from a Coleson drive had left perturbations in the space-time continuum around the backyard workshop of his assistant. Boyd had taken off into the unknown and was beyond justice, or so he thought. Lang, however, planned to severely disappoint him.
The Earthman brought his mind to the present. He'd traced Boyd to this world and knew the man's spaceship was somewhere within a mile of where he had landed. Lang checked the medical kit, wireless Taser and Bowie knife strapped to his waist, and his face grew hard with grim determination. Boyd was out there somewhere, and he meant to find him and bring him back to Earth for trial.
Lang consulted his compass and set off in a northeasterly direction. He moved stealthily through the undergrowth with all the care of a stalking tiger, and in his present mood he was just as dangerous. It was tough going, pushing through the dense vegetation, but he had dared not land any closer lest the sight of his descending craft alert his adversary. An hour of struggle brought him to the shore of a large lake. He pushed through a final hindering growth, obtained a clear view across the limpid water and gasped in amazement at what he saw.
The city was laid out in a circular plan and each building was interconnected by a complex web of rope bridges. Beneath the metropolis was a field of aquatic plants. The cultivated growths, mauve in color, resembled giant water lilies. Their knobby green fruit provided sustenance for the population, as did the creatures of the lake. Spiral staircases twisted down beneath the houses, and gave access to small platforms where the canoes of the gardeners and fisherman were moored.
Lang swore softly and wiped the sweat from his face. Boyd must have brought his ship down in the city. But was he a prisoner of the inhabitance, or their friend? The situation had suddenly become more complex than he had anticipated. Under different circumstances he would have been tremendously excited at having discovered an alien civilization, but the burning desire to bring his would-be killer to justice overrode much of his sense of awe which would otherwise have prevailed.
A flash of movement interrupted Lang's ruminations. He spun about; his hand darting for the Taser. But then he then froze in astonishment at the unexpected sight of what his startled eyes beheld.
A girl of exquisite but alien beauty studied him from a distance of perhaps twenty feet. Her hair, long and flowing, was cherry red and her skin dark rose in color. Her large expressive eyes, which regarded him warily, were of a sapphire hue. Her only item of apparel was a brief triangular loincloth of material resembling white velvet.
But it was not these aspects of her person that Lane found so amazing. Rather, it was the coppery band about her brow -- a circuit set with amber gems that cast a golden halo about her head; it was that which made him start. And the fact that she floated fifteen feet above the ground added to the unearthly nature of the vision confronting him. The scene was a frozen tableau for perhaps a second. Then the girl raised a long tube to her full lips and the spell was broken.
Lang gasped in alarm. He jumped aside and the blowgun's dart thudded into the tree behind him. Another dart hissed past the Earthman's head as he bolted for the shelter of its trunk. He slipped behind the mighty bole and cursed. Would he have to shoot the girl? Would she fall if he stunned her with the Taser? The gun wouldn't kill her but the fall might, and he didn't want blood on his hands if he could help it.
He risked a quick glance around the tree and nearly took a dart in the eye. Lang jerked his head back and swore. The girl was circling to get a clear shot at him. The darts were no doubt poisonous and the slightest scratch would more than likely kill him. The thought of hurting a woman was repugnant. However, it was clear to Lang he had no choice but to defend himself.
Lang drew his Taser, sank to his belly and slithered beneath the concealing leaves of a large bush. The Earthman waited tensely as he peered through the foliage. The girl came into view and by her expression he saw she was puzzled by his sudden disappearance. She raised the blowgun to her lips and cautiously dropped lower. Her keen gaze raked the verdure. Grim faced, Lang slowly raised his Taser and drew a bead on the slim figure of the Amazon. His finger tightened on the trigger.
The girl screamed, but it wasn't from the electric shock of the Earthman's weapon -- a long thin squid-like arm had shot up from the undergrowth and coiled about her body with amazing swiftness. It jerked her down savagely and she vanished into the dense verdure.
