THE METAL MONSTER
By A. Merritt
Before the narrative which follows was placed in my hands, I had never seen Dr. Walter T. Goodwin, its author.
When the manuscript revealing his adventures among the pre-historic ruins of the Nan-Matal in the Carolines (The Moon Pool) had been given me by the International Association of Science for editing and revision to meet the requirements of a popular presentation, Dr. Goodwin had left America. He had explained that he was still too shaken, too depressed, to be able to recall experiences that must inevitably carry with them freshened memories of those whom he loved so well and from whom, he felt, he was separated in all probability forever.
I had understood that he had gone to some remote part of Asia to pursue certain botanical studies, and it was therefore with the liveliest surprise and interest that I received a summons from the President of the Association to meet Dr. Goodwin at a designated place and hour.
Through my close study of the Moon Pool papers I had formed a mental image of their writer. I had read, too, those volumes of botanical research which have set him high above all other American scientists in this field, gleaning from their curious mingling of extremely technical observations and minutely accurate but extraordinarily poetic descriptions, hints to amplify my picture of him. It gratified me to find I had drawn a pretty good one.
The man to whom the President of the Association introduced me was sturdy, well-knit, a little under average height. He had a broad but rather low forehead that reminded me somewhat of the late electrical wizard Steinmetz. Under level black brows shone eyes of clear hazel, kindly, shrewd, a little wistful, lightly humorous; the eyes both of a doer and a dreamer.
Not more than forty I judged him to be. A close-trimmed, pointed beard did not hide the firm chin and the clean-cut mouth. His hair was thick and black and oddly sprinkled with white; small streaks and dots of gleaming silver that shone with a curiously metallic luster.
His right arm was closely bound to his breast. His manner as he greeted me was tinged with shyness. He extended his left hand in greeting, and as I clasped the fingers I was struck by their peculiar, pronounced, yet pleasant warmth; a sensation, indeed, curiously electric.
The Association's President forced him gently back into his chair.
"Dr. Goodwin," he said, turning to me, "is not entirely recovered as yet from certain consequences of his adventures. He will explain to you later what these are. In the meantime, Mr. Merritt, will you read this?"
I took the sheets he handed me, and as I read them felt the gaze of Dr. Goodwin full upon me, searching, weighing, estimating. When I raised my eyes from the letter I found in his a new expression. The shyness was gone; they were filled with complete friendliness. Evidently I had passed muster.
"You will accept, sir?" It was the president's gravely courteous tone.
"Accept!" I exclaimed. "Why, of course, I accept. It is not only one of the greatest honors, but to me one of the greatest delights to act as a collaborator with Dr. Goodwin."
The president smiled.
"In that case, sir, there is no need for me to remain longer," he said. "Dr. Goodwin has with him his manuscript as far as he has progressed with it. I will leave you two alone for your discussion."
He bowed to us and, picking up his old-fashioned bell-crowned silk hat and his quaint, heavy cane of ebony, withdrew. Dr. Goodwin turned to me.
"I will start," he said, after a little pause, "from when I met Richard Drake on the field of blue poppies that are like a great prayer-rug at the gray feet of the nameless mountain."
The sun sank, the shadows fell, the lights of the city sparkled out, for hours New York roared about me unheeded while I listened to the tale of that utterly weird, stupendous drama of an unknown life, of unknown creatures, unknown forces, and of unconquerable human heroism played among the hidden gorges of unknown Asia.
It was dawn when I left him for my own home. Nor was it for many hours after that I laid his then incomplete manuscript down and sought sleep—and found a troubled sleep.
CHAPTER I. VALLEY OF THE BLUE POPPIES
In this great crucible of life we call the world—in the vaster one we call the universe—the mysteries lie close packed, uncountable as grains of sand on ocean's shores. They thread gigantic, the star-flung spaces; they creep, atomic, beneath the microscope's peering eye. They walk beside us, unseen and unheard, calling out to us, asking why we are deaf to their crying, blind to their wonder.
Sometimes the veils drop from a man's eyes, and he sees—and speaks of his vision. Then those who have not seen pass him by with the lifted brows of disbelief, or they mock him, or if his vision has been great enough they fall upon and destroy him.
For the greater the mystery, the more bitterly is its verity assailed; upon what seem the lesser a man may give testimony and at least gain for himself a hearing.
There is reason for this. Life is a ferment, and upon and about it, shifting and changing, adding to or taking away, beat over legions of forces, seen and unseen, known and unknown. And man, an atom in the ferment, clings desperately to what to him seems stable; nor greets with joy him who hazards that what he grips may be but a broken staff, and, so saying, fails to hold forth a sturdier one.
Earth is a ship, plowing her way through uncharted oceans of space wherein are strange currents, hidden shoals and reefs, and where blow the unknown winds of Cosmos.
If to the voyagers, painfully plotting their course, comes one who cries that their charts must be remade, nor can tell WHY they must be—that man is not welcome—no!
Therefore it is that men have grown chary of giving testimony upon mysteries. Yet knowing each in his own heart the truth of that vision he has himself beheld, lo, it is that in whose reality he most believes.
The spot where I had encamped was of a singular beauty; so beautiful that it caught the throat and set an ache within the breast—until from it a tranquillity distilled that was like healing mist.
Since early March I had been wandering. It was now mid-July. And for the first time since my pilgrimage had begun I drank—not of forgetfulness, for that could never be—but of anodyne for a sorrow which had held fast upon me since my return from the Carolines a year before.
No need to dwell here upon that—it has been written. Nor shall I recite the reasons for my restlessness—for these are known to those who have read that history of mine. Nor is there cause to set forth at length the steps by which I had arrived at this vale of peace.
Sufficient is to tell that in New York one night, reading over what is perhaps the most sensational of my books—"The Poppies and Primulas of Southern Tibet," the result of my travels of 1910-1911, I determined to return to that quiet, forbidden land. There, if anywhere, might I find something akin to forgetting.
