f the seven council members, only four and the Elder had reached the council chambers. The gigantic inner doors of the structure were closed behind them, and they quickly ascended a delicate, freestanding spiral walkway. It led to a dais which floated free in space in the uppermost reaches of the chamber.
The Elder mounted the topmost position on the globe-like platform, and turned to address the councilmen. He wore an ivory robe and carried a staff. He was a septuagenarian, and his gray hair was thinning on top. A carefully trimmed beard and moustache lent him a distinguished appearance.
"They're killing everyone . . . we must escape," announced the shortest councilman.
"The city is burning!" exclaimed another.
"Elder . . . we must arm ourselves. We must fight!" said the youngest man. He had black hair, graying at the temples.
"Silence!" replied the Elder, striking the floor with his staff for emphasis. "We are not a race of warriors! We are statesmen and scientists! From our very beginning it was ordained that the warrior race of Taarak the Defender would aid us in times of need. This was the Pact!"
The young man smirked. "Hah. Taarak the Defender? His race is dead! They cannot defend anyone!"
Another robed, somewhat portly councilman with brown eyes solemnly spoke up. "Some say that the race is not dead. That one still lives."
The youngest councilman turned to look at them, raising his hands incredulously. "One? What good is one?"
"One of Taarak's blood could do much," retorted the Elder.
From far below, the fear-stricken voice of a pageboy floated up to them. "Elder! They're in the halls!"
"Well, who is this last Defender?" inquired another councilman. "How can he be summoned?"
"It is Taarna, of the blood of Taarak the Defender," replied the Elder. "The last of the race! And she must be summoned as my forefathers summoned Taarak himself . . . from within."
"But will this Defender answer?" asked the fourth councilman.
"A Taarakian has no choice, they must answer," said the Elder. "It is in their blood!"
A heavy thud suddenly filled the air. "They're at the door! They're here!" The pageboy's voice was now full of abject terror.
This development sparked a round of panicky remarks at the dais. The Elder cut them off. Holding up his staff, he shouted, "Bar the door!"
The pageboy turned and ran towards the door. The councilmen could barely hear the patter of his retreating feet.
"We will summon the Defender together," declared the Elder solemnly. Heads bowed and eyes closed, they began the ritual.
"Taarna . . .
"Taarna . . .
"Taarna . . . "
Slowly, the dais began to spin, the rhythmic pounding of blows on the heavy door making an eerie counterpoint to their low, trancelike voices.
The pageboy was gasping for breath by the time he skidded to a stop at the barring mechanism built into the floor. He lifted a small panel and began manipulating the controls. Nothing happened; too many years of disuse and neglect had apparently taken their toll on the device. In frustration, the pageboy stood and began stamping on the controls with his foot. This frantic effort had the desired effect, for a large, T-shaped portion of the floor began to rise up and angle towards the door, lifted by a hydraulic ram.
Just as the brace approached the vertical the doors burst open, the scarred end of an enormous, studded battering ram appearing in the gap. The lower edge of the doors struck the brace, shattering it. Great flat chunks of stone fell back into the pit from which the brace had risen. Bits of stone from the edges of the heavily damaged doors skittered across the polished mosaic floor.
At this, the pageboy threw up his arms and fell backwards, landing on the seat of his pants. He scrambled quickly to his feet as the doors swung wide, and he goggled at the size of the battering ram. It was rapidly withdrawn, and into the room stepped the barbarian leader, flanked by two of his lieutenants.
The chieftain grinned cruelly as the three of them raised their weapons. The pageboy saw the guns emit small puffs of smoke and suddenly he was writhing on the floor in agony, five bolts protruding from his body, one of them dividing his bow tie and puncturing his trachea, another tearing a hole into his heart. Three other missiles passed completely through him. Blood frothing from his mouth and nose, he died within seconds as the troopers ran past.