A muffled cry broke upon the startled Earthman's ears. Lang cursed. Even though she had tried to kill him his sense of chivalry wouldn't allow him to leave the girl to die. He burst from concealment and sprinted for the tangled growth into which she had been violently hauled. He was determined to save her if he could. A frightening sight confronted him as he tore madly through the verdure: The Amazon was struggling widely in the monster's grip. The thing's limb, which in fact proved to be a ropy tongue, was swiftly dragging her towards its gaping leafy jaws.
Lang skidded to a halt. To the Earthman the creature resembled a giant Venus flytrap. He raised his Taser, but the oculars that rimmed the monster's other mouths sensed his movement. Another tongue lashed out like a cracking whip and wrapped about his torso. It jerked the man off balance as he fired. The wireless Taser dart struck the earth and spent its charge harmlessly in the soil.
The Earthman cursed as he hit the ground. He fired again. The dart struck the creature. It convulsed wildly and the jerking tongue flung Lang free as if he was a doll. He crashed into a bush, senses reeling. It was some time before he managed to stagger to his feet.
Lang gazed warily at the plant-monster. The thing's four tongues lay on the ground twitching feebly. It was no longer a threat, at least for the moment, but what of the girl? His urgent searching gaze quickly descried a shapely leg poking from the undergrowth several yards away.
He quickly retrieved his fallen Taser, moved towards the Amazon and knelt beside her. Lang was relieved to see there were no obvious signs of serious injury. She moaned softly as he carefully felt her body for broken bones. Her limbs moved sluggishly, which indicated her spine was undamaged.
A quick glance at the plant-monster revealed that it, too, was stirring to full activity.
Lang, now confident he could move the girl without injuring her further, took her in his arms and carried her clear of the creature. He had moved about twenty paces when her eyes slowly opened. For perhaps a second she gazed at him in dull comprehension. Then her eyes went wide with sudden fright and she exploded into violence.
The Earthman found himself holding onto a wildcat. Clawing hands struck savagely at his eyes. He dropped the girl in alarm. She hit the ground and threw a vicious kick at his groin. He barely caught her leg in time.
"Stop!" he cried angrily.
She replied by slamming her other foot into his shin. Lang swore and fell on top of her. They wrestled madly and it was only with his greater strength that he was able to subdue her by pinning her limbs to the earth with his hands and knees.
The girl refused to acknowledge defeat. Her body arched convulsively. Her head rolled from side to side as she writhed like an electrocuted serpent. The Earthman grimly clung to her with the tenacity of a limpet. At last she settled, exhausted by her futile struggle, her breasts heaving from terror and strenuous exertion.
"Peace," gasped Lang as he stared into her frightened but defiant eyes. "I know you don't understand me, but I mean you no harm."
"I understand you very well," hissed the girl in strangely accented English. "Our god warned us that the devil might come to our world."
For a moment Lang's mind spun with the shock of what she said, then sudden understanding dawned upon him.
"Boyd! You've learnt English from him haven't you?"
The girl twitched her head in what he guessed was the local equivalent of a nod. "Such is the name of our god," she proudly replied.
"Boyd's no god," he said derisively as he released the girl and quickly stepped away from her. "And I'm no devil. Both of us are merely mortal men from another world."
"You are an evil liar," snapped the girl as she sprang upon her feet and looked wildly about for her missing blowgun.
"If I was evil, then why would I save you from that monster?" reasoned Lang, heavily. "If I was a devil," he continued, "then I would have harmed you when I had the chance, but I didn't."
The girl's brow furrowed in puzzlement. She pulled aside her loincloth and began a detailed examination of her sex. Lang reddened and politely looked the other way as the girl explored herself. The people of this world certainly had different attitudes when it came to certain things. What was also clear to the Earthman was that Boyd must have known he'd survived the explosion at the lab, and concocted some story to discredit him if he pursued.
So, Boyd is a god and I'm the devil? He mused darkly. The swine must be playing on these primitives superstitious fears. Well, I'll soon. . .
A net fell upon Lang, cutting off his train of thought. The Earthman swore. He grabbed his knife to cut the shroud of cords. Bodies fell upon him and drove him face down to the earth. He struggled wildly for a moment, then a bronze blade was pressed against his neck and tingling fear froze him into rigid immobility.
