Illustrated by Jim Garrison

Chapter 1: Through the Storm Clouds

ren hurtled through the storm wracked sky as if he was a streaking spear hurled by a mighty giant. The young man lay securely strapped to the thrumming deck of his rushing air-sled. The rocketing craft tore madly through towering thunderheads whose ominously billowing masses blotted out the noon day sun and engulfed the world of Bas in turgid darkness.

Though he dived into a black chaos of elemental fury, Uren was oblivious to raging Nature. Blazing swords of jagged lightning slashed the darkness all about him. It was as if demon warriors were fiercely battling for possession of the sky. Unmindful, too, he was of the deafening thunderclaps and the howling of the icy wind that drove the pouring rain in chill blasts that smote him and his flying craft with the fierceness of a whip.

Only one thought possessed his churning mind - Nirana, and the horrid death he prayed had not befallen the woman he loved more deeply than life itself. Nirana - glorious as a summer's day and more precious to him than all the sparkling jewels in the crown that her father, king Oron, wore. Oh; but to fall in love with the daughter of the monarch of Zamar...

ren recalled his first meeting with the girl six months ago. He and his father, Amithu the alchemist, had recently arrived from far Esfan by commission of the king. He'd been strolling in the palace grounds enjoying the coolness of the night when he'd stumbled upon the body of a palace guard. The youth had gasped in horror at the bloody corpse. Something, a sixth sense perhaps, made him tear his eyes from the ghastly sight. He looked above in time to glimpse a shadowy figure disappear over the balcony of a second floor apartment.

In an instant the serenity of the star gemmed night was flooded with dire menace, and a terrible sense of impending danger fell upon him. One man lay foully murdered at his feet and another's life was in immanent peril, he was sure. In an instant the impetus of the deadly threat galvanized him. He quickly seized the corpse's dagger, gripped it between his teeth and scrambled up the vine choked lattice beside the lofty terrace.

In but moments Uren had swung himself over its ornate rail and stepped across the threshold of the room. The moonlit sight that met his eyes was such that it tore a wild cry of horror from his throat. The black-clad assassin had pinned the writhing princess to her sleeping mat with his burly frame. One meaty hand was clamped upon her mouth; the other prepared to thrust a poisoned dagger between her naked breasts.

The killer, alerted by the cry, spun about. But Uren had already flung himself in reckless haste on the man. Both went down in a tangle of writhing limbs. The assassin's dagger flashed. The girl screamed. Uren caught the killer's knife-hand in the same manner as his own had been snared by his opponent. They wrestled furiously in the gloom. The murderer tried to head butt his agile foe. Uren Jerked his head aside and sank his teeth into the fellow's ear. His opponent bit back a howl of agony and slammed a short, brutal knee stroke into the youth's ribs.

Uren gasped. The assassin jerked his bleeding ear free and bore his pain weakened opponent to the tiled floor. He pressed his dagger home. The youth's restraining arm began to tremble as the envenomed blade neared his wildly beating heart. The killer grinned mirthlessly as he bore down on his lighter antagonist. The blade gleamed with deadly poison as it inched lower, lower still. Uren's violent struggles rose to fever pitch. The envenomed blade was within inches of his flesh.

sudden flicker of movement caught the murderer's eye. A quick glance showed him the girl. She was about to smash a heavy golden vase upon his head. He lashed out with his foot and sent her sprawling. It was a brief distraction, but one Uren used to his full advantage. He tore his knife hand free of the assassin's grip with a mighty wrench, and slammed his blade deep within the killer's temple.

The man stiffened. His eyes went wide with pain and disbelief. Then they rolled in their sockets and he was dead. Uren pushed the corpse away and struggled to his knees. The princess lay some feet away, moaning softly and clutching her injured shin. He crawled towards the girl to offer aid, but before he could reach her side palace guards burst within the room, and rained savage blows upon the youth before he could explain.

It took a week for Uren to recover from the beating. The princess, seeking to make amends for the mistreatment of her valiant rescuer, had presented him with a royal token at a formal ceremony in the gilded and bejewelled throne room of the marble palace. Nirana came before him with stately grace and now he saw her clearly in the light of day. In an instant he was smitten by the beauty of the girl. The glittering splendour of the throne room seemed as common as a stone when compared to the glory of the woman who stood before him. And when she hung the heavy medallion about his neck their eyes had touched, and in that breathless glance a timeless meeting of the souls occurred.

King Oron, who was also present, cleared his throat in the lengthy silence. Nirana became flustered when she realized she'd been staring at Uren and he at her. The blushing girl stumbled through her remaining speech under the scowling gaze of her royal father, who hastily concluded the event with a muttered oath.

nd thus Uren did fall in love. But what a cruel game fate did play, for although he was the son and apprentice of Amithu, alchemist and wonder worker to the king, neither he nor his puissant sire were of noble birth, and so his heart's desire must remain a hopeless dream.

