Illustrated by Kevin Duncan

Preface

What would things be like if magic was a force as real as atomic energy, and Isaac Newton had been a sorcerer rather than a scientist? This science-fantasy adventure provides intriguing glimpses into such an alternative reality.

Chapter 1: Pirate's Prisoner

The corsair ship descended towards the dying world. The six wings of her cylindrical timber hull, aglow with thaumaturgic fire, threw off swirls of coruscating light as they broke her long fall from the height of void.

Like a diving hawk, she swooped across the bleak and fractured landscape of this nameless sphere -- a world stained crimson by the feeble rays of the swollen, dotard sun that filled three quarters of its sky. The ship's racing shadow swept across an arid desert whose lifeless sands were stirred by banshee winds, then vanished into night dark chasms, and scaled ebon peaks whose bleak serrations cut heaven with their rugged height.

Lower she came, following the desiccated trail of shrunken seas, which had retreated through slow evaporation within a vast abyss, heretofore concealed by their rolling waves three billion years ago.

Into this vast gulf that clove the world swept the pirate - the last refuge of life that made its final stand against the coming of endless night, slow but sure. The ship sank towards a sullen, blood red sea whose sluggish waves washed a narrow strip of shore, one shadowed by the mighty chasm's stupendous cliffs.

The craft slowed to a feather's descent. It gently landed upon a beach of black sand which fringed an alien coast, one clad in thick and outlandish verdure of a purple hue. Tree-like vegetation reared from the soil - gnarled things with ebony boles and jutting twisted limbs; weird and unearthly growths whose wrinkled leaves cast clotted shadows upon rampant undergrowth, puce in color. And from this tangled foliage peered human eyes to gaze upon the silent ship.

Llewellyn Quinn, castaway of space, muttered a vile oath when his hazel eyes descried the ensign emblazoned upon the spacer's oaken hull - a black dragon entwining a leering skull of silver. He knew there was but one dreadnaught that bore that fearful herald - the Dragon, ship of Captain Hellsent, most feared pirate of all those ruthless buccaneers who rove the sea of stars.

There was a curious whistle from the long-beaked alien bird beside Quinn. "Shush, Friday," he hissed. He had named the alien bird after Robinson Crusoe's slave. "We've got to be careful. I recognize that cursed ship."

Friday gave him a quizzical look with its protruding chameleon-like eyes. It clung upside down from an overhead branch by three legs while it scratched itself with the forth and then spread its four wings. To call the creature a bird was stretching the definition considerably considering its body was more serpentine than avian, but its metallic blue feathers had been the determining factor to the Welshman. Friday was one of the few friendly creatures on this world, and its companionship had kept Quinn sane.

The Surveyor, of which Quinn had been void-man, had come to grief upon this world a seeming age ago. The Welshman shuddered at the memory of that fatal accident. He recalled with horror the explosive shattering of the levitation globe due to an undetected flaw. In an instant the engine room had become a chaos of billowing smoke that mercifully hid the blasted corpses of his mates. The ship had shuddered like a wounded beast, and then came the terrifying plunge as the stricken craft fell in fiery ruin through the chilly atmosphere.

Only he alone, by the grace of providence, had escaped destruction and fought his way through choking smoke and singing flame to the safety of an escape-pod. The ship began to roll as he grasped the hatch and jerked it open. He tumbled within the lifeboat and crashed against a bulkhead. The Surveyor spun sickeningly and he was flung violently onto the control panel. His groping hand managed to pull a lever. The hatch slammed shut, the boat shot free. Its parachutes ballooned. Bleeding from a gash upon his head, Quinn stumbled to a porthole and from ten thousand feet watched in horror as the burning craft and all his gallant fellows struck the crimson sea and exploded in an actinic fireball.

Quinn shook his head violently, as if by this act he could throw off those awful memories. After the crash, he had found Friday and, in a strange way, they became friends. Again, Quinn focused on the craft, and muttered another curse of utter bitterness. His hopes of rescue had soared like a falcon upon sighting the descending vessel, and he'd been on the verge of racing madly forth to greet it. But some sixth sense had held him back, and now he thanked providence for this inner voice of warning.

