Captives of the Flame
The Duchess of Petra said, “Now, your first direct assignment will be...”
Then, the sudden green of beetles’ wings; the red of polished carbuncle; a web of silver fire; lightning and blue smoke. Columns of jade caught red light through the great crack in the roof. The light across the floor was red. Jon felt that there were others with him, but he could not be sure. Before him, on a stone platform, three marble crescents were filled with pulsating shadows. Jon Koshar looked at them, and then away. There were many more columns, most broken.
He saw a huge break in the sanctuary wall. Outside he could look down on an immense red plain. At a scribed line, the plain changed color to an even more luminous red. Near the temple a few geometrical buildings cast maroon pinions of shadow over the russet expanse. Suddenly he realized that the further half of the plain was an immense red sea, yet with a perfectly straight shore line. Calmly it rippled toward the bright horizon.
At the horizon, filling up nearly a quarter of the sky, was what seemed to be a completely rounded mountain of dull red. No, it was a segment of a huge red disk, a great dull sun lipping the horizon of the planet. Yet it was dim enough so that he could stare directly at it without blinking. Above it, the atmosphere was a rich purple.
Then there was a voice from behind him, and he turned to the triple throne once more.
“Hail, hosts of Earth,” the voice began. The very shadows of the room were like red bruises on the stone. “You are in the halls of an extinct city on Creton III. Twelve million years ago this planet housed a civilization higher than yours today. Now it is dead, and only we are left, sitting on their thrones in the twilight of their dying, ruddy sun.”
“Who are you?” demanded Jon, but his voice sounded strange, distorted. As he bit the last word off, another voice broke in.
“What do you really want from us?”
Then a third voice.
“What are you going to do with us?”
Jon looked around but saw no one else. Suddenly another picture, the picture of a world of white desert where the sky was deep blue and each object cast double shadows, filled his mind. “This isn’t the world you took me to before...” he exclaimed.
“No,” came the quiet voice, “this is not the world we took you to before. Listen. We are homeless wanderers of space. Our origin was not only in another galaxy, but in another universe, eternities ago. By way of this universe we can move from star to star without transversing any segment of time, unless we desire. Thus we have dwelt quietly in the dead cities of myriad suns till now. We have never tampered with any living species, though there is something in us that yearns for the extinct cultures.
“Recently according to our standards, though still much older than your solar system, a dark force has come into the universe. It has evolved similarly to us, and also leaps among galaxies in moments. Yet it holds no culture sacred that it finds, and has already tampered with a score of civilizations. It is younger than we are, and can only exist in one individual at a time, while our entity has three lobes, so to speak. This rival thinks nothing of completely changing the mind of its host, giving deadly information, even new powers. We are bound only to ride with your minds, warn you, guide you, but changing your body before your minds, and that only to keep you from death. So it will be your own greed, your own selflessness that will eventually win or lose this battle. Therefore it will be won or lost within the framework of your own civilization.”
“Then tell us this,” came a voice that was not Jon’s. “What is on the other side of the radiation barrier?”
“But we have told you already. And you have guessed. Toromon is at war with an economic condition. Beyond the barrier is a civilization which is controlled by the Lord of the Flames. He is only in one member of their number, and any time he may move to another, although it is not likely.”
“Are they our enemies?”
“Your only enemies are yourselves. But he must be evicted none the less. To do that, all you must do is confront the individual who is bearing him, the three of you together. But you must all be within seeing distance of him at once. For we work through your minds. What you cannot perceive, we cannot affect.”
“How will we do this?”
“One of you has already been made immune to the radiation barrier. So will the rest of you when it becomes necessary. This is what you will do for us, and it will also remove the threatening element of the unknown that distracts Toromon from her own problems.”
“But why our planet?” a voice asked.
“Yours is an ideal experimenting ground. Because of the Great Fire, your planet has many civilizations that are now completely isolated from one another; many, however, are on a fairly high level. The radiation barriers that lace your planet will keep you isolated from them for some time. When the Lord of the Flames is finished with one empire, he may wish to try a different method on a basically similar civilization. For all your isolated empires had the same base. Marinor, Letpar, Calcivon, Aptor--these are all empires on your planet of which you have never heard. But your first concern is Toromon.”
“Will we remember all this?” Jon asked.