It seemed the poignancy of unrequited love was his destiny, and so he had tried to console himself with the knowledge that at least he could admire her glorious person from afar. And so with heavy sighs and wistful glances he observed Nirana's graceful form as she plucked blossoms from the palace gardens, and smiled in pleasure at her laughter as she frolicked with her handmaidens upon the purple sward.

But shortly even this was cruelly taken from him for Nirana's father, king Oron, fearing that the attempt on his daughter's life was a plot by a rival kingdom to thwart his plans, brought forward her marriage, and within a month the girl was wedded to prince Kemis of Nadur. It would be a loveless union Uren knew; one arranged solely for the joining of both countries in political alliance.

Uren's romantic soul rebelled at the thought of this passionless affair. He was in a ferment of black despair as the woman he loved was bound to a foppish prince who cared more for the cut of his gaudy garments than the tender feelings of a virgin bride.

arred by his plebeian status, Uren had watched the marriage ritual in his father's viewing sphere. The pomp and ceremony was ostentatiously baroque. The assembled courtiers were garbed in robes that rivalled the glory of a peacock's tail. Rubies, emeralds and diamonds flashed at wrist and neck, all set in heavy gold. The whole assembly was dazzling to the eye. Heavy incense thickened the air, and sunlight, tinted by the stained glass windows, fell upon the crowd in a fanfare of rainbow hues. By contrast Nirana looked pale and drawn, but determined to do her royal duty; Kemis appeared effetely bored with the entire affair, and if it hadn't been for king Oron's imposing presence and intimidating glare he probably would have yawned.

Uren groaned in mental anguish as Cafis, High Priest of the Sun, bound the royal couple's wrists with a golden chain to symbolize their unbreakable union. His soul sank further into darkness. He knew he was tormenting himself by watching the woman he adored being given to another man, but some strange perversity of character made him do it just the same. Nor could he stop himself from watching them depart for far Kemis.

For hours on end he stood at the viewing sphere observing the progress of the royal barque as it sailed across the Utarian Sea, unwilling to let his love vanish from his fretful gaze. Only the arrival of the storm had roused him from his deep depression. The tempest had come upon the ship with appalling swiftness as it made its way through the Strait of Baladur. Boiling clouds of evil darkness rolled in thundering waves from beyond the horizon and broke upon the vessel in raging fury.

The sea became mountainous. Giant waves hurled their frightful bulk against the hapless craft. Her sails were shredded by the screaming gale before mariners could reef the straining shrouds. Her decks were swamped by foaming brine. Uren looked on in wide eyed horror as screaming sailors were carried overboard by the surging violence of the sea.

The youth groaned a fervent prayer as he saw the pitiless wind drive the floundering barque against the rugged coast of a storm tossed isle. In an instant he recognized the grim shoreline and a rush of fear shot through him like a livid lightning bolt. It was dread Kamadad - the shunned haunt of nameless evil. Huge monoliths surrounded the horrid isle's coast - immense pillars of olive green stone that thrust up from the sea, defying the waves with their towering strength. And at the peak of each soaring column had been carved an enormous leering skull whose gaping jaws wailed eerie cries that filled the stoutest soul with icy dread.

ren's last glimpse of impending tragedy, before the swirling clouds descended and blotted out the dreadful scene, was the frightening sight of Nirana, pale and soaked, clinging to the broken mast of the pitching vessel as it was ground against the jagged rocks of the forbidding isle, and the howling skulls who screamed their mocking cries at the doomed souls aboard the sinking craft...

The dying of the wild storm, which passed with the same weird rapidity as it had come, brought Uren's mind back to the swiftly rushing air-sled which he rode. Shafts of sunlight now pierced the boiling clouds, which seemed to flee before the lancing rays like vanquished monsters. The wind died away in fitful gusts, and with the clearing of the sky the craggy isle hove rapidly into view.

Uren sent the sky-sled dropping swiftly towards the rugged shore. An enormous grinning skull, jaws horribly agape, howled madly at him as he flashed past the cavern of its screaming maw.* The youth repressed a shudder. All that mattered was the rescue of the girl.

His eyes spotted scattered wreckage strewn along the stony, bolder dotted beach. A hissing comber tumbled a corpse upon the jagged rocks. Cold fear clasped Uren's heart like the talons of a fearsome beast. Was this the body of his beloved? The youth landed his sleek flyer on the strand. Frenziedly, he freed himself from his safety harness and dashed towards the broken thing upon the beach, praying it was not the lifeless figure of the girl.

Sweet relief flooded Uren as he neared the battered body. It was a mariner. But where was the princess? His sweeping gaze scanned the empty beach and again fear leapt upon him. The bleak scene was as bereft of life as a cemetery. The hissing waves seemed to mock all his hopes as did the cold breeze of the desolate shore and the eerie din of the wailing skulls upon their towering columns. A horrid vision of his drowning love rose before his inner eye. The youth sank upon his knees and beat the uncaring sand with his fists as he wept bitter tears of inconsolable grief.

oments passed, then a sudden scream made Uren start. His head jerked up. It was a woman's cry of utter terror. Instantly he was on his feet and looking wildly about. Again, the awful sound was repeated. Uren sprinted for jungle whence it came. He thrust his brawny frame through dense and whipping verdure of lilac hues, and in but moments came upon a scene to chill the soul with dread.

