Then a great roar of anger arose as the priest reached out and whipped Doree's gown from her body. She stood naked in the center of the pit.
Mike went mad. With a roar he turned and hurled himself upon Mertaan.
The latter, even though sharply alert for attack, was not quick enough to get his weapon into action against Mike's lightning rush. Mike closed with him and they went down.
The Baserite was probably the stronger of the two, but his strength was no match for Mike's demoniacal rage. His hands went around the Baserite's throat. "Must I kill you?" he snarled, "or will you give me the key?"
There was no fear in Mertaan's expression but now, under pressure of Mike's steel fingers, it changed. He appeared to be listening for his own death.
But not for his death. He tore frantically at Mike's fists and got a few words past them. "Listen—listen, man! Can't you hear them? The ships are coming over! The time is now!"
Mike could not understand the words but the meaning got through to him as a high whining sound transcended the roar of the prisoners. And Mike realized the roar had not been caused by the priest's unveiling of Doree's beautiful body, but by the whine from above. The prisoners knew that the moment had come and they were already pouring from the cells.
Mike sprang to his feet and lifted the Baserite. The latter snatched the key from his jacket and unlocked the front cell-gate. Mike went through first to find himself packed into a plunging, screaming mob.
Here and there he spotted a Baserite frantically trying to establish some sort of order in the ranks of the prisoners. But they remained a snarling, bloodthirsty wave of disorganized vengeance. Mike tore his way savagely through the pack with Nicko and M'Landa close behind him.
"We've got to get down first!" he yelled. "She'll be killed in the rush!" Even now, below them, the panicked priests were knocking each other down in their rush for the exits.
Nicko pushed forward. "Let me go first! I'll make way!"
And he did. He flexed his scales until each one stood out from his ugly body like a razor-edged knife. Then he charged the mob. Blood splashed until Nicko was a great red smear. Those he hit screamed in pain and fell back, leaving an avenue down which the three raced.
They came to a stairway and as they tumbled into the pit, Mike looked swiftly over his shoulder. He was thinking of Mertaan's weapon. But it was not available. Mertaan had been lost in the mob of screaming prisoners.
Mike snatched up an odd-looking instrument from a table he passed. He knew nothing of its original use but it would make an excellent club. He baptized it by catching a fleeing, terrified priest and splitting his skull with one blow. This brought him within a few steps of where Doree lay. She had been knocked to the floor as the desperate priests sought to escape the wrath of their prisoners.
* * * * *
Mike's eyes were only for her. He did not see a guard nearby who turned suddenly and charged him with the flat ugly sword gripped tight in his fist. Mike knelt down to lift Doree. The sword plunged down. But instead of going into Mike's back, it was driven deep into the breast of M'Landa who had hurled himself forward.
Nicko, with a curse bellowed in some obscure dialect, leaped forward and took the guard into his hands. He lifted the guard and held him aloft with one hand. With the other he tore the man's throat out and hurled him dying and bloody across the pit.
The whole building trembled at that moment, obviously from a bomb hurled off a Baserite ship. But Mike and Nicko were scarcely aware of this new thunder. Mike had set Doree on her feet and was now holding the fallen H'Lorkan warrior in his arms. Gently he withdrew the sword. There was a lump in his throat. He said, "Thanks, friend. You'll never be forgotten. I will always remember."
M'Landa smiled. He spoke and Nicko interpreted. "This is a fine worthy death. I could ask for no more. I die pleasantly, in the hope that the Ptomenites are brought down forever."
Then he was dead and there was no time to mourn him. "Back upstairs," Mike said. "Your father is in a cell there. We've got to get him and then find a way out of here and to the ship—if we aren't too late. I've got a hunch McKee and Talbott will be heading in the same direction."
Nicko had picked up Doree's robe. He threw it over her shoulders and he and Mike formed a cordon in front and in back of the girl, Nicko going first. They headed for a stairway while all about them bloody slaughter was taking place.
The priests had found the exit doors mysteriously locked and what few guards were in the pit proved to be helpless against the outraged horde from above. The priests and the guards were being torn to pieces as though by the fangs of maddened dogs. The screams of terror and agony were a crescendo drowning the whine of the ships overhead.
* * * * *
Professor Brandon was crouching in the far corner of the cell. A man of peace, this place of blood and confusion was beyond his conception. He was in a daze, his mind having thrown up a buffer against horror.
Doree's arms went around him but Mike pushed her back almost roughly. "There is no time," he said. "We've got to get out of here." He picked the frail Brandon up in his arms. "You take the lead, Nicko. Take my club. It's up to you to cut a path through."
They left the cell and went out onto the balcony and discovered that the frantic priests had at last broken through the locked doors of their prison-pit. The ones remaining alive had fled the place with the prisoners on their heels.
Sounds from beyond indicated that some of the frenzied prisoners had abandoned the chase and were now stalking through the building, killing and looting.
"Out this way," Mike directed, indicating an open doorway. "This is the side toward the blast field."
"The passage is empty," Nicko said. "Come on."
"Watch yourself!" Mike snapped.
And it was well that Nicko did because halfway down the passage, three of the blood-crazed prisoners leaped on him from a side passage. One brought a club down viciously, aimed by sheer chance at the base of Nicko's skull, the one vulnerable spot on his body. Nicko avoided the blow and smashed the prisoner's head.
The other two landed astride Nicko. It was like jumping into a nest of sharp knives. Ripped, bloody, screaming, they staggered away and fled.
No one else challenged the right of way and Nicko led the party out into the night. Overhead, the sky was bright with battle and here and there about the area, there were sharp skirmishes, evidently between Baserite and Ptomenite troops. There was no way to tell which way the battle swayed.
