The Second Neuter did not even have time to scream.
Richard Blade, whipping the chariot horses to their limit, did not see the first explosion. His back was toward Urcit and he was following the faint moving dots across the wide plain; it could only be Honcho and Zulekia. Here and there, on his flanks, were scattered little groups of stragglers, sullen and unheeding, Pethcine warriors intent only on getting back to the Gorge.
His first intimation of the holocaust was the terrible slamming wind at his back, a fierce draft across the plain, as though giants had opened their doors to all the winds of the cosmos. It flattened the mani fields on both sides of the faint track and pushed the galloping horses and chariot into a crazy stagger that sent them reeling sideways and smashed a wheel to splinters. Blade was pitched from the chariot, but landed on his back and shoulders and rolled to his feet unhurt He stared back at Urcit.
There were no flames. Only smoke. Thick, black, roiling columns of greasy smoke already building amorphous turrets and castles where Urcit had been. Blade, in the instant, could not fathom what had happened. One thing he knew. The Power was gone forever. Everyone near the blast must have been destroyed. But there would be survivors. There always were. And it was with the survivors that Blade must reckon, and work.
He began to trudge rapidly across the plain, the great sword ready in his hand now. A man in a war chariot was one thing, a man on foot another. Some of the Pethcine stragglers might be looking for revenge.
But nobody paid him any attention. They stayed away from him and his terrible sword. Blade kept walking, at times running, toward the now motionless chariot and horses of Honcho. Something was awry with the neuter. His forward progress had ceased, as had Blade's for the moment, with the devastation of Urcit. Now, as Blade moved on, Honcho made no move to escape. Honcho, in fact, made no move at all.
Blade drew close enough to distinguish details. The chariot was undamaged, the horses quietly pulling at mani roots. Honcho was slumped in the chariot, lolling, his legs trailing off onto the ground. The Maiduke girl, Zulekia, stood motionless off to one side and watched Blade's approach. She had been naked. Now she had a wisp of teksin fabric twisted around her loins.
Blade knew at once that Honcho was dead. How, or why, did not matter to him. That threat was past. He drew near to Zulekia, thinking that she was even more lovely than when he had first seen her on the terrace at the Gorge Tower.
Her long hair now, as then, cascaded in bronze-gold over her shoulders and covered her naked breasts. She stood erect, proudly, and waited for him. Blade wondered if she would make slaveface, and was pleased when she did not.
He halted six paces from her. "Zulekia! It is good that you are safe and well." Pale words for a lover. But that would follow. He was sure of it now. This was not a time for passion, or for telling of love.
Her gentian eyes, as huge and luminous as he remembered them, were grave. She did not smile. "Yes, Lord Blade. But I am not surprised. I knew you would come for me."
"I knew, Lord Blade."
It must be true, he thought Even as he had known, somehow from the very first, that he wanted this woman above all in Tharn. This was no time to seek explanations. There might never be such a time. The fact was enough.
With the long sword Blade pointed to the dead Honcho. "How did this come about?"
"When he saw the explosion he took something. A very little pellet. Of a golden color."
"What did he say?"
Her smooth, tawny shoulders moved in a shrug of negation. Muscles rippled beneath the golden flesh.
"He said: 'Blade has won. My Thara and my Urcit are dead. Perhaps Blade is a God after all.'"
"That is all he said?"
"All, my Lord. Then he smiled and looked at me with those green eyes of his and died. We are well rid of him, my Lord. He would have made trouble for us still."
Blade moved the sword in an arc. "Not for long. But it is as well. Zulekia..."
"You will not call me Lord in future. You will call me Richard."
"Richard?" The name came hesitantly from her ripe mouth. A hint of a smile as she said it again. "Richard - what does it mean?"
He went to her and put an arm about her smooth shoulders and smiled down into violet eyes that were full of glints and shadows. She nestled close to him.
"It means kiss, perhaps? I like kiss."
He kissed her for a long time. She clung to him.
Blade, still with his arm around her, turned to stare at the smoke hanging like a grim canopy over Urcit.