There was a certain flower which I long had wished to study in its mutations from the singular forms appearing on the southern slopes of the Elburz—Persia's mountainous chain that extends from Azerbaijan in the west to Khorasan in the east; from thence I would follow its modified types in the Hindu-Kush ranges and its migrations along the southern scarps of the Trans-Himalayas—the unexplored upheaval, higher than the Himalayas themselves, more deeply cut with precipice and gorge, which Sven Hedin had touched and named on his journey to Lhasa.
Having accomplished this, I planned to push across the passes to the Manasarowar Lakes, where, legend has it, the strange, luminous purple lotuses grow.
An ambitious project, undeniably fraught with danger; but it is written that desperate diseases require desperate remedies, and until inspiration or message how to rejoin those whom I had loved so dearly came to me, nothing less, I felt, could dull my heartache.
And, frankly, feeling that no such inspiration or message could come, I did not much care as to the end.
In Teheran I had picked up a most unusual servant; yes, more than this, a companion and counselor and interpreter as well.
He was a Chinese; his name Chiu-Ming. His first thirty years had been spent at the great Lamasery of Palkhor-Choinde at Gyantse, west of Lhasa. Why he had gone from there, how he had come to Teheran, I never asked. It was most fortunate that he had gone, and that I had found him. He recommended himself to me as the best cook within ten thousand miles of Pekin.
For almost three months we had journeyed; Chiu-Ming and I and the two ponies that carried my impedimenta.
We had traversed mountain roads which had echoed to the marching feet of the hosts of Darius, to the hordes of the Satraps. The highways of the Achaemenids—yes, and which before them had trembled to the tramplings of the myriads of the godlike Dravidian conquerors.
We had slipped over ancient Iranian trails; over paths which the warriors of conquering Alexander had traversed; dust of bones of Macedons, of Greeks, of Romans, beat about us; ashes of the flaming ambitions of the Sassanidae whimpered beneath our feet—the feet of an American botanist, a Chinaman, two Tibetan ponies. We had crept through clefts whose walls had sent back the howlings of the Ephthalites, the White Huns who had sapped the strength of these same proud Sassanids until at last both fell before the Turks.
Over the highways and byways of Persia's glory, Persia's shame and Persia's death we four—two men, two beasts—had passed. For a fortnight we had met no human soul, seen no sign of human habitation.
Game had been plentiful—green things Chiu-Ming might lack for his cooking, but meat never. About us was a welter of mighty summits. We were, I knew, somewhere within the blending of the Hindu-Kush with the Trans-Himalayas.
That morning we had come out of a ragged defile into this valley of enchantment, and here, though it had been so early, I had pitched my tent, determining to go no farther till the morrow.
It was a Phocean vale; a gigantic cup filled with tranquillity. A spirit brooded over it, serene, majestic, immutable—like the untroubled calm which rests, the Burmese believe, over every place which has guarded the Buddha, sleeping.
At its eastern end towered the colossal scarp of the unnamed peak through one of whose gorges we had crept. On his head was a cap of silver set with pale emeralds—the snow fields and glaciers that crowned him. Far to the west another gray and ochreous giant reared its bulk, closing the vale. North and south, the horizon was a chaotic sky land of pinnacles, spired and minareted, steepled and turreted and domed, each diademed with its green and argent of eternal ice and snow.
And all the valley was carpeted with the blue poppies in wide, unbroken fields, luminous as the morning skies of mid-June; they rippled mile after mile over the path we had followed, over the still untrodden path which we must take. They nodded, they leaned toward each other, they seemed to whisper—then to lift their heads and look up like crowding swarms of little azure fays, half impudently, wholly trustfully, into the faces of the jeweled giants standing guard over them. And when the little breeze walked upon them it was as though they bent beneath the soft tread and were brushed by the sweeping skirts of unseen, hastening Presences.
Like a vast prayer-rug, sapphire and silken, the poppies stretched to the gray feet of the mountain. Between their southern edge and the clustering summits a row of faded brown, low hills knelt—like brown-robed, withered and weary old men, backs bent, faces hidden between outstretched arms, palms to the earth and brows touching earth within them—in the East's immemorial attitude of worship.
I half expected them to rise—and as I watched a man appeared on one of the bowed, rocky shoulders, abruptly, with the ever-startling suddenness which in the strange light of these latitudes objects spring into vision. As he stood scanning my camp there arose beside him a laden pony, and at its head a Tibetan peasant. The first figure waved its hand; came striding down the hill.
As he approached I took stock of him. A young giant, three good inches over six feet, a vigorous head with unruly clustering black hair; a clean-cut, clean-shaven American face.
"I'm Dick Drake," he said, holding out his hand. "Richard Keen Drake, recently with Uncle's engineers in France."
"My name is Goodwin." I took his hand, shook it warmly. "Dr. Walter T. Goodwin."
"Goodwin the botanist—? Then I know you!" he exclaimed. "Know all about you, that is. My father admired your work greatly. You knew him—Professor Alvin Drake."
I nodded. So he was Alvin Drake's son. Alvin, I knew, had died about a year before I had started on this journey. But what was his son doing in this wilderness?
"Wondering where I came from?" he answered my unspoken question. "Short story. War ended. Felt an irresistible desire for something different. Couldn't think of anything more different from Tibet—always wanted to go there anyway. Went. Decided to strike over toward Turkestan. And here I am."
I felt at once a strong liking for this young giant. No doubt, subconsciously, I had been feeling the need of companionship with my own kind. I even wondered, as I led the way into my little camp, whether he would care to join fortunes with me in my journeyings.
His father's work I knew well, and although this stalwart lad was unlike what one would have expected Alvin Drake—a trifle dried, precise, wholly abstracted with his experiments—to beget, still, I reflected, heredity like the Lord sometimes works in mysterious ways its wonders to perform.