"Straight ahead," Mike ordered. "Skirt the wall of that building."
They reached the field, ran across the last open area and faded in among the ships. Mike smiled grimly as he saw the dark, unlighted outline of the Terran space craft. They had beaten McKee and Talbott! Perhaps the two scoundrels had been slain. "Up the ramp, quick!" Mike directed.
* * * * *
But McKee and Talbott had not been killed. Nor had Mike beaten them to the ship. He had preceded Nicko up the ramp and as he came to the hatch, the lights of the ship flashed on and Talbott stepped forth holding a Terran pistol. Beyond him, inside, stood McKee and the Princess Katal'halee.
"I told you all we had to do was wait here—that they would show up," Talbott said.
McKee pushed forward, a somewhat mystified expression on his face. "Sure, but I still can't figure how you convinced this Katal babe they're responsible for the uprising."
Talbott's smile was one of grim satisfaction. "I have persuasive ways," he said. "I'll back them down the ramp and she can pronounce sentence and I'll execute them."
"Why stall?" McKee asked. "Kill all five of them and let's get out of here. About time we started thinking of our own skins."
"I'm taking the Princess with us, you idiot!"
"You're the idiot!" McKee snapped. "Not letting well enough alone!"
* * * * *
The proud Ptomenite Princess pushed forward, her cold eyes on Mike and he realized of course, why the two Terran schemers could talk so freely. Katal'halee could not understand a word they said.
Talbott motioned with the gun and Mike backed slowly down the ramp. He was still holding Professor Brandon in his arms, the old man's eyes blank and uncomprehending.
"That'll do," Talbott said. He stepped aside and the Princess pointed a contemptuous finger at the group. She spoke sharply and Mike looked swiftly at Nicko.
"It's a death sentence," Nicko said. "She's accusing us of everything but stopping up the royal sink."
The Princess now stepped aside and motioned imperiously to Talbott. He raised his gun.
But a new voice barked sharply. A fine needle of crystalline ray shot out of the darkness and melted the gun in Talbott's hand. Talbott jerked his seared member back with a squall of pain.
Mertaan stepped into the circle of light. He looked at Mike. "I had reason to follow you," he said and Nicko quickly interpreted.
"But it can wait a few moments." He turned to the Princess Katal'halee and a hatred built up over generations flashed between them. Yet, their eyes seemed also to mirror a mutual respect. Mertaan said, "You are wrong about your betrayers. It was these two who made the arrangements—contacted our allies within your city. The tall one is very good at getting his points over with gestures and pictures."
Evidently, on this planet, even enemies did not lie to each other. Katal'halee's eyes turned on the pair with a venom that sent every drop of blood from their faces. "What did they ask in return?"
"Only seats of power in the city after we conquered it."
* * * * *
Nicko was translating for Mike and the latter whistled softly. "So that was the idea. The jewels in the ship were only an ace in the hole."
"But they must figure the battle goes bad for the Baserites," Nicko said. "They planned to take off."
"The last minute," Mertaan told Katal'halee, "your fine friends turned milk-white. They had no stomach for the battle they helped arrange."
"A truce between us, Baserite," the Princess said. "Give me these two and a gun with which to march them off into the darkness. You and I can settle accounts later."
Mike was astounded when, without hesitation, Mertaan took another weapon from his person and handed it to the Princess. Mike's flesh crawled as he stood rigid, expecting a blast from the royal Ptomenite that would wipe them all out. He wondered at Mertaan's gullibility.
But evidently the word of these fierce people could be taken at face value. The Princess ignored all but McKee and Talbott. She pointed the gun at them and motioned. Now they understood what had transpired. Sweat streamed from their faces.
"No!—please, no!" Talbott screamed. "He lies! He tells you lies!" They both fell to their knees.
Mertaan smiled coldly at them. "Where are your pictures and persuasive manners now, scum!" He kicked them cruelly to their feet and they staggered off into the darkness before Katal'halee's weapon, still pleading for mercy.
Mertaan appeared to forget about them. He turned to Mike. "Into your ship. Quick! There is not too much time."
"You're helping us to make our escape?"
"I have a reason. Hurry."
They went up the ramp and inside. Mertaan stopped just outside the hatch and Mike turned. The Baserite said, "I know not from whence you came, stranger, but I ask that you go back to your world, wherever it is. Tell your people of us and plead our cause. Tell of the generations of cruelty on this planet and bring help for the oppressed. This I ask of you."
"But this uprising—your attack—"
Mertaan shook his head. "It does not go well. We will fight to the death as my people have fought before but I fear the result. The Ptomenites are powerful."
"Thanks." Mike held out his hand.
The Baserite took it, a little clumsily and smiled a farewell to Nicko who was peering around Mike, interpreting. "Go with your gods," the Baserite said. Then he turned and hurried back to the carnage and the bloodshed....
* * * * *
"Father is resting," Doree said. "I'm sure he'll be all right in a little while. The treatment he received was a shock."
"It would have shaken a far stronger man. He'll be all right when he gets back to Terra and they honor him for this discovery."
The ship rocketed smoothly through space. Doree slipped into Mike's arms. "He found what he wanted. So did I." Mike kissed her.
A while later she asked, "Do you think the Baserites won?"
Mike stared out through the port, his eyes sad. "Somehow I don't think so. We can only hope. But soon a few thousand ships will appear in their skies. Their doors will be opened to all the universe and tyranny will not survive."
"Then we'll go back," Doree said.
"Then we'll go back."
* * * * *