The arat hurled its cat-like body, twice the size of an earthly tiger, upward in a savage leap. Its hawk-like beak snapped shut within inches of Nirana who clung in white knuckled terror to the branch of the sheltering tree. Kemis clutched the bough beside her. His usual expression of disdainful ennui had been replaced by one of frozen panic.

* Footnote: The weird cries are produced by the wind passing through mechanisms (concealed in the hollow skulls) that amplify the sound.

Having missed, the hissing beast leapt again. But this time it clasped the trunk with its massive ivory claws and began to slowly inch its way up towards the helpless couple. All this Uren saw in an instant. He tore a rock from the stony soil and hurled it at the beast. The missile struck the monster's scaly skull as its drooling jaws were about to close upon the screaming girl.

The arat hissed in stabbing pain. It lost its grip upon the tree and tumbled to the ground. The thing lurched to its feet. It shook its fearsome head and lumbered about. The horror's purple skin flashed with bands of angry crimson as its black eyes fell upon the youth. Its forked tail lashed like a whip and its spiny crest bristled with untameable rage.

"Ho, ugly," cried Uren as he drew his curved short-sword and waved his arms to get its full attention, "if you've the courage then match your strength against my own."

The monster screeched its own fearsome challenge in reply. It leapt at him, appallingly swift despite its terrible size. Nirana looked on in amazement as the youth ran, not from the beast but directly at it. The girl held her breath as both rushed towards each other. Her amazement quickly transformed to utter horror. She wanted to look away from what she knew would happen - the rending claws, the sickening sight of spurting blood. But the girl found herself unable, snared as she was in the compelling moment of the scene.

Uren bore down upon the beast. His face was drawn into lines of utter concentration. Reality became nothing but the charging monster. The thing sprung with a wild cry, one mirrored by the frightened girl. Uren also leapt, but higher. The arat shot beneath him and as it did he swung his sword in a brutal downward stroke that slashed its eye.

The beast crashed to earth. In agony it churned the soil with its claws. Uren landed on his feet. There was barely time for him to catch his breath. The monster lurched erect. Though gore streamed from its ruined eye its pea-size brain was consumed by mindless rage. Again it charged. Again Uren leapt, but this time not high enough - one terrible claw raked his drawn up leg as he felt his sword strike the roaring creature.

Uren hit the ground. He gasped in agony. His injured leg buckled and he tumbled to the earth. Gore leaked between his fingers as he swiftly clamped his hand upon the ugly wound to stem the flow of blood. Uren gritted his teeth against the lancing pain and twisted frantically about to face the beast. He steeled himself to meet another charge, one he was certain would finish him for wounded as he was it was impossible for him to avoid its savage rush.

Chapter 2: Brutal Foes

ast relief flooded Uren as his darting eyes fell upon the creature. The arat lay in a twitching heap. Crimson blood spurted in a dying stream from the deeply wounded throat. His final stroke had slashed its neck and proved to be a fatal blow.

"Uren; oh, Uren, you're hurt," cried a voice.

The youth turned and saw that Nirana had scrambled from the tree and was running towards him. The girl reached his side, a look of frantic worry upon her pretty face. Swiftly, she tore a strip of cloth from what little remained of her sodden robe and began to carefully clean his wound.

"You could have been killed," she sobbed. "How did you find me? How did you get here?"

"I saw disaster fall upon your ship in an instrument and borrowed my father's sky-sled," he explained, thrilled by her concern for him.

"You were watching me," she accused with a strange mixture of annoyance and guilty pleasure.

"I am compelled," he admitted, wanting to say much more but mindful that she was now a married woman.

The girl blushed. "I don't know what you mean."

"Ah, but I think you do."

irana fell silent. Her hands were steady and efficient as she concentrated on the task, and Uren sought distraction from the pain by tracing her youthful form with his admiring eyes - the oval of her face, the way her cataract of ruby hair caught the sunlight in a blaze of shimmering fire.

His eyes went lower and came to rest on the creamy skin of breast and thigh that were exposed by the rents in her apparel. The pleasant moment, all too brief, was interrupted by the arrival of Kemis who couldn't help but notice Uren's lingering gaze. A contemptuous sneer was upon the prince's narrow lips as he toed the youth in the ribs with his muddy sandal.

"Have a care, you base born knave," he haughtily cried as he grasped his dagger hilt. "This is my wife, not a strumpet of the street. Avert your lustful eyes before I cut them out with my royal blade."

Nirana, who had finished bandaging Uren's wound, turned savagely upon the prince. "This man saved our lives," she cried. "He is wounded, too. Your callous words are prompted not by any love for me, but by heartless arrogance. Indeed, from what I've heard you prefer pretty boys to women."