It was almost with awe that he listened to me instruct Chiu-Ming as to just how I wanted supper prepared, and his gaze dwelt fondly upon the Chinese busy among his pots and pans.
We talked a little, desultorily, as the meal was prepared—fragments of traveler's news and gossip, as is the habit of journeyers who come upon each other in the silent places. Ever the speculation grew in his face as he made away with Chiu-Ming's artful concoctions.
Drake sighed, drawing out his pipe.
"A cook, a marvel of a cook. Where did you get him?"
Briefly I told him.
Then a silence fell upon us. Suddenly the sun dipped down behind the flank of the stone giant guarding the valley's western gate; the whole vale swiftly darkened—a flood of crystal-clear shadows poured within it. It was the prelude to that miracle of unearthly beauty seen nowhere else on this earth—the sunset of Tibet.
We turned expectant eyes to the west. A little, cool breeze raced down from the watching steeps like a messenger, whispered to the nodding poppies, sighed and was gone. The poppies were still. High overhead a homing kite whistled, mellowly.
As if it were a signal there sprang out in the pale azure of the western sky row upon row of cirrus cloudlets, rank upon rank of them, thrusting their heads into the path of the setting sun. They changed from mottled silver into faint rose, deepened to crimson.
"The dragons of the sky drink the blood of the sunset," said Chiu-Ming.
As though a gigantic globe of crystal had dropped upon the heavens, their blue turned swiftly to a clear and glowing amber—then as abruptly shifted to a luminous violet A soft green light pulsed through the valley.
Under it, like hills ensorcelled, the rocky walls about it seemed to flatten. They glowed and all at once pressed forward like gigantic slices of palest emerald jade, translucent, illumined, as though by a circlet of little suns shining behind them.
The light faded, robes of deepest amethyst dropped around the mountain's mighty shoulders. And then from every snow and glacier-crowned peak, from minaret and pinnacle and towering turret, leaped forth a confusion of soft peacock flames, a host of irised prismatic gleamings, an ordered chaos of rainbows.
Great and small, interlacing and shifting, they ringed the valley with an incredible glory—as if some god of light itself had touched the eternal rocks and bidden radiant souls stand forth.
Through the darkening sky swept a rosy pencil of living light; that utterly strange, pure beam whose coming never fails to clutch the throat of the beholder with the hand of ecstasy, the ray which the Tibetans name the Ting-Pa. For a moment this rosy finger pointed to the east, then arched itself, divided slowly into six shining, rosy bands; began to creep downward toward the eastern horizon where a nebulous, pulsing splendor arose to meet it.
And as we watched I heard a gasp from Drake. And it was echoed by my own.
For the six beams were swaying, moving with ever swifter motion from side to side in ever-widening sweep, as though the hidden orb from which they sprang were swaying like a pendulum.
Faster and faster the six high-flung beams swayed—and then broke—broke as though a gigantic, unseen hand had reached up and snapped them!
An instant the severed ends ribboned aimlessly, then bent, turned down and darted earthward into the welter of clustered summits at the north and swiftly were gone, while down upon the valley fell night.
"Good God!" whispered Drake. "It was as though something reached up, broke those rays and drew them down—like threads."
"I saw it." I struggled with bewilderment. "I saw it. But I never saw anything like it before," I ended, most inadequately.
"It was PURPOSEFUL," he whispered. "It was DELIBERATE. As though something reached up, juggled with the rays, broke them, and drew them down like willow withes."
"The devils that dwell here!" quavered Chiu-Ming.
"Some magnetic phenomenon." I was half angry at myself for my own touch of panic. "Light can be deflected by passage through a magnetic field. Of course that's it. Certainly."
"I don't know." Drake's tone was doubtful indeed. "It would take a whale of a magnetic field to have done THAT—it's inconceivable." He harked back to his first idea. "It was so—so DAMNED deliberate," he repeated.
"Devils—" muttered the frightened Chinese.
"What's that?" Drake gripped my arm and pointed to the north. A deeper blackness had grown there while we had been talking, a pool of darkness against which the mountain summits stood out, blade-sharp edges faintly luminous.
A gigantic lance of misty green fire darted from the blackness and thrust its point into the heart of the zenith; following it, leaped into the sky a host of the sparkling spears of light, and now the blackness was like an ebon hand, brandishing a thousand javelins of tinseled flame.
"The aurora," I said.
"It ought to be a good one," mused Drake, gaze intent upon it. "Did you notice the big sun spot?"
I shook my head.
"The biggest I ever saw. Noticed it first at dawn this morning. Some little aurora lighter—that spot. I told you—look at that!" he cried.
The green lances had fallen back. The blackness gathered itself together—then from it began to pulse billows of radiance, spangled with infinite darting swarms of flashing corpuscles like uncounted hosts of dancing fireflies.
Higher the waves rolled—phosphorescent green and iridescent violet, weird copperous yellows and metallic saffrons and a shimmer of glittering ash of rose—then wavered, split and formed into gigantic, sparkling, marching curtains of splendor.
A vast circle of light sprang out upon the folds of the flickering, rushing curtains. Misty at first, its edges sharpened until they rested upon the blazing glory of the northern sky like a pale ring of cold flame. And about it the aurora began to churn, to heap itself, to revolve.
Toward the ring from every side raced the majestic folds, drew themselves together, circled, seethed around it like foam of fire about the lip of a cauldron, and poured through the shining circle as though it were the mouth of that fabled cavern where old Aeolus sits blowing forth and breathing back the winds that sweep the earth.
Yes—into the ring's mouth the aurora flew, cascading in a columned stream to earth. Then swiftly, a mist swept over all the heavens, veiled that incredible cataract.
"Magnetism?" muttered Drake. "I guess NOT!"
