Much to Benny’s surprise, she is personally invited to the Draconian homeworld by Lord Paranash, one of Emperor Shen’s most trusted advisors, to identify a relic recently unearthed on a Draconian colony world that once belonged to the Earth Empire. Despite the honour, she is reluctant to accept this invitation; 20 million Draconians recently committed mass suicide on the frontier planet Tranagus for no apparent reason, and humans and Draconians are beginning to eye each other with suspicion once again. Nevertheless, Braxiatel insists that Benny accept the invitation and determine whether the relic is valuable enough to add to the Collection. Benny thus reluctantly sets off for Draconia, though as a human and a female she would ordinarily be doubly unwelcome there.
Benny’s shuttle touches down at the Imperial palace on Dralos, one of the oldest cities on Draconia. There, she is greeted by Lord Vasar, a friend of the human ambassador and the closest thing Draconia has to an expert on the human species. Benny’s attempts to make small talk and to express her condolences over the Tranagus affair fall relatively flat, but Vasar proves to have a somewhat dry sense of humour for a Draconian. He also informs Benny of something rather unexpected: the relic she is to identify was apparently found on Tranagus.
Meanwhile, Lord Paranash is discussing politics with Emperor Shen. There has recently been civil unrest on many of the planets in the sector around Tranagus, and Shen, who considers human culture childish and unsubtle in comparison to that of Draconia, is irritated that the human media is referring to these events as “the Draconian Rage”. He does express an interest in meeting Professor Summerfield, but Paranash discourages him from doing so -- and doesn’t even tell the Emperor that Summerfield is female. Nevertheless, the Emperor does consider Vasar somewhat too much of a human sympathiser, and thus advises Paranash to keep a close eye on him for signs of treachery.
Paranash intercepts Vasar and Benny and dismisses Vasar, taking Benny to see the relic himself. Vasar retires to his quarters for a bath, and is subsequently startled when the Emperor himself enters to speak with him. The Emperor appears somewhat irritated to find Lord Vasar playing in his bath with a rubber ducky which he picked up while acting as ambassador to Earth. Nevertheless, he questions Vasar about Benny, and is surprised to learn that Paranash deliberately did not tell him that the visiting professor was female. The Emperor thus orders Vasar to keep a close eye on Paranash for signs of treachery, and to attend him in his quarters later. Without the duck.
Paranash makes no secret of his distaste for Benny, who needles him for a while but eventually stops, conceding that the opportunity to examine the Tranagus artefact is a great honour. Paranash guides Benny through the Imperial vault’s main historical chamber, and Benny is awed by the many military and historical artefacts, including a imperial execution blade and the casing of a Starbuster missile from the Earth/Draconian wars. Paranash’s brood-father was killed in the battle of Charon, and he regards this as a noble death. He and Benny then arrive in the inner sanctum, where the most valuable artefacts are stored behind anti-photon globes -- and when he reveals the artefact from Tranagus, Benny is shocked by its sudden appearance. It’s a human skull... and a disturbingly familiar one.
Before Benny can work out why the skull seems so familiar, Paranash unexpectedly calls in the guards and has the protesting Benny dragged off to a laboratory. There, the guards strap her down and leave her with Paranash, who unpacks instruments of surgical torture and reveals that he summoned Benny to Draconia to get at the secrets locked away inside her mind. Too late, Benny realises why the skull seemed so familiar: it is the skull of Vilus Krull, and Paranash is a member of the cult of the Dark Flame. According to Paranash, when Benny was touched by the Dark Flame on Marran Alpha, it became a part of her -- and he now intends to cut a hole in her skull to let the evil out. Vasar then enters the laboratory, but he too is a follower of the Dark Flame, and he simply shaves Benny’s head and holds her down as the trepanning commences.