Ever since the great sorcerer, Sir Isaac Newton, had perfected his anti-gravitation thaumaturgy, Man had been freed from the confining sphere of Earth. Ships now plied the sea of stars as they had the oceans of the world. But alas - with such wonders had also come the old red trade of piracy to plague the space routes with its bloody craft.

Quinn's musings were cut short by the sudden opening of the vessel's port from which a ramp was thrust to touch the ebon sand. This soon followed by a troop of roguish figures descending it - thuggish and brawny men clad in the looted finery of lords - a jarring contrast to their brutal miens indeed.

The Welshman eyed them with a mixture of hatred and speculation. "Stay still," he warned Friday, who seemed eager to attack. What could these devils want upon this dying world? He doubted it was a quest for knowledge through exploration - a mission the Surveyor had been chartered to perform by His Majesty the king. Ah, perhaps it was to secrete the plunder from all the ships they'd cruelly ravaged.

A grim smile curved the watcher's lips at the thought of possible revenge. He'd stalk the pirates; descry the loot's location, and when the members of the bloody brotherhood had left, he'd move it to another hiding place. It wasn't wealth Quinn was after, but the opportunity to deny Captain Hellsent and his heartless curs the plunder they'd killed so many for.

The buccaneers were now upon the sand, and Quinn's eyes were drawn to a sudden commotion in their midst. A figure burst forth from among them. The captive dashed in his direction. One corsair raised his pistol, only to be knocked down by a red-bearded giant who, with a scourge of violent words, set the other six upon the fleeing captive's heels.

Quinn cursed. The prisoner, fleet of foot, was outdistancing his pursuers, but also leading them directly to the Welshman's hiding place. Quinn quickly ducked behind the tree upon which Friday perched, and scrambled up its knobby bole to ensconce himself within its cloaking leaves.

It was none too soon, for anon the captive crashed within the tangled verdure beneath the worried Welshman's perch. Suddenly, the fellow tripped and fell, his foot entangled in a creeping vine. A cry of surprise and fear burst from his lips as he struck the ground.

The captive struggled up; tore free. It was a short delay, but fateful nonetheless - one brawny buccaneer, faster than the rest, crashed through the undergrowth like a living battering ram and fell upon the fellow.

Breathlessly, Quinn watched the unequal struggle as slim youth and hulking brute madly grappled. The Welshman was moved to aid the lad, but glimpsed the other pirates closing in. His blood went cold when he heard their savage howls of glee.

Quinn wasn't a coward, but he wasn't suicidal either, for wise men know discretion is the better part of valor. But then the youth's shirt was torn asunder as he was hurled violently to the ground, and the Welshman's startled eyes beheld a maiden's breasts.

In an instant the situation had changed entirely. Quinn hurled himself upon the leering man who pawed the struggling girl. The Welshman's heels struck the pirate's back. The man screamed. He collapsed with a shattered spine. The other buccaneers closed in, drawn cutlasses glinting sinisterly in the crimson sunlight.

A blunderbuss was slung across the shrieking pirate's back that Quinn stamped upon. He tore it free, threw the weapon to his shoulder and sent a blast of sizzling shot into the charging foe. Three went down in bloody ruin. The rest threw themselves upon the sand and returned the interloper's fire with pistol shot and oaths.

Friday darted down, pecking with his diamond-hard beak. The pirates slapped at him, and he darted away, hissing madly. One aimed his pistol at the flying alien bird and fired. Friday tumbled about in the air, one wing nicked by the shot. He recovered, and angrily zoomed at the offending buccaneer. The bird's beak penetrated the pirate's skull and he collapsed. Satisfied and avenged, Friday retreated.

Leaden wasps whizzed about the Welshman. He yelled defiance as he flung the disconcerted girl across his shoulder, and swiftly darted into the concealing undergrowth. Leaves slapped him, branches thrashed him; the frightened girl pounded his back with surprising force whilst spitting curses in a foreign tongue.

Quinn ignored her. He had no breath for speech. The pirates, like rabid wolves, were hot upon his trail. He could hear their savage cries drawing ever nearer. Overhead he heard Friday's warning screech.

Burdened by the girl, the Welshman's strength was flagging fast. Time was running out. Quinn veered his headlong flight, lips thinning in grim determination at the frightful gamble he must take with both their lives.

