Ransome meant it. Somewhere, in the years of flight, he had lost his love for the blonde, red-lipped Dura-ki, and with it had gone his bitter hatred and his desire for revenge.
He jerked his mind back to the present, to Mytor.
"And if I told you that it must be her life or yours?" Mytor was asking him.
Ransome's eyes widened. He sensed that Mytor's last question was not, an idle one. He leaned forward and asked: "How do you fit into this at all, Mytor?"
"Easily. Once, ten years ago, you and the woman now aboard the Hawk of Darion blasphemed together against the Temple of the Dark One, in Darion."
"Go on," Ransome said.
"When you landed here this afternoon the avenging priests were not far behind you."
"How did you--"
"I have many contacts," Mytor purred. "I find them invaluable. But you are growing impatient, Mr. Ransome. I will be brief. I have contracted with the priests of Darion to deliver you to them tonight for a considerable sum."
"How did you know you would find me?"
"I was given your description." He made a gesture that took in all the occupants of the torch-lit room. "So many of the hunted, and the haunted, come here to forget for an hour the things that pursue them. I was expecting you, Mr. Ransome."
"If there is a large sum of money involved, I'm sure you'll make every effort to carry out your part of the bargain," Ransome observed ironically.
"I am a businessman, it is true. But in my dealings with the master of the Hawk of Darion I have seen the woman and I have heard stories. It occurred to me that the priests would pay much more for the woman than they would for you, and it seemed to me that a message from you might coax her off the ship. After all, when one has been in love--"
"That's enough." Ransome had risen to his feet. "I wonder if I could kill you before your guards got to me."
"Are you then so in love with death, Ransome?" The Venusian spoke quickly. "Don't be a fool. It is a small thing, a woman's life--a woman who has betrayed you."
Ransome stood silent, his arm halfway to his blaster. The woman had begun to dance again in the red glare of the torch.
"There will be other women," the Venusian was murmuring. "The woman who dances now, I will give her to you, to take with you in your new ship."
Ransome looked slowly from the glowing body of the woman to the guards around the walls, down into Mytor's confident face. His arm dropped away from the blaster.
"Any man--for a price." The Venusian's murmur was lost in the blare of the music. Ransome had eased his lean body back into the chair.
The night air was cold against Ransome's cheek when he went out an hour later, surrounded by Mytor's men. Yaroto's greenish moon was overhead now, but its pale light did not help him to see more clearly. It only made shadows in every doorway and twisting alley.
Mytor's car was only a few feet away but before he could reach it he was shoved aside by one of the Venusian's guards. At the same moment the night flamed with the blue-yellow glare from a dozen blasters. Ransome raised his own weapon, staring into the shadows, seeking his attackers.
"That's our job. Get in," said one of the guards, wrenching open the car door.
Then the firing was over as suddenly as it had begun. The guards clustered at the opening of an alley down the street. Mytor's driver sat impassively in the front seat.
When the guards returned one of them thrust something at Ransome, something hard and cold. He glanced at it. A long knife.
There was no need to read the inscription on the hilt. He knew it by heart.
"Death to him who defileth the Bed of the Dark One. Life to the Temple and City of Darion."
Once Ransome would have pocketed the knife as a kind of grim keepsake. Now he only let it fall to the floor.
In the brief, ghostly duel just over he had neither seen nor heard his attackers. That added, somehow, to the horror of the thing.
He shrugged off the thought, turning his mind to the details of the plan by which he would save his life.
It was quite simple. Ransome had been in space long enough to know where the crewmen went on a strange world. Half an hour later he sat with a gunner from the Hawk of Darion, in one of the gaudy pleasure houses clustered on the fringe of the city near the spaceport and the desert beyond.
"Will you take the note to the Captain's woman?"
The man squirmed, avoiding Ransome's ice-blue stare.
"Captain killed the last man who looked at his woman," the gunner muttered sullenly. "Flogged him to death."
"I'm not asking you to look at her," Ransome reminded him.
The gunner sat looking at the stack of Mytor's money piled on the table before him. A woman drifted over.