There was a babble of voices in an alien tongue. Ropes were wound about him and he was rolled onto his back. Lang looked up into a ring of faces. Four women of a similar appearance to the girl he had saved surrounded him. The Earthman cursed himself for a fool. He should never have turned his back on her. His searching gaze fell hotly upon the girl as she pushed through her crowding companions.
"Is this how you repay me for saving your life?" he cried angrily.
Her face grew troubled at his words. "Our god," she began, weakly.
"Boyd's no god," he snapped hotly. "He's a liar who is trying to take advantage. . ."
"You dare slur our deity!" she shouted wrathfully, her wild temper stirred up by his words. "Our god has honored me, queen Diara, by choosing me for his mate. I will hear no more of your filthy accusations."
Lang silently cursed his foe as Diara issued sharp commands to her warrior women. Boyd, although as ugly as an ape's arse, fancied himself as Casanova, and by now his ego was probably more inflated than a hot air balloon. The thought of his enemy making love such a beautiful girl set the Earthman aflame with anger. Then he rebuked himself. It was none of his business if the queen was foolish enough to fall for that gorilla. Lang sobered and wondered worriedly what was going to happen to him.
The queen's companions, as if in answer to his thoughts, grabbed the Earthman roughly, and whisked him into the air with such rapidity that it felt as if his stomach had been left behind on the ground. The amber jewels on the headbands of his captors glowed more brightly now they were airborne, and Lang correctly guessed that the gems were the source of their levitating ability.
Perhaps, he mused, the stones amplify these people's natural telekinetic powers.
In mere moments they were flying over the lake. The city of Annth loomed before the Earthman's gaze, and he saw they were rushing towards a large building in the middle of the metropolis. It resembled the other structures, but on a grander scale. The party descended towards the palace. They landed on the structure's wide verandah, and two Amazons guarding the grand entrance saluted by smartly thumping the butts of their spears on the polished floor.
Lang looked curiously about as he was carried within. Men were in evidence, quietly going about their allotted tasks. They bowed low to the Amazons as they marched past. Only the women possessed the telekinetic powers that enabled them to fly, which gave them considerable advantages over the males in hunting and warfare.
The Earthman was carried down a long hall towards the heart of the palace. It was not as dingy as he had anticipated for circular pieces of translucent shell had been set into the shingles of the roof, and admitted a soft glow that illuminated the intricately carved wainscoting. Shortly, his captors entered the spacious central room of the building. Additional passages ran off from the circular chamber, dividing the building into quadrants, and along these corridors Lang glimpsed doors that gave access to other rooms.
An unoccupied throne stood at the far end of the chamber. It was simply an ornately carved wooden bench set on a semicircular dais. Another door, guarded by two warrior women, stood beside the platform.
Lang grew tense as realization came upon him. He was obviously being taken to Boyd, and now the hunter had been snared by his prey. Dark foreboding came upon the Earthman. The confrontation with his foe was going to be very different from what he had imagined.
"Lord Carson," announced the queen in English. "The devil has arrived as you prophesied, and we have captured him by your command."
Boyd released the girl, readjusted his kilt-like garment and looked at Lang. The Earthman's blood boiled at the sight of his foe's smirking visage. He glanced at Diara and grimaced. He didn't like the look of blind adoration on her face, either. Apparently a god could get away with anything. "You've pleased me greatly," replied Boyd. "Now my dear," he continued. "Please leave us, all of you. I'll deal with this fiend who threatens our future happiness."
The women dumped Lang on the floor and departed, and the Earthman found himself alone and at the mercy of his triumphant foe. Boyd was in a calmer frame of mind than the last time Lang had seen him, but even so there was a chilling hint of megalomania in his gloating gaze. "Well, well," drawled Boyd. "You were foolish to follow me, weren't you? I guess you didn't think I could invent a detector of my own to warn me of an approaching ship from Earth."