Another pistol shot exploded - a narrow miss. Quinn plunged with breakneck speed among a copse of purple growth and burst through the other side. The pirates followed, now mere yards away. Sensing victory, they gave a wild battle cry. Suddenly, the buccaneers began to scream in pain - angry tendrils with envenomed thorns, disturbed by the Welshman's flight, snapped in fatal coils about their running forms.

Quinn struggled on for perhaps a dozen yards and then staggered to a halt. The buccaneer's piercing screams had gurgled to deathly silence. He eased the girl from his shoulder, and collapsed exhausted to the ground. Confident more pirates would not be coming for the moment; he now gave his full attention to the spitfire.

The girl, dark features of Spanish cast, had backed against a tree. Her hair, black and glossy, had been cut short in the manner of a man. She wore tattered breeches, nude from the waist up, her shirt having been lost in the violence of the fray. Her figure was slim, almost boyish, but one belied by small but well formed breasts which now heaved with fierce emotion.

A steely look was upon her pretty face, and in her small but strong hands, a fallen branch from the growth her back was to. She eyed the Welshman warily, expecting trouble and, if necessary, prepared to meet it with deadly violence.

"I'm an honest void-man," said Quinn, sensing her mood. "Marooned on this world. Like you, I've no love for pirates."

"An honest Englishman," sneered the girl as she contemptuously scanned his soiled uniform. "That I find difficult to believe."

"I'm Welsh, actually," corrected Quinn, sharply.

"I didn't know it made a difference," was her sarcastic reply.

Quinn scowled. On Earth Spain and England had been rivals, and now were so again in space, competing for the discovery of entire worlds. But even so, he couldn't help but feel the chit's behavior was most uncivil considering he'd risked his life to save her.

"Let's not fight among ourselves," cautioned Quinn, hoping that despite her attitude he could reason with the girl. "The whip-trees, as I call them, have killed our adversaries, but there's still a shipload of buccaneers behind us. Our likelihood of survival increases if we work together."

The girl's scrutinizing gaze weighed him in the balance. She beheld a young man, well built, taller than average, with what she judged to be an open and honest face. But was he honest? Perhaps this was another cunning ploy of Hellsent, an attempt to gain by stealth the information he couldn't torture from her. No, Hellsent was cunning, but not that subtle. She'd take a guarded chance.

"Very well," agreed the girl. "Your reasoning makes sense. You may address me as Maria Cortez. But I warn you . . ."

Suddenly, hearing Friday's shrill shriek of alarm, Quinn leapt upon his feet. He cried a warning. The girl followed his horrified, upward glance. She screamed in naked fear as a nightmare shape dropped towards her with alarming speed.

Chapter 2: Alien Ruins

Maria leapt aside with cat-like grace as the creature dropped directly on her. Alas, her jump was not quite far enough. Ice cold fear drenched Quinn as he saw the monster's snaky limbs whip about her leg. The Welshman drew his dagger and shouted encouragement as he ran to aid the cursing girl who laid a rain of vicious blows upon her foul assailant, aided by vicious pecks from Friday.

The monster's other limbs gripped the cord by which it had descended and began to haul itself and the frantic girl rapidly aloft. Quinn leapt. He grabbed the line, pulled himself on the beast and madly plunged his blade within the creature's body. The monster exploded into violence. Thrashing limbs, like a Cat-o'-nine-tales, fell upon the Welshman as he furiously stabbed the horror in a frenzy of wild blows.

One snake-like member coiled around the Earthman's neck. The tentacle began to squeeze. Another snapping tendril snatched Friday from the air. Maria, still suspended upside down beneath the creature looked on with stabbing fear at the Welshman's purpling face. She redoubled her frenzied assault upon the beast. Quinn could feel himself blacking out. He drove his dagger within the foe a final time. The world eddied towards eternal darkness. It seemed the end. Then a flash of blazing light erupted. The constricting limbs fell away and he tumbled free and crashed heavily upon the ground.

There he lay for a time, gasping air into his heaving lungs, looking dazedly at the beast. The thing, quite dead, limply swayed above him. The creature's flesh was translucent and possessed of a bluish tinge. Six long and slender arms, like those of a starfish, radiated outward from the central hemisphere of its body, which was surmounted by a conical organ that extruded a tough, silky rope.