"Go away," Ransome said, without raising his eyes. He added another bill to the stack.
"Let me see the note before I take it," the gunner demanded.
"It would mean nothing to you." Ransome pushed a half-empty bottle toward the man, poured him out another drink.
The man's hands were trembling with inner conflict as he measured the killing lash against the stack of yellow Yarotian kiroons, and the pleasures it would buy him. He drank, dribbling a little of the wine down his grimy chin, and then returned to the subject of seeing the note, with drunken persistence.
"I got to see it first."
"It's in a language you wouldn't--"
"Let him see it," a new voice cut in. "Translate it for him, Mr. Ransome."
It was a woman's voice, cold and contemptuous. Ransome looked up quickly, and at first he didn't recognize her. The gunner never took his eyes from the stack of kiroons on the table.
"Let him see how a man murders a woman to save his own neck."
"You're supposed to be dancing at Mytor's place," Ransome said. "That's your business; this is mine."
He closed his hand over the gunner's wrist as the man reached convulsively for the money, menaced now by the angry woman.
"Half now, the rest later." Ransome's eyes burned into the crewman's. The latter looked away. Ransome tightened his grip, and pain contorted the gunner's features.
"Look at me," Ransome said. "If you cross me you'll wish you could die by flogging."
The woman Mytor had called Irene was still standing by the table when the gunner had left with the note and his money.
"Aren't you going to ask me to sit down?"
"Certainly. Sit down."
"I'd like a drink."
She sipped her wine in silence and Ransome studied her by the flickering light of the candle burning on the table between them.
She wore a simple street dress now, in contrast to the gaudy, revealing garments of the pleasure house women. The beauty of her soft, unpainted lips, her golden skin and wide-set green eyes was more striking now, seen at close range, than it had been in the smoky cavern of Mytor's place.
"What are you thinking now, Ransome?"
The question was unexpected, and Ransome answered without forethought: "The Temple."
"You studied for the priesthood of the Dark One yourself."
"Did Mytor tell you that?"
Irene nodded. The candlelight gave luster to her dark hair and revealed the contours of her high, firm breasts.
Ransome's pulse speeded up just looking at her. Then he saw that she was regarding him as if he were something crawling in damp stone, and there was bitterness in him.
"There are things that even Mytor doesn't know, even omniscient Mytor--"
He checked himself.
"You were going to tell me about how you are really a very honorable man. Why don't you? You have an hour before it will be time to betray the woman from the Hawk of Darion."
Ransome shrugged, and his voice returned her mockery.
"If I told you that I had been an acolyte in the Temple of the Dark One, and that I was condemned to death for blasphemy, committed for love of a woman, would you like me better?"
"Ten years ago," Ransome said. He talked, and the mighty walls of the Temple reared themselves around his mind, and the music of the pleasure house became the chanting of the priests at the high altar.
He stood at the rear of the great Temple, and he had the tonsure and the black robes, and his name was not Ransome, but Ra-sed.
He had almost forgotten his Terran name. Forgotten, too, were his parents, and the laboratory ship that had been his home until the crash landing that had left him an orphan and Ward of the Temple.
Red candles burned before the high altar, but terror began just beyond their flickering light. It was dark where Ra-sed stood, and he could hear the cries of the people in the courtyard outside, and feel the trembling of the pillars, the very pillars of the Temple, and the groaning of stone on massive stone in the great, shadowed arches overhead. Above all, the chanting before the altar of the Dark One, rising, rising toward hysteria.
And then, like a knife in the darkness, the scream, and the straining to see which of the maidens the sacred lots cast before the altar had chosen; and the sudden, sick knowledge that it was Dura-ki. Dura-ki, of the soft golden hair and bright lips.
In stunned silence, Ra-sed, acolyte, listened to the bridal chant of the priests; the ancient words of the Dedication to the Dark One.
The chant told of the forty times forty flights of onyx steps leading downward behind the great altar to the dwelling place of the Dark One and of the forty terrible beasts couched in the pit to guard His slumber.