"Perhaps I am a fool," retorted Lang, hotly. "But at least I'm an honest one. You, on the other hand, are a lying swine hell bent on exploiting these people."
"And why not?" replied Boyd, calmly. "These superstitious savages are easily manipulated. On Earth I was nothing. I was always in somebody's shadow -- that of my successful father, and later on your own. But here I can be a god and laugh at all of you."
"Laugh while you can," shot back Lang angrily. "These people will see through your lies eventually. The truth has a way of coming out in the end."
"Oh, I doubt that," replied Boyd with a sly grin. "The box of high tech gizmos I brought with me seems like sorcery to them. That, and the fact I came from the sky in a magic flying canoe. You're the only fly in the ointment, Lang, but you won't be for long, I can assure you."
A rush of fear shot through Lang, but he refused to show it and his voice was steady when he spoke. "So," he said with forced lightness. "You plan to cut my throat and silence me forever."
Boyd smiled cruelly. "That would be rather unimaginative. No, I have something more unpleasant in mind for you."
ang anxiously paced the confines of his dingy cell. To the worried Earthman the awful waiting seemed as tormenting as the horrid end he'd have to face, and for a moment he wished the guards would come for him and get it over with.
He ran his hand through his black hair and wondered for the umpteenth time if his desperate plan stood any chance of succeeding. Where was Diara? If she didn't get here before the guards he stood no chance at all. Had her coming to his cell been a malicious ruse by Boyd to cause him further torment -- to give him hope then cruelly snatch it from him? Again, memories of the previous hour came upon him. He remembered the look of cruel triumph on Boyd's face as he'd summoned guards to haul him from the royal apartments. The Amazons had dumped Lang roughly in the cell then, after having removed his bonds, they locked the massive door behind them and departed, leaving him alone with only his bleak thoughts for unpleasant company.
Lang had been exploring the dingy cell, seeking some weakness that might enable him to escape, when he heard a soft tapping on the bronze grillwork of the prison door. He turned around and was surprised to see Diara gazing at him with troubled eyes. For a moment he experienced the oddest desire -- to take her in his arms and kiss her. Then his heart hardened for he remembered that she was the woman of his enemy.
"Why are you here?" he snarled. "I thought you'd be with Boyd celebrating his victory."
The girl dropped her eyes. The stranger stirred unsettling emotions within her breast. At first she had feared him, especially when he'd pinned her to the ground with his awful strength. Then she'd been surprised when she found he'd saved her and hadn't harmed her in any way. He was strangely handsome and very different from the diffident males she was familiar with. Diara pressed her palm to her forehead as if to push these disturbing thoughts from her mind. She knew she must consider more important things.
"I. . . I didn't leave the royal apartments with the others," explained the girl. "I was curious so I hid by the door listening. . ."
Lang leapt to the bars and gripped them with such fierceness that the girl started at his sudden rush. He was strangely thrilled by the knowledge that at last she believed him.
"Then you know Boyd's a liar," he cried eagerly. "You've got to let me out of here."
"Not so loud," she hissed warningly. Then, more calmly: "It's not as simple as that. Only I can speak English well enough to understand what was said, and my people consider him a god. If I let you go they will turn against me and kill both of us."
"So, you will leave me to my fate then?" he asked bitterly.
Diara's lips thinned in anger. She drew herself erect and for a terrible moment Lang thought she was going to turn upon her heel and walk away. But then she took control of her emotions, for there was more at stake here than her injured feelings.
"Do you think," Diara replied with barely restrained anger, "that I will let Carson Boyd have his way? The man has deceived me. He has made me feel like a fool and I hate him! But," she explained, "there is only one way he can be discredited and that is for you to survive the Sacred Test. If you can think of a means of doing so then I'll help you if I can."
Lang experienced a pang of shame at having misjudged Diara, and then he grimaced. Boyd had told him what he'd have to face - an aquatic monster called a thumak in a trial by ordeal. He'd be tossed to the thing, and if he lived he'd be proven innocent. But in the entire history of the Annthari there was no record of anyone surviving an encounter with the beast. No wonder Boyd was supremely confident he'd be devoured by the horror.