"It struck about where the Ting-Pa was broken and seemed drawn down like the rays," I said.
"Purposeful," Drake said. "And devilish. It hit on all my nerves like a—like a metal claw. Purposeful and deliberate. There was intelligence behind that."
"Intelligence? Drake—what intelligence could break the rays of the setting sun and suck down the aurora?"
"I don't know," he answered.
"Devils," croaked Chiu-Ming. "The devils that defied Buddha—and have grown strong—"
"Like a metal claw!" breathed Drake.
Far to the west a sound came to us; first a whisper, then a wild rushing, a prolonged wailing, a crackling. A great light flashed through the mist, glowed about us and faded. Again the wailing, the vast rushing, the retreating whisper.
Then silence and darkness dropped embraced upon the valley of the blue poppies.
CHAPTER II. THE SIGIL ON THE ROCKS
Dawn came. Drake had slept well. But I, who had not his youthful resiliency, lay for long, awake and uneasy. I had hardly sunk into troubled slumber before dawn awakened me.
As we breakfasted, I approached directly that matter which my growing liking for him was turning into strong desire.
"Drake," I asked. "Where are you going?"
"With you," he laughed. "I'm foot loose and fancy free. And I think you ought to have somebody with you to help watch that cook. He might get away."
The idea seemed to appall him.
"Fine!" I exclaimed heartily, and thrust out my hand to him. "I'm thinking of striking over the range soon to the Manasarowar Lakes. There's a curious flora I'd like to study."
"Anywhere you say suits me," he answered.
We clasped hands on our partnership and soon we were on our way to the valley's western gate; our united caravans stringing along behind us. Mile after mile we trudged through the blue poppies, discussing the enigmas of the twilight and of the night.
In the light of day their breath of vague terror was dissipated. There was no place for mystery nor dread under this floor of brilliant sunshine. The smiling sapphire floor rolled ever on before us.
Whispering little playful breezes flew down the slopes to gossip for a moment with the nodding flowers. Flocks of rose finches raced chattering overhead to quarrel with the tiny willow warblers, the chi-u-teb-tok, holding fief of the drooping, graceful bowers bending down to the little laughing stream that for the past hour had chuckled and gurgled like a friendly water baby beside us.
I had proven, almost to my own satisfaction, that what we had beheld had been a creation of the extraordinary atmospheric attributes of these highlands, an atmosphere so unique as to make almost anything of the kind possible. But Drake was not convinced.
"I know," he said. "Of course I understand all that—superimposed layers of warmer air that might have bent the ray; vortices in the higher levels that might have produced just that effect of the captured aurora. I admit it's all possible. I'll even admit it's all probable, but damn me, Doc, if I BELIEVE it! I had too clearly the feeling of a CONSCIOUS force, a something that KNEW exactly what it was doing—and had a REASON for it."
It was mid-afternoon.
The spell of the valley upon us, we had gone leisurely. The western mount was close, the mouth of the gorge through which we must pass, now plain before us. It did not seem as though we could reach it before dusk, and Drake and I were reconciled to spending another night in the peaceful vale. Plodding along, deep in thought, I was startled by his exclamation.
He was staring at a point some hundred yards to his right. I followed his gaze.
The towering cliffs were a scant half mile away. At some distant time there had been an enormous fall of rock. This, disintegrating, had formed a gently-curving breast which sloped down to merge with the valley's floor. Willow and witch alder, stunted birch and poplar had found roothold, clothed it, until only their crowding outposts, thrusting forward in a wavering semicircle, held back seemingly by the blue hordes, showed where it melted into the meadows.
In the center of this breast, beginning half way up its slopes and stretching down into the flowered fields was a colossal imprint.
Gray and brown, it stood out against the green and blue of slope and level; a rectangle all of thirty feet wide, two hundred long, the heel faintly curved and from its hither end, like claws, four slender triangles radiating from it like twenty-four points of a ten-rayed star.
Irresistibly was it like a footprint—but what thing was there whose tread could leave such a print as this?
I ran up the slope—Drake already well in advance. I paused at the base of the triangles where, were this thing indeed a footprint, the spreading claws sprang from the flat of it.
The track was fresh. At its upper edges were clipped bushes and split trees, the white wood of the latter showing where they had been sliced as though by the stroke of a scimitar.
I stepped out upon the mark. It was as level as though planed; bent down and stared in utter disbelief of what my own eyes beheld. For stone and earth had been crushed, compressed, into a smooth, microscopically grained, adamantine complex, and in this matrix poppies still bearing traces of their coloring were imbedded like fossils. A cyclone can and does grip straws and thrust them unbroken through an inch board—but what force was there which could take the delicate petals of a flower and set them like inlay within the surface of a stone?
Into my mind came recollection of the wailings, the crashings in the night, of the weird glow that had flashed about us when the mist arose to hide the chained aurora.
"It was what we heard," I said. "The sounds—it was then that this was made."
"The foot of Shin-je!" Chiu-Ming's voice was tremulous. "The lord of Hell has trodden here!"
I translated for Drake's benefit.
"Has the lord of Hell but one foot?" asked Dick, politely.
"He bestrides the mountains," said Chiu-Ming. "On the far side is his other footprint. Shin-je it was who strode the mountains and set here his foot."
Again I interpreted.
Drake cast a calculating glance up to the cliff top.
"Two thousand feet, about," he mused. "Well, if Shin-je is built in our proportions that makes it about right. The length of this thing would give him just about a two thousand foot leg. Yes—he could just about straddle that hill."
"You're surely not serious?" I asked in consternation.