In the beginning, Dalir, the Sire, God of the Mists, had gone down wrapped in a sea fog, and had stolen the Sacred Fire while the Dark One slept. All life in Darion had come from Dalir's mystic union with the Sacred Fire.
Centuries passed before a winter of bitter frosts came, and the Dark One awakened cold in His dwelling place and found the Sacred Fire stolen. His wrath moved beneath the city then, and Darion crashed in shattered ruin and death.
Those who were left had hurled a maiden screaming into the greatest of the clefts in the earth, that the bed of the Idol might be warmed by an ember of the stolen Fire. Later, they had raised His awful Temple on the spot.
So it had been, almost from the beginning. When the pillars of the Temple shook, a maiden was chosen by the Sacred Lots to go down as a bride to the Dark One, lest He destroy the city and the people.
The chant had come to an end. The legend had been told once more.
They led her forth then--Dura-ki, the chosen one. Shod in golden sandals, and wearing the crimson robe of the ritual, she moved out of Ra-sed's sight, behind the high altar. No acolyte was permitted to approach that place.
The chanting was a thing of wild delirium now, and Ra-set placed a cold hand to steady himself against a trembling pillar. He heard the drawing of the ancient bolts, the booming echo as the great stone was drawn aside, and he closed his eyes, as though that could shut out the vision of the monstrous pit.
But his ears he could not close, and he heard the scream of Dura-ki, his own betrothed, as they threw her to the Idol.
At the table in the Yarotian pleasure house, Ransome's thin lips were pale. He swallowed his drink.
The woman opposite him was nearly forgotten now, and when he went on, it was for himself, to rid himself of things that had haunted him down all the bleak worlds to his final night of betrayal and death. His eyes were empty, fixed on another life. He did not see the change that crossed Irene's face, did not see the cold contempt fade away, to be replaced slowly with understanding. She leaned forward, lips slightly parted, to hear the end of his story.
For the love of golden-haired Dura-ki, the acolyte, Ra-sed, had gone down into the pit of the Dark one, where no mortal had gone before, except as a sacrifice.
He had hidden himself in the gloom of the pillars when the others left in chanting procession after the ceremony. Now he was wrenching at the rusted bolts that held the stone in place. It seemed to him that the rumbling grew in the earth beneath his feet and in the blackness of the vaulting overhead. Terror was in him, for his blasphemy would bring death to Darion. But the vision of Dura-ki was in him too, giving strength to tortured muscles. The bolts came away with a metallic screech, piercing against the mutter of shifting stone.
He was turning to the heavy ring set in the stone when he caught a glimmer of reflected light in an idol's eye. Swiftly he crouched behind the great stone, waiting.
The priests came, two of them, bearing torches. Knives flashed as Ra-sed sprang, but he wrenched the blade from the hand of the first, buried it in the throat of the second. The man fell with a cry, but a stunning blow from behind sent Ra-sed sprawling across the fallen body. The other priest was on him, choking out his life.
The last torch fell; and Ra-sed twisted savagely, lashed out blindly with the long knife. There was a sound of rending cloth, a muttered curse in the darkness, and the fingers ground harder into Ra-sed's throat. Black tides washed over his mind, and he never remembered the second and last convulsive thrust of the knife that let out the life of the priest.
He did remember straining against the ring of the great stone. The echo boomed out for the second time that night, as the stone moved away at last, to lay bare the realm of the Dark One.
Bitterness touched Ransome's eyes as he spoke now, the bitterness of a man who has lost his God.
"There were no onyx steps, no monsters waiting beneath the stone. The legends were false."
Ransome turned his glass slowly, staring into its amber depths. Then he became aware of Irene, waiting for him to go on.
"I got her out," Ransome said shortly. "I went down into that stinking pit and I got Dura-ki out. The air was nearly unbreathable where I found her. She was unconscious on a ledge at the end of a long slope. Hell itself might have been in the pit that opened beneath it. A geologist would have called it a major fault, but it was hell enough. When I picked her up, I found the bones of all those others...."