The Earthman was in desperate need of a weapon. His knife and Taser had been taken from him and were now in Boyd's possession. But even if he could somehow retrieve them they were too large to conceal upon his person.
Diara watched Lang expectantly as he closed his eyes and pressed his forehead to the bars. She could tell his mind was churning like a whirlpool. The girl desperately hoped he could think of something. She had always had secret doubts about the justness of the Sacred Test, and felt extremely guilty about having delivered the Earthman into the hands of his enemy.
Lang had a rough idea of what he needed - something small, something that wasn't a weapon but could be used as one, something that Boyd wouldn't notice missing when stolen. But what could he use? Lang sweated and thought harder. Time was running out. He banged his head against the bars in frustration. Then an idea dawned like a light in the darkness. It was a long shot, but better than nothing. He quickly outlined his plan to the girl.
"Let's hope it works," she said, and then hastily departed to set about the Earthman's task.
How long has she been gone? wondered Lang, bringing his mind to the present. He looked at his watch, worriedly. Only ten minutes had elapsed, but it seemed an age had passed.
The tense and anxious man was started by a tapping on the door. Lang's head jerked up. His heart was in his throat for he feared the worst -- that Diara had failed in her mission and the noise was the arrival of the guards. But it was the girl who stood before him and he relaxed.
"Warriors approach," she whispered hastily as she tossed a silver cylinder through the bars. Lang caught the object and quickly shoved it in his pocket, but before he could thank Diara she had sped off down a side corridor with all the swiftness of a gazelle.
Lang tensed as the tramp of sandaled feet came to his ears, and in but moments a group of four hard faced Amazons were at his prison door. A key grated in the lock and the anxious Earthman wondered if they'd search him as before. If they found the cylinder all was lost. His face grew hard and his heart pounded like a drum as he prepared himself for the alarming possibility.
The warrior women marched within the cell. In an instant Lang was surrounded. Two girls roughly grabbed his arms. A third ran her hands over him. Her questing fingers reached for the pocket in which the cylinder was secreted.
Lang exploded into action. His foot lashed out and sent one Amazon crashing to the floor. He swiftly pivoted and threw a punch at the other holding him. His fist slammed against her jaw and she spun away. Knives hissed from sheathes like striking serpents. He leapt away and a flashing blade nicked his arm.
The Earthman cursed sulfurous oaths as the remaining guards rushed him from either side. He jumped clear and tripped one girl. She stumbled and crashed into the other. Both fell in a heap of tangled limbs. A flash of movement from the edge of vision caught his eye. The Amazon he'd punched was on her feet. Her face was a hate filled snarl. Her blade plunged for his neck as she flung herself upon him.
Lang caught her flashing knife arm by the wrist, but stumbled back under the ferocious impetus of her attack. The girl drove her knee at his groin. He twisted and caught the numbing blow upon his thigh. The Earthman fell, off balanced by the swift assault of his opponent.
He hit the floor and the Amazon was on him like a raging lioness. They wrestled madly. Lang pinned the struggling girl. He grinned savagely for he thought he had the upper hand. But victory was swiftly snatched away - the other warriors had recovered and hurled themselves upon him in a fury. Merciless fists pounded him like hammering mallets and he was soon subdued.
The battered and bruised Earthman was hauled to his feet. His arms were gripped. A knife was pressed against his throat and Lang knew despair as searching hands recommenced their exploration of his clothes. Lang had nothing to lose. Once the cylinder was found he was finished. He summoned all his strength for a suicidal attack upon his foes as the tips of the girl's questing fingers dipped within the pocket holding the cylinder.
Lang breathed a sigh of relief as the Amazon frisking him withdrew her fingers from his pocked and turned around. Diara stood by the door. The queen had obviously heard the fracas and returned to lend what aid she could. She issued further orders and the Earthman was quickly frog-marched from the cell.