Kemis' eyes narrowed to dangerous slits. What she'd said about his sexual preferences wasn't true, but her words deeply stung what little manliness the foppish prince possessed. His twisted lips spat a vile oath. He struck the girl a savage blow across the cheek and sent her crashing to the ground.

In an instant Uren was on his feet, his pain utterly forgotten. Kemis stepped back as the youth's wild eyes fell upon him with the fierceness of a mace's blow. Like all cowards the prince was only good at striking those he thought weaker than himself. Uren stepped forward aggressively, pure murder written large upon his snarling face. And no doubt red murder would have been Kamis' fate. But as Uren raised his bloody and vengeful sword a wild pack of mauve skinned savages, heretofore concealed by the surrounding lilac underbrush, burst forth with hellish cries and fell upon the unsuspecting trio.

Instantly, the scene became a whirling chaos of leaping, snarling figures. Uren blocked a brutal spear thrust. He cut its howling wielder down. Beside him Kamis fought, but to save his own life rather than his bride. The prince sent another snarling savage to the earth as he retreated. At least his swordplay was proficient.

ren stood alone beside the girl who wildly thrust her own dagger at the leering foe. The youth cursed Kamis and flung himself upon the savages, flying sword laying swift and bloody death all about. Though he battled like a man possessed by a demon of destruction there could be but one outcome to this unequal battle - gradually, he was forced away from Nirana by the press of swiftly stabbing spears.

The youth was rapidly weakening. Loss of blood from his wound, compounded by his frantic efforts to save his love, had taken their toll upon his manly strength. Nirana screamed. Uren cursed. Two brutal savages had caught the fiercely struggling girl. He leapt at the grinning foe, but his injured leg gave out and with a wild curse he collapsed upon the soil.

The enemy retreated, carrying off the screaming princess. The savages had what they wanted - a female victim for their unholy rites. Moreover, the jungle floor was littered with a half dozen of their stoutest warriors, and although their adversary was sorely wounded none cared to approach such a fearsome fighter for all knew a savage beast can often be most dangerous when it's wounded.

Uren cursed wildly. He struggled to rise, only to collapse again. He could only watch helplessly as the last of his love's kidnappers was swallowed up by the jungle. He paused to regain his breath and eventually managed to rise with a dizzy effort. But when he took a few limping steps in the direction the savages had taken, he again swore in frustration and pain. It was impossible for him, wounded as he was, to follow Nirana's abductors. He looked about for the prince, but the man was gone and Uren heaped upon him every vile curse he could recall.

Quickly, the youth mastered his violent emotions. He couldn't accomplish anything standing here. Turning, Uren made for his sky-sled as rapidly as his injuries would allow. Several times he had to stop and lean against a tree to wait for a dizzy spell to pass. There was no one to help him, no friendly hand to offer him assistance. The island's treacherous reefs and rugged shoreline made landing by sea fraught with danger, and the howling skulls kept at bay the bravest mariner. Grimly, the youth pressed on and at last reached the beach. Pushing through a final screen of vegetation his eyes instantly narrowed as they fell upon the prince. The man, who had found the craft by following Uren's trail in the muddy soil, was hunched over the sky-sled, muttering curses as he fiddled with the craft's controls.

Kamis suddenly threw a nervous glance over his shoulder and spotted the youth. His sallow features grew even paler and his twitching hands tugged violently at the levers. Buy sheer luck he jerked the right control. Uren swore as the sky-sled began to rise. With drawn sword he sprinted for the craft, ignoring the violent pain in his leg and his swirling vision.

The craft rose higher. A sea of roaring agony washed over Uren as he increased his frantic pace. The thought of his love's foul fate spurred him to heroic efforts to reach the sky-sled. It was the only hope he had of rescuing her. The vessel was nearly out of reach. He put on an extra burst of speed and made a mighty leap.

ren caught the deck rail with a single hand. He hung precariously, nearly fainting from the terrible agony he was in. Kamis cursed and slammed his fist against his rival's grasping fingers. Uren cursed. He hung on with all his strength and pressed his sword in dire warning against the fellow's ribs. Kamis immediately desisted.

"Pull me aboard," gasped Uren. "Pull me aboard or by the gods I'll gut you like a fish."

With great difficulty and the prince's forced assistance the youth was able to haul himself onto the flyer's narrow deck. Blade still pressed against the dour prince's flesh, Uren rested for a moment to regain his strength. Then, when the trembling in his limbs had stilled sufficiently, he opened a small box strapped to the rail and downed a flask of restorative contained within. The effects of the wondrous elixir were almost immediate. In a matter of minutes Uren's wound had stopped bleeding. He was free of pain and had regained a healthy pallor.

Vitality thus restored, he turned furious eyes upon Kamis.

"I thought you were dead," replied the prince in sullen answer to his ferocious and accusing stare.

"You mean you hoped I was dead," snarled the youth. "But I'm not, and neither is the princess who we must rescue from her savage captors."