"What the hell!" he exclaimed, "am I crazy? This is no foot mark. How could it be? Look at the mathematical nicety with which these edges are stamped out—as though by a die—
"That's what it reminds me of—a die. It's as if some impossible power had been used to press it down. Like—like a giant seal of metal in a mountain's hand. A sigil—a seal—"
"But why?" I asked. "What could be the purpose—"
"Better ask where the devil such a force could be gotten together and how it came here," he said. "Look—except for this one place there isn't a mark anywhere. All the bushes and the trees, all the poppies and the grass are just as they ought to be.
"How did whoever or whatever it was that made this, get here and get away without leaving any trace but this? Damned if I don't think Chiu-Ming's explanation puts less strain upon the credulity than any I could offer."
I peered about. It was so. Except for the mark, there was no slightest sign of the unusual, the abnormal.
But the mark was enough!
"I'm for pushing up a notch or two and getting into the gorge before dark," he was voicing my own thought. "I'm willing to face anything human—but I'm not keen to be pressed into a rock like a flower in a maiden's book of poems." Just at twilight we drew out of the valley into the pass. We traveled a full mile along it before darkness forced us to make camp. The gorge was narrow. The far walls but a hundred feet away; but we had no quarrel with them for their neighborliness, no! Their solidity, their immutability, breathed confidence back into us.
And after we had found a deep niche capable of holding the entire caravan we filed within, ponies and all, I for one perfectly willing thus to spend the night, let the air at dawn be what it would. We dined within on bread and tea, and then, tired to the bone, sought each his place upon the rocky floor. I slept well, waking only once or twice by Chiu-Ming's groanings; his dreams evidently were none of the pleasantest. If there was an aurora I neither knew nor cared. My slumber was dreamless.
CHAPTER III. RUTH VENTNOR
The dawn, streaming into the niche, awakened us. A covey of partridges venturing too close yielded three to our guns. We breakfasted well, and a little later were pushing on down the cleft.
Its descent, though gradual, was continuous, and therefore I was not surprised when soon we began to come upon evidences of semi-tropical vegetation. Giant rhododendrons and tree ferns gave way to occasional clumps of stately kopek and clumps of the hardier bamboos. We added a few snow cocks to our larder—although they were out of their habitat, flying down into the gorge from their peaks and table-lands for some choice tidbit.
All that day we marched on, and when at night we made camp, sleep came to us quickly and overmastering. An hour after dawn we were on our way. A brief stop we made for lunch; pressed forward.
It was close to two when we caught the first sight of the ruins.
The soaring, verdure-clad walls of the canyon had long been steadily marching closer. Above, between their rims the wide ribbon of sky was like a fantastically shored river, shimmering, dazzling; every cove and headland edged with an opalescent glimmering as of shining pearly beaches.
And as though we were sinking in that sky stream's depths its light kept lessening, darkening imperceptibly with luminous shadows of ghostly beryl, drifting veils of pellucid aquamarine, limpid mists of glaucous chrysolite.
Fainter, more crepuscular became the light, yet never losing its crystalline quality. Now the high overhead river was but a brook; became a thread. Abruptly it vanished.
We passed into a tunnel, fern walled, fern roofed, garlanded with tawny orchids, gay with carmine fungus and golden moss. We stepped out into a blaze of sunlight.
Before us lay a wide green bowl held in the hands of the clustered hills; shallow, circular, as though, while plastic still, the thumb of God had run round its rim, shaping it. Around it the peaks crowded, craning their lofty heads to peer within.
It was about a mile in its diameter, this hollow, as my gaze then measured it. It had three openings—one that lay like a crack in the northeast slope; another, the tunnel mouth through which we had come. The third lifted itself out of the bowl, creeping up the precipitous bare scarp of the western barrier straight to the north, clinging to the ochreous rock up and up until it vanished around a far distant shoulder.
It was a wide and bulwarked road, a road that spoke as clearly as though it had tongue of human hands which had cut it there in the mountain's breast. An ancient road weary beyond belief beneath the tread of uncounted years.
From the hollow the blind soul of loneliness groped out to greet us!
Never had I felt such loneliness as that which lapped the lip of the verdant bowl. It was tangible—as though it had been poured from some reservoir of misery. A pool of despair—
Half the width of the valley away the ruins began. Weirdly were they its visible expression. They huddled in two bent rows to the bottom. They crouched in a wide cluster against the cliffs. From the cluster a curving row of them ran along the southern crest of the hollow.
A flight of shattered, cyclopean steps lifted to a ledge and here a crumbling fortress stood.
Irresistibly did the ruins seem a colossal hag, flung prone, lying listlessly, helplessly, against the barrier's base. The huddled lower ranks were the legs, the cluster the body, the upper row an outflung arm and above the neck of the stairway the ancient fortress, rounded and with two huge ragged apertures in its northern front was an aged, bleached and withered head staring, watching.
I looked at Drake—the spell of the bowl was heavy upon him, his face drawn. The Chinaman and Tibetan were murmuring, terror written large upon them.
"A hell of a joint!" Drake turned to me, a shadow of a grin lightening the distress on his face. "But I'd rather chance it than go back. What d'you say?"
I nodded, curiosity mastering my oppression. We stepped over the rim, rifles on the alert. Close behind us crowded the two servants and the ponies.
The vale was shallow, as I have said. We trod the fragments of an olden approach to the green tunnel so the descent was not difficult. Here and there beside the path upreared huge broken blocks. On them I thought I could see faint tracings as of carvings—now a suggestion of gaping, arrow-fanged dragon jaws, now the outline of a scaled body, a hint of enormous, batlike wings.
Now we had reached the first of the crumbling piles that stretched down into the valley's center.
Half fainting, I fell against Drake, clutching to him for support.
A stream of utter hopelessness was racing upon us, swirling and eddying around us, reaching to our hearts with ghostly fingers dripping with despair. From every shattered heap it seemed to pour, rushing down the road upon us like a torrent, engulfing us, submerging, drowning.