After a moment the girl said: "Urcit has been destroyed forever?"
"Not forever, Zulekia. We will build it again. A better Urcit."
She watched him with puzzlement. "But who will rule Tharn now?"
Blade held up the sword. At that moment a ray of sun struck through the black pall and glinted along the steel.
"I will rule Tharn," said Richard Blade.
Zulekia nodded. It was complete acceptance. A natural thing. Blade, aware of his own doubts and fears, felt his spirits lifting. It could be done! It must be done.
"There will be much toil," he said. "Sweat and work such as you have not known. Fear, terror, failures...but we will do it, Zulekia. As I came a stranger into your world - now you will be, at first, a stranger in the world I shall make here in Tharn."
Her expression told him that she did not really comprehend. He sighed and patted her smooth shoulder. She would understand. In time. Time, he thought, was about the only thing he could be sure of now. And how much of that? Blade shrugged his massive shoulders. It would be as it would be...
"There is something I must say. There has been a strangeness in me - in my body - since that time we had coi in the Gorge Tower. I have read of such things. Of course it is illegal that I bear..."
Blade stared at her. Harshly he said, "The laws of Tharn have been changed!" Then, with a smile, he kissed her gently. "I am ruler now, and I declare it legal that you bear my child. In fact, I demand it!"
It had been, from the very beginning, from the time of his first adventure in Alb, and then in the Land of Cath, a hazard. Lord Leighton had pointed it out. His Lordship had toiled to invent the little chronos computer, a device to "stretch" Blade's memory capacity so the big man could store data without conscious effort on his part. This aided greatly in the debriefing.
when Blade was brought back through the computer Part of his mind became a tape recorder, a memory tank, which was easily tapped.
There was still the hazard. Blade tended to forget his real persona, in his real dimension; in the heat of action, and danger, battling for survival or in the throes of love, Richard Blade forgot who Richard Blade really was! And so it was now, when the pain began in his head, that Blade was startled and genuinely surprised.
Zulekia's lovely face began to blur. Blade must have made some sound of anguish as the pain grew more intense, for the girl clung to him, alarmed and stared into his face.
"Richard! What is it? You are so strange. You... you..."
The plains of Tharn shimmered and tilted. A dozen suns hued red hot lances through his head. He clutched at the girl and felt that solid tawny flesh turn to vapor. Blade himself was fast becoming bodiless, his limbs dissolving and floating away. He tried to look at Zulekia a last time, for now he understood it, knew that Lord Leighton was calling him back, but the girl was a bird that fluttered away from him.
He was shrinking fast to dwarfdom. He was a fluid running from positive to negative and soon he would be nothing at all.
Blade was conscious, barely conscious, that he still clutched the great sword of the Pethcines. From a great distance, an echo in a labyrinthine shell, he heard a voice say: "Zul... I lo..."
He was gone.
Richard Blade, as always after his jaunts through the dimensional rift, was in a state of semi-coma and mild shock. Judging from past experience it would be at least twelve hours before he adjusted to life in London in 1970. Before he was once more the Richard Blade who was a top agent for MI6A, and who had for a boss a querulous, tweedy old man called J.
Lord Leighton, with J in anxious attendance, was peering into the glass cubicle set in the innards of the monstrous computer. His Lordship's little yellow eyes gleamed with delight as Blade's big body began to materialize in the chair on the rubberized pad.
J let out a sigh of relief. "I say, old fellow. We did it again. But I don't mind telling you I was getting a little worried. I know that you know what you're doing, Leighton, but I still fret Must we always use Blade? Couldn't we..."
Lord Leighton did not look at him. "You know the answer to that, J. No. The PM's orders. So long as Blade continues to volunteer, then Blade it is. There! He's very nearly back. We can go in in a moment. What's that he's got with him?"
J peered through the glass where Blade now sat, naked, in the chair that so greatly resembled an electric chair. His brawny body was festooned with electrodes which led away through portholes into the giant computer. Blade sat unmoving, staring straight ahead of him.