His captors followed the queen who directed them along a passage, then down the spiral staircase that lead to the surface of the lake where it debouched upon a ring shaped platform beneath the palace. The structure, which enclosed an area of water, was about fifty feet in diameter, and around the circumference ranged the notables of Annth who had come to witness the spectacle of the Earthman's gory end.
The guards carried Lang some distance around the platform, and then stood him upon his feet. He saw Boyd before him, grinning maliciously. The Earthman's hands balled into fists at the sight of his enemy. His body tensed. His face grew hard with fury. An Amazon grabbed him by the hair and pressed her knife against his throat. Common sense prevailed, and he settled with ill grace. "Speak of the devil and he appears," quipped Boyd.
Lang glared at him with impotent fury. "Any famous last words?" needled Boyd.
Lang told Boyd in no uncertain terms what he could go and do.
Boyd laughed. Then, turning to a stony faced Diara who stood beside him: "Give the order my dear, and let's get this over with."
The queen looked pale. Her heart was thudding and her limbs were trembling slightly as she spoke to the expectant crowd in her native tongue. "Deliver this man into the sacred judgment of the thumak. If he lives he shall be deemed innocent of all charges brought against him. But if he. . ." And here her voice faltered for a moment. "But if he dies," she managed to continue, "his guilt shall be upon him for all to see."
The Amazons grabbed Lang and in one swift and fluid motion hurled him over the rail of the platform. The startled Earthman hit the water with a tremendous splash and sank beneath the surface of the lake.
Watery gloom surrounded Lang. For a moment he was disorientated by the sudden plunge, then his senses steadied and he realized he was within a submerged cage attached to the underside of the platform. The Earthman turned in a circle and fear shot through him like a jagged bolt of lightning - a dark and sinister shape was rushing directly at him.
The thumak's head, with its jutting lower jaw and wicked fangs reminded Lang of a barracuda. The beast, however, wasn't a fish for its body resembled that of an enormous stub-tailed lizard, but with flippers like a turtle rather than legs. Unlike reptiles, though, its grey green skin was as smooth as a frog's. All this Lang took in at a glance. He burst above the lake and gulped a lung full of air. The monster breached the surface some yards away. It shot a hissing jet of spray from its blowhole and came at the Earthman like a speeding torpedo. Diara's heart seemed to skip a beat as she gazed at the rushing beast. Her hand tightened on the hilt of her knife. If Lang died so would Boyd.
Lang dove and tore the cylinder from his pocket. The device was an injector filled with a powerful drug he'd planned to use on Boyd to keep him sedated and incapable of violence during the voyage back to Earth. The monster, ugly jaws agape, was upon the Earthman. Lang struck out. He slammed the injector against its ugly snout. Pain stabbed the brute. It veered slightly and its clashing teeth missed him by a hair's breadth, but one flipper caught him a glancing blow. The breath was knocked from Lang's lungs and he sank into watery darkness.
Diara searched the turbid water. Fear clutched her as she saw the stream of bubbles break the surface. Boyd laughed in dark triumph. The girl drew her blade. Her eyes were wild with fury and grief as she raised the knife.
Someone in the crowd cried a warning. Boyd spun about, a look of startled disbelief written large upon his ugly face. Diara struck. The man caught her wrist. They struggled furiously. Other Amazons rushed in and disarmed the queen.
"Release me," she cried furiously.
"You forget I'm a god, and therefore outrank you," snarled Boyd as he slapped her viciously across the face.
"You're nothing but a mortal liar," spat the girl in English. "I overheard your conversation with Andrew Lang.
"Listen, my people," she cried in her own language.
Boyd drove his fist against her jaw with brutal savagery before she could say another word. The queen's head snapped back and she went limp in the arms of the Amazons holding her. Golden blood trickled from the corner of her mouth.
"It looks like I'll have to silence you as well," muttered Boyd as he drew the pistol he'd brought with him from Earth and aimed it at the helpless girl.