Unseen it was—yet tangible as water; it sapped the life from every nerve. Weariness filled me, a desire to drop upon the stones, to be rolled away. To die. I felt Drake's body quivering even as mine; knew that he was drawing upon every reserve of strength.
"Steady," he muttered. "Steady—"
The Tibetan shrieked and fled, the ponies scrambling after him. Dimly I remembered that mine carried precious specimens; a surge of anger passed, beating back the anguish. I heard a sob from Chiu-Ming, saw him drop.
Drake stopped, drew him to his feet. We placed him between us, thrust each an arm through his own. Then, like swimmers, heads bent, we pushed on, buffeting that inexplicable invisible flood.
As the path rose, its force lessened, my vitality grew, and the terrible desire to yield and be swept away waned. Now we had reached the foot of the cyclopean stairs, now we were half up them—and now as we struggled out upon the ledge on which the watching fortress stood, the clutching stream shoaled swiftly, the shoal became safe, dry land and the cheated, unseen maelstrom swirled harmlessly beneath us.
We stood erect, gasping for breath, again like swimmers who have fought their utmost and barely, so barely, won.
There was an almost imperceptible movement at the side of the ruined portal.
Out darted a girl. A rifle dropped from her hands. Straight she sped toward me.
And as she ran I recognized her.
The flying figure reached me, threw soft arms around my neck, was weeping in relieved gladness on my shoulder.
"Ruth!" I cried. "What on earth are YOU doing here?"
"Walter!" she sobbed. "Walter Goodwin—Oh, thank God! Thank God!"
She drew herself from my arms, catching her breath; laughed shakily.
I took swift stock of her. Save for fear upon her, she was the same Ruth I had known three years before; wide, deep blue eyes that were now all seriousness, now sparkling wells of mischief; petite, rounded and tender; the fairest skin; an impudent little nose; shining clusters of intractable curls; all human, sparkling and sweet.
Drake coughed, insinuatingly. I introduced him.
"I—I watched you struggling through that dreadful pit." She shuddered. "I could not see who you were, did not know whether friend or enemy—but oh, my heart almost died in pity for you, Walter," she breathed. "What can it be—THERE?"
I shook my head.
"Martin could not see you," she went on. "He was watching the road that leads above. But I ran down—to help."
"Mart watching?" I asked. "Watching for what?"
"I—" she hesitated oddly. "I think I'd rather tell you before him. It's so strange—so incredible."
She led us through the broken portal and into the fortress. It was more gigantic even than I had thought. The floor of the vast chamber we had entered was strewn with fragments fallen from the crackling, stone-vaulted ceiling. Through the breaks light streamed from the level above us.
We picked our way among the debris to a wide crumbling stairway, crept up it, Ruth flitting ahead. We came out opposite one of the eye-like apertures. Black against it, perched high upon a pile of blocks, I recognized the long, lean outline of Ventnor, rifle in hand, gazing intently up the ancient road whose windings were plain through the opening. He had not heard us.
"Martin," called Ruth softly.
He turned. A shaft of light from a crevice in the gap's edge struck his face, flashing it out from the semidarkness of the corner in which he crouched. I looked into the quiet gray eyes, upon the keen face.
"Goodwin!" he shouted, tumbling down from his perch, shaking me by the shoulders. "If I had been in the way of praying—you're the man I'd have prayed for. How did you get here?"
"Just wandering, Mart," I answered. "But Lord! I'm sure GLAD to see you."
"Which way did you come?" he asked, keenly. I threw my hand toward the south.
"Not through that hollow?" he asked incredulously.
"And some hell of a place to get through," Drake broke in. "It cost us our ponies and all my ammunition."
"Richard Drake," I said. "Son of old Alvin—you knew him, Mart."
"Knew him well," cried Ventnor, seizing Dick's hand. "Wanted me to go to Kamchatka to get some confounded sort of stuff for one of his devilish experiments. Is he well?"
"He's dead," replied Dick soberly.
"Oh!" said Ventnor. "Oh—I'm sorry. He was a great man."
Briefly I acquainted him with my wanderings, my encounter with Drake.
"That place out there—" he considered us thoughtfully. "Damned if I know what it is. Thought maybe it's gas—of a sort. If it hadn't been for it we'd have been out of this hole two days ago. I'm pretty sure it must be gas. And it must be much less than it was this morning, for then we made an attempt to get through again—and couldn't."
I was hardly listening. Ventnor had certainly advanced a theory of our unusual symptoms that had not occurred to me. That hollow might indeed be a pocket into which a gas flowed; just as in the mines the deadly coal damp collects in pits, flows like a stream along the passages. It might be that—some odorless, colorless gas of unknown qualities; and yet—
"Did you try respirators?" asked Dick.
"Surely," said Ventnor. "First off the go. But they weren't of any use. The gas, if it is gas, seems to operate as well through the skin as through the nose and mouth. We just couldn't make it—and that's all there is to it. But if you made it—could we try it now, do you think?" he asked eagerly.
I felt myself go white.
"Not—not for a little while," I stammered.
He nodded, understandingly.
"I see," he said. "Well, we'll wait a bit, then."
"But why are you staying here? Why didn't you make for the road up the mountain? What are you watching for, anyway?" asked Drake.
"Go to it, Ruth," Ventnor grinned. "Tell 'em. After all—it was YOUR party you know."
"Mart!" she cried, blushing.
"Well—it wasn't ME they admired," he laughed.
"Martin!" she cried again, and stamped her foot.
"Shoot," he said. "I'm busy. I've got to watch."
"Well"—Ruth's voice was uncertain—"we'd been hunting up in Kashmir. Martin wanted to come over somewhere here. So we crossed the passes. That was about a month ago. The fourth day out we ran across what looked like a road running south.
"We thought we'd take it. It looked sort of old and lost—but it was going the way we wanted to go. It took us first into a country of little hills; then to the very base of the great range itself; finally into the mountains—and then it ran blank."