Kamis opened his mouth to reply that she was probably already dead, and that any rescue effort would be a waste of time. But he thought better of it. Uren's savage look said more clearly than words that he would brook no opposition to his wild plan. Indeed, the prince realized that if he voiced his opinions it was highly likely that he would be the one pushed overboard. Kamis thought hard as Uren strapped himself to the deck and ordered the prince to do likewise.

amis knew he was in a bad position as he clumsily fastened his restraints. The youth was no lackey to do his royal bidding. For the first time in his life he wasn't surrounded by fawning sycophants, and he didn't fully understand the operation of this craft. A slight error on his part could easily precipitate a fatal plunge and he shuddered at the thought.

In but seconds the vessel was swiftly under way, and as the prince surreptitiously observed Uren's mastery of its controls, a cunning plan formed in his crafty mind. He had heard rumours of the sky-sled and knew Amithu the alchemist was the inventor of orarchium - the marvellous anti-gravitational alloy from which it was constructed. He also correctly guessed that this wonder would hardly be given to a mere apprentice. Therefore, the fellow must have secretly taken it without permission, which led to the further conclusion that no one knew his whereabouts.

Kamis smiled at that thought as he carefully watched Uren's operation of the craft. When he'd learnt to fly the sky-sled... Yes, a dagger in the back would eliminate this fellow who could expose him for the coward that he was. And after that a swift return to the safety of his palace and all its luxuries. Never once did Kamis give any thought to the fate of his lovely wife - such was the narcissism of the man.

For his part Uren, although he would have dearly liked to slit the prince's throat, knew Nirana needed all the help she could get, even though the prince was a man in name alone. The youth pushed aside these thoughts and concentrated on the ground below. His observations were soon rewarded as the sky-sled glided slowly and silently above the jungle canopy.

ren's keen eyes briefly glimpsed a savage moving along a jungle trail to his right, and the faint cries of the girl helped him further determine the location of her abductors. He wanted to dive upon the foe like a hurtling raptor, but the trees were too thickly grown to permit such a daring rescue. Uren bit back a curse. With each feminine scream a horrid vision arose within his mind of some foul act being perpetrated on the woman he dearly loved. Such thoughts tore at his very soul and filled him with impotent rage, but he knew he must await a clearing in the canopy or his mission was doomed to failure.

Uren grimly stalked the savages. No doubt they had a rearguard, but these warriors would be looking for foes following on the ground. None had seen him land upon the shore, and so were completely ignorant of the flying craft's existence. He must use the element of surprise and use it well.

It was about twenty minutes later that a looming mass of black stone caught the youth's attention. It was a ruin - a stepped, six-sided, truncated pyramid that reared from the jungle. It shouldered its way through choking verdure and rose to an impressive height well above the trees. Uren's keen eyes saw the underbrush had been cleared away to form a path that led towards the structure, and that the savage band marched upon the narrow way.

As Uren gazed at the stupendous ruin of a lost civilization he recalled a history book in his father's private library. According to the ancient manuscript a thousand years ago the Isle of Kamadad had been connected to the mainland by a low lying plain, which had been flooded by rising seas as a warmer period had come upon the world of Bas, and melted the ice of its polar regions.

The book hinted at a strange race whose civilization had slowly fallen to the encroaching waves - an ancient people, wise but cruel, who worshipped dreadful gods with savage and bloody rites. Could these primitives be the descendents of those time lost men and women fallen into barbarism through isolation from the world? And if so did they still practice their ancient and dreadful creed?

A weight of fear fell upon Uren at the thought of this frightening possibility. Horrid visions arose within his whirling mind. He fought them off, clamed himself and began to think... If he could get to the temple ahead of his savage foes an ambush could be arranged!

he sky-sled leapt forward at his touch, and in but moments he was circling the apex of the ruin. The peak was flat and measured about fifty feet per side with a tall, flat roofed hexagonal building rising from the centre of the level area. Steps, steep and narrow, rose from the base of the pyramid, and gave access to the towering temple on the summit, whose entire surface had been carved with the hideous leering images of barbaric gods.

Uren shuddered at the sight of the temple. The stone was as black as obsidian and the glaring ruby eyes of the savage carvings, each gem the size of a large man's fist, caught the light in a strangely sinister manner. It seemed that they were alive with malevolence, as if nightmarish beings were staring out at him from a depth if infinite darkness. The youth clamped down on his wild imagination as he landed the air-sled behind the summit temple. There was no time for fearful fancies, only desperate action.

"This is the plan," he said to the silent prince as he powered down the craft's mechanism and unfastened his safety harness. "We will let the savages come to us. They must climb the tremendous stair to reach this temple, which is clearly their destination. By the time they arrive at the summit they will be exhausted from the ascent, and then we will fall upon them and rescue princess Nirana. The element of surprise will give us a significant advantage. This, and the fact we will have all our strength to call upon should assure success."