The monster, with its limbs extended, measured about twelve feet across, and was incredibly strong despite its frail appearance. It was something of a miracle that they'd survived. Friday, Maria! His wits, still scattered by the harrowing ordeal, came rapidly together with the sudden realization the bird was missing and the girl deathly quiet. He was sure his pet was dead -- crushed by the monster and flung into the undergrowth by its death throes. A lump rose in his throat at the thought, but human life was more precious.

Turning, Quinn saw the girl lying several feet away and quickly scrambled to her side. With worried haste he placed his ear against Maria's nose; then pressed it to her heart. Her breath and pulse were slow but steady. He was relieved but puzzled, for the only sign of injury were half healed whip marks upon her back. Then he recalled the sudden blaze of light, so intense that even his fading vision had perceived it.

Can it be? Quinn thought as he carefully ran his fingers across Maria's brow. In but a moment the Welshman's suspicion was confirmed, and he jerked his hand away - as if he'd touched not virgin's flesh, but a burning coal instead. Yes, it was the smooth disc of a mind-lens he'd felt implanted beneath her skin. She was a sorceress!

Quinn was somewhat shocked by this discovery, but it explained several things at least. At first he'd thought his final dagger plunge had killed the beast, but now he knew it wasn't so. The flash of light had been a bolt of psychic force - mental energy amplified by the mind-lens, and projected in a lethal ray. The girl, no doubt, had fainted from the effort, or so he'd read could happen after such magical exertions. Clearly, it was a weapon of last resort.

Scooping the unconscious girl into his arms, Quinn set off at a rapid a pace as he was able; pondering, as he fought his way through the dense undergrowth, the mystery of the pirate's presence upon this world and how Maria came to be their prisoner.

After a half hour of arduous travel and fruitless speculation, he arrived at the ruins where he'd made his camp. They jutted up from the jungle - huge trapezoid forms, dark and sinister, shrouded in tangled vines, tilted askew by the humping roots of mighty trees. They brooded there, wrapped in silence and mystery. Mute hieroglyphs in an alien tongue banded the soaring monoliths - the language of a nameless race, eons dead.

The girl stirred in Quinn's arms. She opened her eyes and slowly took in the melancholy scene. Through her mind-lens Maria sensed the presence of magic, strange and alien. She shivered slightly and bade the Welshman let her stand.

Quinn watched her as she scanned the ruins, and sensed something like recognition in her observant gaze.

"You know this place," he said.

Maria started at the certainty of his tone. Had she let something slip? Murmured something when she'd been unconscious? She gave the Welshman a searching look. At first she'd thought him an enemy, then all brawn and no brain. But now she saw his clear perception bespoke of great intelligence, one gained by the wide and voracious reading of many books. No, he'd divined the truth in part by himself.

"In a manner of speaking," replied the girl, now feeling that she could fully trust him. "One of our ships, the Hispaniola, discovered this world about a year ago. Naturally, finding the remains of a civilization not of Earth caused a sensation across the globe. I was a member of the second expedition sent to study these ruins in greater detail. We were about one Earth-day from the planet when Hellsent attacked our ship, the Pinta.

"He believes there is a vast treasure here, a delusion no doubt based on a distorted version of the facts, one spread by ignorant and credulous plebeians. That red ape," continued the girl with contempt "mustn't find these ruins. The ignorant brute will tear them apart. He'll destroy everything looking for gold and jewels that don't exist!"

Dark laughter made the couple spin about. Confronting them was a hirsute giant of a man. Hellsent's face was a study in cruelty and greed. Cold green eyes raked them with a contemptuous stare, and his thin mouth, half hidden by a bushy beard as unruly as his thatch of reddish hair, was twisted into a scornful smile at their shocked expression.

Behind him was his troop of rogues, fifteen strong, all as fierce and cruel as the naked cutlasses they bore. Their eyes were upon Maria's naked breasts, their yellow, teeth showed like the fangs of wolves and their leering countenances were stamped with all the depravity of Sodom.

All this Quinn took in at a glance, and although no coward he was seized by understandable fear - the pirates had tracked them down despite all his efforts to throw them off his trail. Again, Hellsent barked his mocking laugh. "At them, lads," he cried. "Take the girl alive."