Boyd's finger tightened on the trigger. A hand shot out from the water and grabbed his ankle. Lang jerked with all his might. The gun roared as Boyd tumbled to the floor. The slug struck an Amazon. She screamed, released the queen and clutched her wounded leg. Lang hauled himself from the lake and half onto the platform. The other warrior holding Diara dropped the queen. Boyd leveled his pistol. The Amazon aimed a kick at the Earthman's head. Lang caught her swinging foot and upended her. She crashed down on Boyd. The gun exploded and singing lead blasted the platform's handrail inches from Lang's face.
Diara rose dazedly to an elbow. She saw Lang hurl himself on Boyd and smash the gun from his hand. It skittered across the platform and splashed into the water. The girl sighed with relief; then tensed as she glimpsed other Amazons with drawn knives racing towards the furiously struggling pair. A rush of fear propelled the queen to her feet and sent a wild cry flying from her lips."Stop," she yelled. "The stranger has survived the Sacred Test. He is innocent."
Boyd cursed as the guards came to a halt. He was on his own. Sheer desperation leant him strength as he and Lang struggled to their feet. He broke free of Lang's clinch and drove his fist against the Earthman's ribs. Bones cracked under his knuckles and he uttered a wild cry of triumph as Lang groaned and sagged limply against the platform's rail.
"I'm a god," he screamed in Annthari. "I'll prove his guilt by killing him myself."
Lang struggled against the tide of agony threatening to swamp his reeling senses. Through a haze of pain he saw his enemy leaping at him. Then Diara flung herself wildly on the man's back. The Earthman rallied his strength as his foe struggled with the girl. He cursed when Boyd drove his elbow into the queen's ribs. She collapsed with a groan and he came at Lang in a fury.
Lang ducked the brutal blow that would have crushed his throat and killed him. He slammed his fist into Boyd's groin. His enemy squealed like a stabbed pig and crashed against the balustrade. Lang savagely gritted his teeth against his own pain, grabbed Boyd's legs and tumbled him over the railing and into the water.
Boyd's head broke the surface. He spluttered wild curses. "This isn't over yet, Lang," he shouted.
"It is for you," gasped the Earthman as he leaned upon the rail, pointed weakly and then fainted from the pain.
Boyd turned his head. His eyes went wide with knifing fear. The thumak, which had recovered from the anesthetic, was rushing at him. He screamed once and then the monster's frightful jaws closed upon him cutting off his other cries. Blood spurted briefly, then the mangled corpse vanished swiftly as the fearsome beast carried it deep within the lake's chill and lightless depths.
ang regained consciousness in the queen's apartments. His ribs had been strapped and he was lying on a sleeping mat with Diara kneeling next to him. The Earthman looked upon the girl and she smiled.
"How are you feeling?" she queried with concern.
Lang gingerly touched his ribs and winced. "I'll live. But are you safe? Boyd . . ."
"He's dead," replied Diara. "Your survival of the test and his destruction by the thumak proved your innocence, and exposed him for the false god that he was. But how did you survive? When I saw the bubbles I . . . I thought the beast had killed you."
"It nearly did," explained Lang. "A glancing blow knocked most of the air from my lungs, but I had enough left to swim beneath the platform which, as you know, is raised slightly above the surface of the lake. I rested there and regained my breath and strength. The anesthetic wasn't as effective on the thumak as I'd hoped. It merely dazed the beast for a while which fortunately worked to our advantage. Well, it's all over now, thank goodness."
A lump rose in Diara's throat. "Yes, it is over," she admitted, sadly. "And now I suppose you'll be returning to your own world."
Lang looked at the girl, startled by her words. Suddenly, he found the attractions of Earth strangely pale when compared to her vivacious beauty. He had no close friends or family on the planet of his birth, and before leaving he had delivered the plans for his tracking device to the government, and tied up the loose ends of his affairs perchance he didn't return. He was a free man.
Undoubtedly he had feelings for Diara, and she for him. But was it love or merely infatuation each felt for the other? It was too early to tell, and there seemed but one way to divine the matter clearly.
"I think I'll stay a while," he said as he took her hand.
"That would please me greatly," she replied with a smile. "In fact I think I can convince you to stay forever." Her prediction proved to be correct.