"It's a good plan," admitted Kamis, truthfully. "I'm with you all the way." The latter statement, however, was an utter lie.

Both moved to the corner of the temple and settled down to wait. Every few minutes Uren carefully peered around the building's edge. Time seemed to have slowed to a crawl. Gradually, the waiting began to play upon on his nerves. Would his foes never get here? What if he had been wrong? What if the savages had deviated from the route he was sure they had been taking? Suppose they had killed Nirana on the trail? He groaned in horror and felt physically ill at the sickening thought.

Kamis was also worried, but for entirely different reasons - that the savages would arrive before he could get away, for by now he felt confident he could operate the sky-sled. Then his lips twisted into an evil smirk when he observed Uren's preoccupation with his worries. This was the moment he had been waiting for. The prince's hand stealthily crept towards his dagger and slowly grasped the hilt. Carefully, he drew the wicked blade. Quietly he raised the weapon - an inch, six inches, a foot. Now the glittering dagger was high above his head. A look of demonic triumph was upon Kamis' face as he plunged the weapon down upon the unsuspecting youth.

Chapter 3: Temple of Terror

hat saved Uren's life was the shadow of Kamis' descending arm. Alerted, the youth spun about. With mere seconds to spare he caught his foe's knife-hand by the wrist. The prince cursed. He threw his weight against his victim and bore him to the ground. His other hand clamped upon Uren's throat in a crushing grip.

Uren's vision swam. Wild fear came upon him. He couldn't breathe. Terror lent him strength and he slammed the heel of his palm beneath the prince's chin. The force of the frenzied blow snapped Kamis' head back. It sent him rolling and the dagger spinning from his hand. Uren rose to one knee, gasping air. Kamis staggered up spitting blood and curses. He leapt towards the youth and tried to kick him in the head.

Uren managed to block the vicious blow. He lurched erect, cursing. They clinched and began to wrestle furiously, each trying to knee the other in the groin. As both staggered about in an inelegant but deadly dance the prince glimpsed a sight that sent a thrill of fear racing through his being - the savages had arrived and, attracted by the noise, were coming around temple's corner to investigate the fray.

The natives vented wild shouts as they recognized the pair. Uren started at their cries. Kamis broke free and raced towards the air-sled in a panic. Winded from the climb, the savages knew they'd never catch him. They hurled their spears at Uren and the prince. The youth easily dodged the clumsy missiles, which were designed for thrusting rather than throwing. Kamis, however, with his back to the foe never saw the fatal spear that pierced his skull.

Uren cursed profusely as he drew his sword. The element of surprise had been completely lost thanks to the treachery of the prince. There was only one thing he could do - charge the foe and kill as many as he could in a desperate bid to save the girl. But before he could act the chief of the savage band, who had stealthily come upon him from behind, struck the youth a cunning blow that sent him crashing senseless to the ground.

**********

he crash of a mighty gong brought Uren to his senses. He opened his eyes. His head and arms hurt like hell. He was within the temple, strung up by his wrists to a bronze ring set in a wall of turquoise stone. To his right, against the further wall, stood a huge eidolon - a jade idol that reared to the high ceiling some twenty feet above. Its entire surface was carved with leering skulls whose eye sockets were inset with glittering garnets. The head, too, was a naked skull. Long fangs, like those of a sabre toothed tiger, thrust down from its jaws. The eyes were blazing amethyst orbs.

Nirana had been bound to a large slab of white marble that stood before the hideous image. She screamed as her laughing captors groped her writhing form. Uren cursed. He struggled madly in his bonds. The leader of the savages turned around and grinned evilly at the youth as he pawed the princess' naked breasts.

Sickening fear came upon Uren. It was clear he had been kept alive so he could witness the degradation of the girl. It was no doubt the savage's cruel revenge for his slaying of nearly half the members of their feral band. The chief's hand slid from Nirana's breast to the flatness of her stomach. The youth jerked the cords about his wrists. He shouted wild curses at the man as he trailed his grimy fingers down her belly to the juncture of her loins.

Nirana sobbed. She tensed as she felt his hand reach its goal.

"Uren," she screamed, "help me."

The savage's grin broadened as he toyed with her pubic hairs. Wild fury came upon Uren. He howled like a rabid devil. He threw his weight against his bonds as he saw the chief about to thrust his fingers in the girl. Then a commanding shout rang out and saved her form this sickening violation.

ll eyes swung upon a figure silhouetted in a doorway near the idol. The woman, who had been summoned by the gong's brazen cry from the temple's second floor, glided forth from the stairwell. Her haughty gaze fell upon the savages and drove them to their knees in pious submission, for she was the mouthpiece of their barbarous god. For a moment her scornful eyes touched the sobbing girl. Then her piercing gaze swept towards Uren and the wary youth saw sudden interest flame in their ebon depths. Never before had she seen such a handsome man. Why, he was like a god when compared to the uncouth males of her village.