The pack surged forward, howling like the beasts they were. The Welshman snatched up a rock and hurled it at the foremost foe. The man collapsed with a shattered skull and Quinn took possession of his sword.

"Run," he shouted to the girl as he split another raging pirate's head.

Grim faced, Maria stood her ground, refusing to desert her brave companion. A flashing bolt exploded from her mind-lens. It struck down a buccaneer with jolting force - a stunning blow, not lethal, for to exert all her strength at once would render her unconscious.

The battle raged. Quinn's cutlass was a blur of bloodied steel that blocked a rain of deadly blows. Maria's flaring rays lanced the foe. The dead and unconscious soon lay in piles at their feet. But despite such valiant efforts, there could be but one outcome to this unequal battle. Quinn's arm began to tire. His strength and speed drained away. One foeman's sword slipped through his guard and scored a burning crimson line across his ribs. Another pirate's vicious swing struck his cutlass and smote it from his hand.

Quinn drew his dagger. He flung himself upon the nearest buccaneer. They wrestled madly. Maria screamed a warning. Too late - another pirate struck him a hammering blow from behind.

With twin blasts of power, Maria sent both assailants tumbling to the ground. She staggered forward, nearly swooning from the effort, to stand beside the stricken Welshman. The raging buccaneers closed in. Faces, hard as granite, swam before her blurring vision. Then all went dark as a meaty fist crashed against her chin.

**********

Pain roused Maria from blissful unconsciousness. Her eyes opened. She was hanging from a branch, suspended by ropes that dug cruelly into her wrists, while her ankles were securely bound to stakes. Hellsent stood before her, an amused expression upon his face that made her feel sick to the core.

Over his shoulder she glimpsed Quinn, several feet away, hanging in a similar manner. Alive or dead? The latter she deeply hoped - not out of malice, but from the knowledge only death could save the Welshman from the brutal tortures their fiendish captors would inflict upon him for amusement. Most of the pirates, she saw, lounged about upon bits of fallen masonry, clearly enjoying the spectacle. Others stood guard.

"So," rasped the buccaneer captain, "You thought you could escape me, eh? Firstly, by disguising yourself as a cabin boy when I attacked the Pinta, and again by running off into the jungle."

Hellsent laughed heartily, but his eyes were as cruel as ever. "For a scrawny wench you're a wild one. But now to business: where's the treasure, lassie. And be quick about telling me the truth, for I've no desire to traipse about these ruins for days on end."

Maria licked her lips and managed to control her fear despite the dreadful situation she was in. The effort was, however, like reigning in a wild stallion. She found her voice, and spoke in a reasonably steady manner.

"I swear by Jesus, Mary and all the Saints: The only treasure here is that of knowledge, which is more precious to the Academy than mere gold and jewels. You tortured my companions. They gave you the same answer. From me, as before, you'll get none different."

Hellsent's visage darkened. His bushy brows knotted together and his cruel mouth curved down like the beak of a hawk.

"Bah," he spat. "You Spaniards have a nose for gold and a penchant for dishonesty. I'll not be deceived by that nonsense. The only thing worth anything is pelf, and you lying curs know it. Very well, if it's difficult you want to be, then I have the cure, one I should have used rather than the lash."

From his bejeweled sash, Hellsent drew forth a glass phial and held it up for her inspection. Within the stoppered tube was a slug-like creature, several inches long and of a reddish hue, whose back was covered in lucid spiny growths, needle sharp.

The pirate gave her a malefic grin. "I found this on Bartuga, that reeking swamp-world in the constellation of Aquarius. The little devil's habit is to crawl inside the nearest orifice. The spines make it a somewhat painful experience to say the least, and once within it then lay eggs that hatch, and feed upon the victim's flesh. Just think of what it's going to do to you."

Maria screamed as the laughing buccaneer drew her tattered breeches down, exposing her to the gaze of his coarsely jesting men. The wildly struggling girl looked on, numb with terror, as with tweezers he removed the slimy horror and placed it upon her belly. The biting lash she could endure, but this was another thing entirely.

"Que Dios me ayude [God help me]," she cried as the creature began its downward crawl. "Get it off me. I'll tell you what you want to know."