Afterwards, Vasar attends the Emperor in his chambers as requested. The Emperor offers Vasar a human drink called cognac, which the Emperor personally finds weak and unsatisfying, and questions him about Benny and her opinion of the skull. Vasar evades the question, claiming that Lord Paranash is helping Benny to recall certain things. The Emperor obliquely warns Vasar that he is always on the lookout for treachery, and sends him on his way, ordering him to keep an eye on Paranash. The Emperor then visits the museum, where Paranash subsequently finds him taking practice swings with the ancient executioner’s blade. Though disturbed to see the Emperor handling such a priceless relic, Paranash is unsure how to protest politely, particularly when the Emperor makes a point of reminding him that the blade was used to execute traitors.
Vasar visits the palace dungeons, where Benny is suffering a terrible, pounding headache. Though enraged with him, she doesn’t have the strength to protest as he tries to explain his position to her. Tranagus, once part of the Earth Empire, was the birthplace of Vilus Krull and the world where he first made contact with the Dark Flame. After Krull’s defeat on Marran Alpha, the cult all but died out -- until the planet was seceded to the Draconians, and the new colonists were touched by the influence of the Dark Flame. The cult has spread throughout the Draconian Empire, and when the time came, all of the colonists on Tranagus acted as one, committing mass suicide just to send a message to the other followers of the Dark Flame. Paranash now intends to use the mass suicide to incite fear and distrust between Draconia and Earth, provoking another war between the two empires and giving him an excuse to overthrow Emperor Shen.
However, Vasar claims that Paranash is using the cult for his own ends. Personally, Vasar has both Draconian and human friends, and he has no wish to see the peace destroyed just to further Paranash’s ambitions. He thus gives Benny something for the pain in her head and offers to show her to the shuttle bay so she can escape and warn the Earth authorities about Paranash’s intentions. Vasar has already killed Benny’s two guards, and he now gives her a gun with which to defend herself; unfortunately, it has no stun setting. Though tempted to shoot Vasar with it, Benny gives in and accompanies him through the palace sewers, avoiding attacks by packs of poisonous rat-worms, and trying to deny what Vasar still claims to believe: that she has been predestined to live through these events ever since she made contact with the Dark Flame. Benny is finding it hard to concentrate, as if something is affecting her thoughts -- but is it because she’s just had brain surgery without anaesthetic, or is it the effect of the Dark Flame?
Vasar shows Benny to a hatch that he claims will lead her to the shuttle bay, but when she emerges, she finds herself in the inner sanctum of the Imperial Museum, along with both Vilus Krull’s skull and Emperor Shen. The Emperor politely demands an explanation for her presence, and for some reason, Benny claims to be an agent of the Dark Flame and shoots the Emperor in the chest. As the Emperor drops, Paranash steps out of the shadows and calls for the guards to arrest Benny. Now that a human female has assassinated the Draconian Emperor, there is sure to be war. Benny, shaken, insists that Paranash somehow conditioned her to do this while she was undergoing the surgery, but Paranash insists that this act was written into her life when she was touched by the Dark Flame on Marran Alpha. Even Benny has her doubts now -- and if her destiny has been rewritten by the Dark Flame, then what of her son, Peter?
Just as Paranash appears triumphant, however, Vasar enters, dismisses the guards, and shoots Paranash, killing him. The Emperor rises, explaining that Vasar provided him with a personal force field, and Benny realises that they’ve used her as a pawn in a plot to expose Paranash as a traitor. The Emperor is fully aware that the Cult of the Dark Flame is active in his empire -- but he’s also familiar with the ancient Draconian poetry that claims there’s nothing to fear from the dark. Benny’s not so sure, especially when the Emperor turns on Vasar and cuts him down with the blade of execution, stating that he will not tolerate any Dark Flame cultists within his own government. Benny reminds the Emperor that she’s still holding the gun, that the Emperor has turned off his force field, that she’s had enough of Draconians toying with her life, and that it’s possible that she is under the influence of the Dark Flame after all. However, given the choice, she drops the gun, noting that the very fact she can choose to do so proves that she still has free will. The Emperor advises her to leave Draconia, and she does, vowing never to return.