"Bing!" interjected Ventnor, looking around for a moment. "Bing—just like that. Slap dash against a prodigious fall of rock. We couldn't get over it."
"So we cast about to find another road," went on Ruth. "All we could strike were—just strikes."
"No fish on the end of 'em," said Ventnor. "God! But I'm glad to see you, Walter Goodwin. Believe me, I am. However—go on, Ruth."
"At the end of the second week," she said, "we knew we were lost. We were deep in the heart of the range. All around us was a forest of enormous, snow-topped peaks. The gorges, the canyons, the valleys that we tried led us east and west, north and south.
"It was a maze, and in it we seemed to be going ever deeper. There was not the SLIGHTEST sign of human life. It was as though no human beings except ourselves had ever been there. Game was plentiful. We had no trouble in getting food. And sooner or later, of course, we were bound to find our way out. We didn't worry.
"It was five nights ago that we camped at the head of a lovely little valley. There was a mound that stood up like a tiny watch-tower, looking down it. The trees grew round like tall sentinels.
"We built our fire in that mound; and after we had eaten, Martin slept. I sat watching the beauty of the skies and of the shadowy vale. I heard no one approach—but something made me leap to my feet, look behind me.
"A man was standing just within the glow of firelight, watching me."
"A Tibetan?" I asked. She shook her head, trouble in her eyes.
"Not at all." Ventnor turned his head. "Ruth screamed and awakened me. I caught a glimpse of the fellow before he vanished.
"A short purple mantle hung from his shoulders. His chest was covered with fine chain mail. His legs were swathed and bound by the thongs of his high buskins. He carried a small, round, hide-covered shield and a short two-edged sword. His head was helmeted. He belonged, in fact—oh, at least twenty centuries back."
He laughed in plain enjoyment of our amazement.
"Go on, Ruth," he said, and took up his watch.
"But Martin did not see his face," she went on. "And oh, but I wish I could forget it. It was as white as mine, Walter, and cruel, so cruel; the eyes glowed and they looked upon me like a—like a slave dealer. They shamed me—I wanted to hide myself.
"I cried out and Martin awakened. As he moved, the man stepped out of the light and was gone. I think he had not seen Martin; had believed that I was alone.
"We put out the fire, moved farther into the shadow of the trees. But I could not sleep—I sat hour after hour, my pistol in my hand," she patted the automatic in her belt, "my rifle close beside me.
"The hours went by—dreadfully. At last I dozed. When I awakened again it was dawn—and—and—" she covered her eyes, then: "TWO men were looking down on me. One was he who had stood in the firelight."
"They were talking," interrupted Ventnor again, "in archaic Persian."
"Persian," I repeated blankly; "archaic Persian?"
"Very much so," he nodded. "I've a fair knowledge of the modern tongue, and a rather unusual command of Arabic. The modern Persian, as you know, comes straight through from the speech of Xerxes, of Cyrus, of Darius whom Alexander of Macedon conquered. It has been changed mainly by taking on a load of Arabic words. Well—there wasn't a trace of the Arabic in the tongue they were speaking.
"It sounded odd, of course—but I could understand quite easily. They were talking about Ruth. To be explicit, they were discussing her with exceeding frankness—"
"Martin!" she cried wrathfully.
"Well, all right," he went on, half repentantly. "As a matter of fact, I had seen the pair steal up. My rifle was under my hand. So I lay there quietly, listening.
"You can realize, Walter, that when I caught sight of those two, looking as though they had materialized from Darius's ghostly hordes, my scientific curiosity was aroused—prodigiously. So in my interest I passed over the matter of their speech; not alone because I thought Ruth asleep but also because I took into consideration that the mode of polite expression changes with the centuries—and these gentlemen clearly belonged at least twenty centuries back—the real truth is I was consumed with curiosity.
"They had got to a point where they were detailing with what pleasure a certain mysterious person whom they seemed to regard with much fear and respect would contemplate her. I was wondering how long my desire to observe—for to the anthropologist they were most fascinating—could hold my hand back from my rifle when Ruth awakened.
"She jumped up like a little fury. Fired a pistol point blank at them. Their amazement was—well—ludicrous. I know it seems incredible, but they seemed to know nothing of firearms—they certainly acted as though they didn't.
"They simply flew into the timber. I took a pistol shot at one but missed. Ruth hadn't though; she had winged her man; he left a red trail behind him.
"We didn't follow the trail. We made for the opposite direction—and as fast as possible.
"Nothing happened that day or night. Next morning, creeping up a slope, we caught sight of a suspicious glitter a mile or two away in the direction we were going. We sought shelter in a small ravine. In a little while, over the hill and half a mile away from us, came about two hundred of these fellows, marching along.
"And they were indeed Darius's men. Men of that Persia which had been dead for millenniums. There was no mistaking them, with their high, covering shields, their great bows, their javelins and armor.
"They passed; we doubled. We built no fires that night—and we ought to have turned the pony loose, but we didn't. It carried my instruments, and ammunition, and I felt we were going to need the latter.
"The next morning we caught sight of another band—or the same. We turned again. We stole through a tree-covered plain; we struck an ancient road. It led south, into the peaks again. We followed it. It brought us here.
"It isn't, as you observe, the most comfortable of places. We struck across the hollow to the crevice—we knew nothing of the entrance you came through. The hollow was not pleasant, either. But it was penetrable, then.
"We crossed. As we were about to enter the cleft there issued out of it a most unusual and disconcerting chorus of sounds—wailings, crashings, splinterings."
I started, shot a look at Dick; absorbed, he was drinking in Ventnor's every word.
"So unusual, so—well, disconcerting is the best word I can think of, that we were not encouraged to proceed. Also the peculiar unpleasantness of the hollow was increasing rapidly.