"Where's the treasure?" asked Hellsent, eagerly.

"I . . . I'll have to show you," gasped the desperate girl.

Hellsent raised an eyebrow. "You're not good at lying, lassie," he calmly said. "Convince me with the truth."

Maria sobbed. She saw the thing had reached her pubic hair. She had no persuading answer, truth or lie, by which to save herself. Neither was there strength to blast it, for she was weakened from the battle, and in but moments the filthy horror would crawl inside her.

Chapter 3: A Secret Revealed

Quinn regained consciousness. He dazedly saw Hellsent place the parasite upon the girl and all that followed. His mind was in a fog, his thoughts chaotic form the blow. But Maria's screams quickly jarred the Welshman to full alertness.

"I know where the treasure is," he yelled. "Release the girl unharmed and all of it is yours."

Hellsent looked at Quinn, mildly amused by his chivalry. "Ho lads," he cried. "This fellow," he continued with a mocking bow, "want's to play Sir Galahad."

The pirates laughed. The thing crawled lower. Maria's screams rose in pitch. She bucked her hips in a desperate bit to shake it off. Several corsairs made lewd suggestions. Quinn bit back a flood of curses and continued in a desperate rush of words.

"There's a temple. It's full of treasure -- gold and jewels - enough to by an empire. I know. I've been marooned here for months. I can show it to you."

Hellsent frowned. He stroked his beard as he thought. The Welshman sweated, tortured by Maria's screams, her whimpering cries. Then, just as the parasite was about to penetrate her, the buccaneer, with his tweezers, grabbed the thing and returned it to the phial.

"Skar, Letch," he called abruptly, "cut the prisoners down. Bind their hands and rope them to each other by the waist." Then, turning to the Welshman: "It seems I was wise to change my mind and spare your life. But If you've lied to me," he growled as he flourished the phial. "You will die a truly horrid death."

Meaning, thought Quinn sourly, as a thuggish fellow cut him down, hurled him to the ground and tightly bound his wrists behind his back, if we cooperate we'll have a quicker end.

The party moved out, Quinn in the lead, stoically silent. Maria followed, with Hellsent and his pirates close behind in single file. The girl felt utterly despondent as she stumbled after the Welshman, knowing full well that in the end their fate was sealed.

She risked a backward glance. They were brutal men, these corsairs, but well disciplined - the pirate who'd cut her down had torn her breeches off, and no doubt would have molested her but for Hellsent's sharp command. Now the brute, along with his fellow cutthroats, scanned the jungle with alert wariness, looking for the slightest hint of danger.

The girl's face set in grim determination. Quinn had saved her from degradation, but only for the moment - when Hellsent found no further use for her as a source of information he'd toss her to his men like a bone to a pack of savage curs. No! She'd conserve her strength, let her powers build, and then put up such a fight they'd have to kill her.

"I . . . I'm sorry I was so rude to you," whispered Maria, deciding to apologize to the Welshman while she had the chance.

"I understand," replied Quinn, softly. "It was an excusable reaction considering what you'd been through." Then, sensing what she left unsaid: "Courage Maria. There's hope yet. Don't do anything rash."

"No talking," snapped Hellsent. "Or, by Satan's balls, I'll whip you both. Quinn, how much further, damn it? My patience is running out."

"Through yonder thicket, and we'll be there."

Maria suppressed a shudder as they forced their way through the tangled growth. Through her mind-lens she perceived the alien magic intensifying. To her augmented senses, flecks of humming, greenish luminescence danced upon the air. It was like nothing she'd ever seen before, and its strangeness was horribly unnerving.

I don't know what to fear more, thought the girl with a shudder. Our captors or this unknown sorcery I was sent to study - a magic against which I have no countermeasures.

Quinn broke through the growth. Maria stumbled next to him while the pirates fanned out either side. They gazed upon the temple. It was a truncated cone rising to a height of perhaps one hundred feet. A ramp spiraled around its girth, the walkway leading to a dome-shaped structure at the summit. The building was ancient, time worn and smothered in clinging growths that blurred its outlines until they seemed to blend into the surrounding jungle.