J frowned. "Looks like a sword, of course. What else? A great bloody broadsword. I'm damned. Wonder where the dear boy has been this time?"
The little hunchback scowled at him. At these times it was all that Lord Leighton could do to maintain a scientific calm. He had - quite by accident - wrought the scientific miracle of all time, and he wondered if his nerves would, in the end, prove equal to the strain.
He tapped J on the arm. "We'll know soon enough. , Come. It's all right now. You know the procedure."
"I should," said J grumpily. "It's my third time through it."
He stood aside to let Lord Leighton precede him into the glass chamber. His hand inadvertently brushed against Leighton's hump, grotesque under the white smock, and J felt an odd moment of revulsion. For the first time he really understood just how out of place he was in this scientific jungle. Lord Leighton belonged here. J did not Lord Leighton was a modern Merlin, a space age wizard, and this monster computer was to him no more than an erector toy. J was a rather old-fashioned, middle-class, spy master. He shrugged and followed his Lordship into the glass cubicle. Things were as they were.
Richard Blade did not appear to recognize them, or even see them. He sat quietly and stared straight before him. Lord Leighton began detaching the electrodes. When Blade's body was free of the wires Leighton tried to take the sword from him.
Blade's big hands tightened on the hilt of the sword. He would not let it go.
Lord Leighton stepped back, not at all disconcerted. "It's all right He'll let it go later on. Now I'll just get on with the hypnosis and we can get him down to quarters."
Leighton began to move a scrawny, prehensile hand back and forth before Blade's eyes. It was a technique he had evolved, after much experimentation, since Blade's return from Alb. Blade, who normally could not be hypnotized at all, was responsive at these moments, and the mild hypnosis helped smooth the transition between dimensions.
They were ready. Lord Leighton took one of Blade's arms, J the other, and they walked the big man out of the computer room and down a long hallway to a small self-operating elevator.
They were, at the moment, some two hundred feet beneath the Tower of London. The little elevator dropped them another hundred feet to a tiny hospital complex that was complete in every detail. Here Blade would rest in an air-conditioned room while he was debriefed. When he had slept, and when he was out of hypnosis, he would be examined and tested by a dozen famous specialists. He would be subject to every test known to medical science, the gamut running from a sampling of blood to the probings of a world renowned psychiatrist.
It was a tribute to J, and to his security organization, that none of the people involved knew exactly why they were doing it.
Blade had not spoken. He did not speak now as Lord Leighton took the great sword away and handed it to J.
"Your department, J. To the labs at once for minute analysis. Be careful with it. There's a fragment of something caught there in the hilt that might be valuable."
J nodded in admiration. He had seen nothing caught in the hilt Now he looked and did see it, a minute sliver of something that looked like plastic. He hefted the sword. God! How heavy it was. Could a man really wield such a weapon? Even a man as powerful as Blade?
Blade was beneath the white sheets now. His tanned face was serene. Only a flicker of his eyelids showed that he was not yet asleep.
Lord Leighton spoke softly: "You will sleep now, Richard. You will sleep and you will talk. Talk! Tell us everything that happened. Everything! You will talk, Richard. Tell us everything...everything... everything."
His Lordship nodded to J. J pressed a button set into the wall near the door. He could not hear them, and he could not see them, but he knew that the rolls of tape were spinning. Every word that Richard Blade uttered for the next twelve hours would be caught and held in time and space.
It was time to go. Yet J and Lord Leighton lingered for a moment at the door. J found that the weight of the sword was making his arms tired.
The big man on the bed spoke suddenly. His voice was harsh and resonant and J raised his brows at Lord Leighton. He would never really get used to this witchery.
His Lordship shrugged. Most interesting. The voice was not that of the Richard Blade he knew, but there could be no doubting the command, the authority and power in it.
"There is a place called Tharn. Once, for a little time, I was King there."