But where had he come from? The warriors of the other tribes of the island were much like her own in appearance. His origin was a mystery that only added to her interest in the stranger. It demanded an answer - an answer that she was most eager to discover.

The youth tensed as she swayed towards him with feline grace. Rantha, high priestess of Gor, was an unnerving mixture of beauty and wickedness. Her face and figure would have been the envy of any woman. She was naked but for the skimpy golden pelt of some unknown jungle beast she had flung carelessly about her flaring hips.

Uren flinched as she drew near and traced the firmness of his jaw with one claw-like fingernail. The savage priestess smiled as she pressed her generous breasts against him, and in her sinful lips was the eroticism of a hundred courtesans. Rantha said something to him in her native tongue. Her voice was throaty, and he didn't have to know the language to understand what she desired.

The youth's eyes flicked towards Nirana. The priestess was extremely beautiful, but her inner being was marred by repellent wickedness. His face hardened in refusal. The woman's countenance grew dark with a storm of anger, for she read rejection in the grimness of his scowling countenance. She spat a curse and slapped him viciously, then stalked towards the helpless girl bound upon the altar of her evil god.

n an instant Uren realized his terrible mistake. Had he played the lover to this lustful savage perhaps he could have won freedom for the girl. Sick with fear, he tore frantically at his bonds as Rantha's wild gaze fell upon Nirana whom she recognized with a woman's intuition as her rival for the affections of the youth.

The priestess, a creature of wild passions, snarled like a she-wolf. Hatred and savage jealousy suffused her twisted face. The bound girl cringed under her withering stare. Then Rantha smiled cruelly. This offering to her brutal god might win a boon that would cause the stranger to become enamoured of his high priestess. She raised her hands in supplication to her savage deity, and began an uncanny chant whose guttural weirdness sent a wave of prickling apprehension coursing through the madly struggling youth.

Hidden mechanisms were actuated by the savage song. Nirana screamed as the idol's eyes began to glow with a hellish purple light. Rantha's unholy chant rose higher, and as the woman's hymn became more strident the statue's eyes grew to blazing suns of hideous fire. The priestess's face became a study of ecstatic malevolence as her dreadful psalm reached its dark climax. Uren shouted and wildly hauled upon the binding cords. Something dreadful was about to happen. Twin rays of sizzling energy burst forth from the eidolon's eyes, and the princess stiffened with a gasping cry of agony as the terrible blades of light pierced her heaving breast.

Uren went berserk with grief and fury. He broke his bonds as if they were but rotten threads. The warriors paled at the sight of his demonic visage. The youth snatched up his sword which had been propped carelessly against the wall. He charged the foe screaming like a homicidal demon.

In but moments the temple became a charnel house. One savage went down, his head cloven in two by Uren's flashing blade. Another fell to a disembowelling stroke. Rantha tried to flee, but slipped on the blood splattered floor. She fell and hit her head. Unconscious claimed her as another foeman tumbled lifeless to the ground.

he battle raged. Screams pierced the air and blood spurted in pumping streams as the wild youth swung his flying sword in whirling strokes. Shortly, the only sound was that of Uren's heavy breathing as he stood trembling upon the corpse strewn floor. Slowly, the battle rage passed from him. Sanity returned and he wiped a bloody hand across his sweating brow and stumbled towards the pale body of the girl.

He found her pulse with a shaking hand. It was weak and irregular, fading fast. He gazed with sick horror at the ugly wound in her breast. She was clearly dying. Uren stifled a sob. He took a deep breath and pulled himself together. Her body was mortally wounded and beyond his skill to save. There seemed only one thing left to do. It was a wild chance, but he had to try it.

From his tunic he removed a small drawstring bag woven from blue metallic threads. Working quickly but carefully, he placed the bag above Nirana's forehead and slid a dull reddish-brown stone from the pouch and onto her skin, being careful not to touch the gem with his hands.

The strange jewel clung to the girl's forehead and began to glow faintly. Uren watched expectantly. The Philosopher's Stone slowly increased in brightness as it drew the dying girl's essence into itself. Would his desperate plan succeed? He offered up fervent prayers to heaven. The Stone faded and his heart sank and he hung his head. Then the glow returned and his hopes rose again. The gem's radiance increased a little, then a little more. Within a minute it had reached blazing golden intensity - a bright contrast to Nirana's now cold and lifeless body.

sing the bag as a glove, Uren gingerly picked up the glowing jewel and gazed at it in awe. He now held the soul of his beloved in his palm. Carefully, he picked his way across the blood splattered floor. If he slipped and the gem shattered ... He pushed aside the frightening thought and concentrated on his footing.

It seemed like an age passed before he reached Rantha's side. The woman was alive, but still unconscious. Uren knelt by the priestess. What he was about to do was akin to murder. He wondered what Nirana would think of him if his plan succeeded. Grimly, he steeled his resolve and pressed the gem to the priestess's forehead. Perhaps it was fitting that the woman who took his beloved's life should save it with her own.