The effect was unnerving - uncountable tons of ebon stone seemed to appear then disappear before their roving eyes, lending an air of unreality to the scene. The buccaneers, though blind to the nimbus of green fire that crowned the temple's dome, dimly sensed the unnerving presence of the paranormal.

Hellsent saw their unease in the way his men's knuckles whitened as they clutched their weapons tightly. He grabbed Maria by the hair. She cried as he jerked her roughly.

"You're a sorceress," he growled. "Is this place protected by any spells?"

"There is magic here," admitted the girl. "But a magic so alien that I can't tell if it's malefic or benign."

Hellsent cursed. Anger darkened his already brutal countenance. He raised his hand and was about to slap Maria when Quinn calmly interposed: "The place is strange, unnerving. That's all. I have been here before. There's no danger."

"Then lead on," snapped Hellsent as he shoved the girl away. "But if there be any peril, pray it kills you first, for if you've lied to me. . ." And there he left his sentence hanging like the Sword of Damocles.

They began their ascent - a slow and painful affair, for the way was choked with the rank growth of countless centuries. At times Hellsent had to take the lead to hack away the barring verdure, which Quinn quickly explained had regrown since his climb. After what seemed an age of struggle they reached the dome, and gazed upon the portal that gave egress to the structure.

Did Quinn have a plan? The anxious girl gazed upon his unreadable expression. It was impossible to tell. Whatever plot, if there was one, wasn't based on treasure (a human concept), for the beings who built the temple had minds completely alien. It was the only thing Maria was certain of.

Hellsent pushed aside a shrub and peered expectantly within. All was wrapped in shadow that bespoke of utter emptiness. There was no gleam of gold, nor flash of sparkling jewels; no sign was there of any treasure. With an oath the pirate captain flung Quinn against the wall and pressed his cutlass to the Welshman's belly.

"You lying swine!" He roared, cutting off Quinn's protestations with a brutal stranglehold. "Regrown vegetation; bah. You've never been this way before you filthy cur."

The enraged pirate pressed home his sword. Quinn, in the grip of nauseous fear, struggled wildly as he felt the sting of razor steel. Hellsent's narrowed eyes locked his own with a savage stare that told the Welshman his life was coming to an end.

"Wait," screamed Maria as the furious buccaneer was about to slowly disembowel his victim. "Look."

All eyes turned upon the chamber and the watchers saw a golden light begin to glow within. Slowly it intensified, and disclosed to the amazed onlookers the wealth of a thousand kings.

The floor was densely piled with the shining coins of empires - the silver obol of classic Greece, the denarius of old Rome and the golden solidus of far Byzantium. Sparkling jewels were also there in abundance - emeralds, rubies, diamonds - all set in heavy wristlets, crowns and necklaces of precious metal that were strewn thickly between the lustrous mounds of money. It was a treasure trove of wealth beyond imagination.

The staring buccaneers gasped. Their eyes went wide with unabated greed. A wild cheer rang out, and the avaricious mob surged within the temple, their mad rush carrying both prisoners through the door.

Quinn and the girl were hurled to the floor, and were nearly trampled by the frenzied pirates as they flung themselves upon the heaps of treasure. Hellsent looked about. He laughed exultantly as he watched his men wallow in the glittering hoard. There was enough wealth for everyone to be richer than a sultan.

Suddenly, the piles of gems and precious metals vanished. The pirates looked on, aghast. In speechless disbelief they stared wildly about the empty chamber.

"They're in a state of shock. Now's our chance," whispered Quinn to the startled girl who sensed the chamber begin to seethe with writhing thaumaturgic forces.

Abruptly, the walls seemed to melt, to swirl like water and then solidify into a multitude of monstrous, fang-rimmed mouths of living silver. Then, adding to the wild fear of those within, the chamber's door began to rise to trap them in this room of nightmare terror.

Quinn and the girl were bolting for the door. They saw one pirate by the exit make a wild leap of freedom through it. The other buccaneers stampeded. Hellsent was in the fore, a look of utter terror upon his hairy visage. The horrid mouths gaped wide. Barbed tongues flicked out like silver whips. They snared the screeching pirates and reeled them in like fish upon the hook. Awful screaming echoed within the chamber as the mouths began to feed. The walls were quickly stained with spurting gore.