Lord Leighton nodded and pulled at J's arm. They left the room. The door slid to behind them with a hydraulic sigh. Blade was sealed in and nothing could disturb him until he pressed the buzzer that signaled Leighton's private phone. By that time his brain would have emptied himself into the tapes. Later would come the personal debriefing, with only Lord Leighton, J, and Blade present. And the tapes.
As they ascended in the little elevator J said: "That voice...not like Richard at all."
Lord Leighton shrugged and his hump wriggled. "Nothing to worry about, I shouldn't think. It will pass. His voice will be as it was. The timbre of the voice is, to a degree, controlled by the brain. The speech centers. In this case the cortical cells in question may have been a little slow in reassembling into the original pattern."
J did not speak again until they were in Leighton's private lab, well away from the computer complex.
Then: "I have noted," J said, "that each time it takes a little longer to bring Richard back to exactly what he was. Is it possible to project, Leighton, to foresee the ultimate? I am sure you know what I mean. What do you propose doing about it?"
Lord Leighton was busy removing the sliver of foreign substance from the hilt of the sword with a pair of delicate forceps. "Hmmm...looks like a common plastic, right enough, but I'll bet a few quid it isn't."
He put the sliver in an envelope and sealed it, scribbled on the envelope with a red pencil.
"Do about it, J? I propose to do absolutely nothing about it, except what we have been doing. I intend to send Blade out as often as he will go, and as long as he is fit."
Leighton's small yellow eyes gleamed at J in puzzlement and anger. "What else, man? You know how important this is! You heard the PM say it himself. England's future, the fate of millions of people, might very well depend on what Blade can learn from these explorations. Why do you worry so, J? Blade doesn't."
J let it drop. His Lordship was right, after all. Blade, who was most concerned, accepted the risks gladly time after time. But then Blade was a very brave man, J wasn't.
As J left the Tower that night and was driven home he thought: Tharn? Now what, or who, the bloody hell was Tharn? A place, that had been it. A place called Tharn. J lit his pipe and tried to relax. He would know soon enough. It would all be in the tapes.
J thought that he would give the dear boy a month's vacation. A whole, complete and total month off to himself. Well - J smiled briefly - there would be girls. Naturally there would be girls. J puffed and scowled. He did feel a little guilty about that. Shouldn't, of course. Duty and all that. Still Zoe had been a nice girl and she had thrown Richard over because of his prolonged and unexplained absences. So Richard had no more Zoe. Not that there weren't plenty of others, of course. Still - and J nodded to himself - duty could be grim at times.
Richard Blade did not, in fact, have any trouble in getting a girl to replace Zoe. He found several, and when the exhaustive debriefing was at last over, he chose one and took her to the south with him. There, in Dorset, they made love and walked the lanes and did a little sailing. In the evenings, at times, they played darts in the local pub and drank beer until they both swoshed, then they walked home to make more love. Her name was Ann Watkins and she was an editor of a small art publishing house. She was an eminently sensible girl and there was no nonsense about love and marriage, and no mention of the future. There was camaraderie and affection and sex.
Sometimes, as she lay breathing quietly beside him, Blade would lie awake and listen to the wash of the Channel on the shingle below the cottage. At these times he would, a little, miss Zoe. But of course that would never have worked out. Wives were funny - they wanted husbands at home with them. Not roaming around in all manner of strange worlds.
The lab had analyzed the teksin sliver that had somehow been caught in the hilt of the sword. They were baffled. But if they could reproduce teksin, synthesize it, England would have taken a giant step ahead in the economic race. A sorely needed step.
Blade kissed the sleeping Ann gently on the cheek. He lay back and closed his eyes. He did not really care about the teksin, or what the boffins did with it. It was not his job to care.
He frowned in the moonlight that drifted into the bedroom. There was something that puzzled him because he did not understand it. Could not understand it. He had held something back from the tapes this time. He didn't know why, couldn't explain it, but he had not told them about the child he had left in Tharn.
In his present persona it was past all understanding. But it was still a fact: somewhere in the cosmos, beyond the dimensional rift, there was a child to be born. His child. A child that might one day grow up to be a King, or a Queen, of a land called Tharn.
Richard Blade slept.