“You will remember enough. Good-bye; you know your task.” The red haze in the deserted temple pulsed and the jade columns flickered. Hands of blue smoke caught him and flung him through a lightning flash. Whirled through a net of silver, he dropped through red into the vivid green of beetles’ wings.
Jon blinked. The Duchess took a step backwards. The green carpet, the rich wood-paneled walls, the glass-covered desk: they were in a sitting room of his father’s house, again.
Finally Jon asked, “Now just what am I supposed to do, again? And explain it very carefully.”
“I was going to say,” said the Duchess, “that you were to get to the Prince, who is being kept at an inn in the Devil’s Pot, and accompany him to the forest people. I want him to stay there until this war is over. They live a different life from any of the other people of this empire. They will give him something he’ll be able to use. I told you I spent some time there when I was younger. I can’t explain exactly what it is, but it’s a certain ruggedness, a certain strength. Maybe they won’t give it to him, but if he’s got it in him, they’ll bring it out.”
“What about ... the Lord of the Flames?”
“I don’t--do you have any idea, Jon?”
“Well, assuming we get beyond the radiation barrier, assuming we find what people we’re fighting, assuming we find which one of them is carrying around the Lord of the Flames, and assuming we can all three of us get to him at once--assuming all that, there’s no problem. But we can’t, can we? Look, I’ll be going to the forest, so I’ll be closest to the radiation barrier. I’ll try to get through, see what the situation is, and then the two of you can come on. All right?”
“If nothing else, it’ll put me closer to the Lord of the Flames ... and my freedom.”
“How are you not free now, Jon Koshar?” the Duchess asked.
Instead of answering, he said, “Give me the address of the inn at the Devil’s Pot.”
Going down the hall, with the address, Jon increased his pace. His mind carried an alien mind that had saved him from death once already. How could he be free? The ... obligation? That couldn’t be the word.
Around the corner he heard a voice. “And now would you please explain it to me? It’s not every day that I’m called on to declare war. I think I did it rather eloquently. Now tell my why.”
(Jon remembered the trick of acoustics which as a child enabled him to stand in this spot and overhear his sister and her girlfriends’ conversation just as they came into the house.)
“It’s your brother,” came the other voice. “He’s been kidnaped.”
“He’s been what?” asked the King. “And why? And by whom?”
“We don’t know,” answered the official. “But the council thought it was best to get you to declare war.”
“Oh,” said the King. “So that’s why I made that little speech in there. What does mother say?”
“It wouldn’t be polite to repeat, sir. She was locked in her room, and very insulted.”
“She would be,” said Uske. “So, the enemy has infiltrated and gotten my silly brother.”
“Well,” said the voice, “they can’t be sure. But what with the planes this morning, they thought it was best.”
“Oh, well,” said the King. There were footsteps. Then silence.
Coming round the corner, Jon saw the coat closet was ajar. He opened the door, took out a great cape and hood, and wrapped it around him, pulling the hood close over his head. He stepped into the foyer and went out past the doorman.
At the edge of the Devil’s Pot, the woman with the birthmark on the left side of her face was tapping a cane and holding out a tin cup. She had put on a pair of dark glasses and wandered up one street and down another. “Money for a poor blind woman,” she said in a whiny voice. “Money for the blind.” As a coin clinked into her cup, she nodded, smiled, and said, “Welcome to the New World. Good luck in the Island of Opportunity.”
The man who had given her the coin walked a step, and then turned back. “Hey,” he said to Rara. “If you’re blind, how do you know I’m new here?”
“Strangers are generous,” Rara explained, “while those who live here are too frozen to give.”
“Look,” said the man, “I was told to watch out for blind beggars who weren’t blind. My cousin, he warned me...”
“Not blind!” cried Rara. “Not blind? Why my license is right here. It permits me to beg in specified areas because of loss of sight. If you keep this up, I’ll be obliged to show it to you.” She turned away with a huff and began in another direction. The man scratched his head, then hurried off.
A few moments later, a man completely swathed in a gray cloak and hood came around the corner and stopped in front of the woman.
“Money for the blind?”
“Can you use this?” the man said. From his cloak he held out a brocade jacket, covered with fine metal work.
“Of course,” said Rara softly. Then she coughed. “Er ... what is it?”
“It’s a jacket,” Jon said. “It’s made pretty well. Maybe you can sell it?”