Maria jumped upon the yard thick door, now one quarter closed. She cried a warning. Quinn leapt aside. Hellsent's cutlass rang against the stone. The girl nearly tumbled with the jerking of the rope.

"Out of my way," screamed the buccaneer as he dodged a lashing tongue and lunged once again at the Welshman.

Quinn twisted. He barely evaded the murderous thrust, and then swiftly kicked his foe. Hellsent fell. Another tongue struck at the pirate. It tore the cutlass from his hand as he blocked its vicious stroke. A barbed whip of silver darted with serpent's speed at Quinn. He leapt aside. The horrid thing struck sparks against the wall before recoiling.

The Welshman jumped. He cursed - the door had risen higher and with his hands bound behind his back he couldn't pull himself upon it. He glimpsed Hellsent stagger up, a wild look upon his face.

"Hurry," gasped Maria as she quickly back-pedaled, hauling Quinn rapidly aloft by the rope about her waist. "Worm your way across. It's closing fast."

The Welshman was halfway through when Hellsent's hand clamped upon his ankle. The pirate laughed and then howled as a flicking tongue whipped around his waist.

"I'll not let go," he screamed as the thing began to pull. "By Satan's balls, if I'm to die then so shall both of you."

Maria sobbed. Legs spread wide; her feet were braced against the architrave in a desperate bid to drag the Welshman free. Her face was contorted with the effort, her body quivered from the frightful strain. To Quinn's horror he saw Maria's legs begin to buckle as the taut rope crushed the straining girl. He knew her muscles were on the verge of failing.

"Save yourself," he yelled as he tried to kick Hellsent in the face. "Use your magic and blast the rope."

The girl cried out in rage against cruel fate. Her anger flared. She found the inner strength she needed. A bolt of psychic force lashed out and struck the pirate captain's hand. A maddened shriek escaped Hellsent's lips. He lost his hold upon the Welshman.

Maria jerked back, screaming. She fainted from the final effort. Quinn slid out. The door clashed shut as both tumbled within the brush by the entrance. Neither heard Hellsent's final piercing cry, nor the awful crunching of the monstrous mouth as it ground the pirate captain's flesh and bones to bloody pulp.

**********

Maria awoke. Her head was pillowed in Quinn's lap. The Welshman had managed to struggle free of his bonds, and then carried her unconscious form down the temple's ramp. They now rested by the bole of an enormous tree some distance from the accursed structure.

The girl gave him a thoughtful look. "You knew it was a trap, but how?"

"Well," said the Welshman, soberly. "When I first saw the 'treasure' I asked myself what would coins from Earth be doing on this remote and godforsaken sphere. To me it seemed a trap - as if an unknown power had drawn knowledge from my mind to create a lure. "

Quinn shuddered. "The temple must be a gateway to another reality. Aye, the devil-gods of an ancient race, eons dead, forever hungering for the flesh of sacrifices that never came, or so I surmise. At the time I didn't know the nature of the trap. I simply thought the pirate's greed would lead them to their doom, and it did."

"You look rather glum considering your plan succeeded," observed Maria as she rose and sat beside him.

The Welshman snorted. "Great plan! It nearly killed us. We would have died but for you. Besides," continued Quinn, gloomily. "That pirate who escaped - he must have warned the others. I glimpsed their ship depart in fearful haste some time ago. I had hoped we could somehow seize the vessel, and thus flee this planet of death. I feel I've failed, at least in part." There was a flutter in the air, and a disheveled Friday landed on a nearby rock, a rip in one of his wings.

"Glad you made it too, Friday," Quinn said, pleased at the return of his alien pet.

Maria slipped an arm about him. "It's not so bad," she said in an attempt to raise his spirits. "In time another ship from Spain will come. And," she continued with an impish grin as she playfully poked him in the ribs. "I find I have a liking for a certain Welshman."

Despite his moroseness Quinn couldn't help but smile.

"I like your smile," said the girl as she poked him again good naturedly. "Let's see if I can make it bigger." Quinn grabbed her. They wrestled friskily, both laughing as the Welshman pinned her to the ground.

"I believe I've won," he observed with mock seriousness. Friday chirruped agreement.

Maria grinned roguishly. "Only because I let you."

"Really? What else will you let me do?"

His question was soon answered in a very pleasant way.

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