Golden light flowed out of the Philosopher's Stone. It enveloped Rantha's head in an aura of radiance that seemed to soak into her flesh like water into a sponge. Gradually, the gem dimmed to dull inertness. The transfer was complete. Uren returned the Stone to its pouch, lifted Rantha's body in his arms and carried her from the temple. But whose soul would animate the body? The girl he adored or the savage priestess of an evil god?

His father, Amithu the alchemist, had formulated the miraculous Philosopher's Stone after many years of study and experiment. The Stone could transmute metals by transferring the essence of one substance to another. Trials with living things had shown similar results - the animating force of one animal could be reassigned to another beast: a raging arat, the purple terror of Bas' jungles, could be made completely docile by transferring to its body the vital force of a domesticated animal. The problem was that the receiving creature had to be unconscious, and if its soul awoke the body first, then that soul would dominate and submerge the transferred mind.

s he exited the temple a wild shout rang out. Uren jerked up his head. He cursed. Another troop of savages was clambering up the treacherous stairs. They had come from the village concealed in the undergrowth about the temple's base, and had been alerted by the death-cries of their slain companions. Several primitives, fitter than the rest, had the energy to hurl their spears. The youth leapt aside and the missiles clattered against the stone where he'd been standing. He sprinted for the sky-sled. The strength of wild rage infused the mob when they saw Rantha in his arms. In an instant the howling savages were hot upon his heels.

The youth gained his craft in a wild dash. Uren hurled himself upon it, the girl still in his arms. He jerked a lever down and the sky-sled began to rise. One savage, fleeter than the rest, reached the craft. The snarling brute leapt, caught hold of the rail. Uren struck savagely. The man toppled, clutching his broken nose. His fellows hurled their spears. One passed overhead, others clanged against the sky-sled's sides and keel. Then the vessel was out of range and all the howling mob could do was cast their curses skyward in ineffective rage.

Uren caught his breath, secured himself and then the priestess' body to the deck, and then set a course for home. Minutes passed in tense silence as he anxiously gazed upon the woman. One threat had passed only to be replaced by another more troubling worry. His heart leapt when he saw her begin to stir. But which soul would possess the exquisite form that lay beside him? Slowly, the woman opened her eyes and stared at the youth.

"Nirana," he gasped, heart beating wildly with trembling hope. "Is that you?"

The girl remained silent for what seemed an age, her eyes vacant of all sentience. Fear gripped Uren. The transfer of souls between one person and another had never been tried before. Had his desperate attempt to save his beloved's life failed? Despair and grief assailed him. It seemed the girl he adored was lost to him forever. He sank upon the priestess' breast and began to weep in unabashed sorrow.

Arms suddenly grasped him. A voice cried in alarm: "Uren, where am I? What has happened?"

The girl struggled up and looked wildly about. "Oh," she cried as she touched her unwounded breast and saw the strange lilac colouration of her flawless skin. "Oh, what has happened to me?"

"You live!" cried the youth, joyously. Then, with an effort, he calmed himself and explained all that had happened. Nirana gradually settled as he spoke, and he was relieved to see that she accepted her dramatic change in appearance without rancour.

"It was the only way I could save your life," he concluded. "But I don't know how your father, king Oron, will react to what I've done."

"Need he know?" replied the girl, thoughtfully, as she took Uren's hand and smiled. "In the past my principles compelled me to sacrifice my own desires and fulfil my obligations to the crown. But princess Nirana is now dead. Let her stay that way so we may freely love each other, for you are more precious to me than the wealth of a hundred kingdoms."

ren saw there was truth in her words. Gradually, it had dawned upon him that the woman was now neither Nirana nor Rantha, but a strange blending of the two. He could sense it in the subtle change in the speech and body language of the girl. This realization gave him pause for thought. Did he love this new creature? Could he love this new creation? Yes, he felt he could, for though Rantha's passions were in evidence it was Nirana's abiding spirit that had vanquished the evil in the woman.

"Your words are like Heaven's benediction," replied Uren. "Never did I think I'd hear such joyous news." Then he sobered. "But your father will grieve most piteously..."

"Let him," cut in the girl with savage bitterness. "Oh, he is a good king, I'll admit; but a poor father. If he discovers I still live he'll marry me off to prince Lann, Kamis' younger brother, who is equally detestable.

"No, when we return tell the truth up to a point - you set out to rescue the princess, but sadly couldn't find her and presume she perished with the prince and all his crew. Omit your capture by the savages and the rest. Simply say you saw me walking upon a jungle trail and took me as a slave for your pleasure. In my kingdom it is an accepted practice for a man to acquire a foreign girl in this manner. Nor will your father object, for according to palace gossip he's worried you have no woman of your own."

"You are as clever as you are beautiful," Uren replied with undisguised admiration.

"And you, my love," she continued as she snuggled up to him, "Deserve more than pleasant words from a pretty woman."

"I don't know what you mean," he replied mischievously.

"Ah, but I think you do." She boldly said as she kissed him with the uninhibited passion of a savage.

The End

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