"We made the best time we could back to the fortress. And when next we tried to go through the hollow, to search for another outlet—we couldn't. You know why," he ended abruptly.
"But men in ancient armor. Men like those of Darius." Dick broke the silence that had followed this amazing recital. "It's incredible!"
"Yes," agreed Ventnor, "isn't it. But there they were. Of course, I don't maintain that they WERE relics of Darius's armies. They might have been of Xerxes before him—or of Artaxerxes after him. But there they certainly were, Drake, living, breathing replicas of exceedingly ancient Persians.
"Why, they might have been the wall carvings on the tomb of Khosroes come to life. I mention Darius because he fits in with the most plausible hypothesis. When Alexander the Great smashed his empire he did it rather thoroughly. There wasn't much sympathy for the vanquished in those days. And it's entirely conceivable that a city or two in Alexander's way might have gathered up a fleeting regiment or so for protection and have decided not to wait for him, but to hunt for cover.
"Naturally, they would have gone into the almost inaccessible heart of the high ranges. There is nothing impossible in the theory that they found shelter at last up here. As long as history runs this has been a well-nigh unknown land. Penetrating some mountain-guarded, easily defended valley they might have decided to settle down for a time, have rebuilt a city, raised a government; laying low, in a sentence, waiting for the storm to blow over.
"Why did they stay? Well, they might have found the new life more pleasant than the old. And they might have been locked in their valley by some accident—landslides, rockfalls sealing up the entrance. There are a dozen reasonable possibilities."
"But those who hunted you weren't locked in," objected Drake.
"No," Ventnor grinned ruefully. "No, they certainly weren't. Maybe we drifted into their preserves by a way they don't know. Maybe they've found another way out. I'm sure I don't know. But I DO know what I saw."
"The noises, Martin," I said, for his description of these had been the description of those we had heard in the blue valley. "Have you heard them since?"
"Yes," he answered, hesitating oddly.
"And you think those—those soldiers you saw are still hunting for you?"
"Haven't a doubt of it," he replied more cheerfully. "They didn't look like chaps who would give up a hunt easily—at least not a hunt for such novel, interesting, and therefore desirable and delectable game as we must have appeared to them."
"Martin," I said decisively, "where's your pony? We'll try the hollow again, at once. There's Ruth—and we'd never be able to hold back such numbers as you've described."
"You feel strong enough to try it?"
CHAPTER IV. METAL WITH A BRAIN
The eagerness, the relief in his voice betrayed the tension, the anxiety which until now he had hidden so well; and hot shame burned me for my shrinking, my dread of again passing through that haunted vale.
"I certainly DO." I was once more master of myself. "Drake—don't you agree?"
"Sure," he replied. "Sure. I'll look after Ruth—er—I mean Miss Ventnor."
The glint of amusement in Ventnor's eyes at this faded abruptly; his face grew somber.
"Wait," he said. "I carried away some—some exhibits from the crevice of the noises, Goodwin."
"What kind of exhibits?" I asked, eagerly.
"Put 'em where they'd be safe," he continued. "I've an idea they're far more curious than our armored men—and of far more importance. At any rate, we must take them with us.
"Go with Ruth, you and Drake, and look at them. And bring them back with the pony. Then we'll make a start. A few minutes more probably won't make much difference—but hurry."
He turned back to his watch. Ordering Chiu-Ming to stay with him I followed Ruth and Drake down the ruined stairway. At the bottom she came to me, laid little hands on my shoulders.
"Walter," she breathed, "I'm frightened. I'm so frightened I'm afraid to tell even Mart. He doesn't like them, either, these little things you're going to see. He likes them so little that he's afraid to let me know how little he does like them."
"But what are they? What's to fear about them?" asked Drake.
"See what you think!" She led us slowly, almost reluctantly toward the rear of the fortress. "They lay in a little heap at the mouth of the cleft where we heard the noises. Martin picked them up and dropped them in a sack before we ran through the hollow.
"They're grotesque and they're almost CUTE, and they make me feel as though they were the tiniest tippy-tip of the claw of some incredibly large cat just stealing around the corner, a terrible cat, a cat as big as a mountain," she ended breathlessly.
We climbed through the crumbling masonry into a central, open court. Here a clear spring bubbled up in a ruined and choked stone basin; close to the ancient well was their pony, contentedly browsing in the thick grass that grew around it. From one of its hampers Ruth took a large cloth bag.
"To carry them," she said, and trembled.
We passed through what had once been a great door into another chamber larger than that we had just left; and it was in better preservation, the ceiling unbroken, the light dim after the blazing sun of the court. Near its center she halted us.
Before me ran a two-feet-wide ragged crack, splitting the floor and dropping down into black depths. Beyond was an expanse of smooth flagging, almost clear of debris.
Drake gave a low whistle. I followed his pointing finger. In the wall at the end whirled two enormous dragon shapes, cut in low relief. Their gigantic wings, their monstrous coils, covered the nearly unbroken surface, and these CHIMERAE were the shapes upon the upthrust blocks of the haunted roadway.
In Ruth's gaze I read a nameless fear, a half shuddering fascination.
But she was not looking at the cavern dragons.
Her gaze was fixed upon what at my first glance seemed to be a raised and patterned circle in the dust-covered floor. Not more than a foot in width, it shone wanly with a pale, metallic bluish luster, as though, I thought, it had been recently polished. Compared with the wall's tremendous winged figures this floor design was trivial, ludicrously insignificant. What could there be about it to stamp that dread upon Ruth's face?
I leaped the crevice; Dick joined me. Now I could see that the ring was not continuous. Its broken circle was made of sharply edged cubes about an inch in height, separated from each other with mathematical exactness by another inch of space. I counted them—there were nineteen.
Almost touching them with their bases were an equal number of pyramids, of tetrahedrons, as sharply angled and of similar length. They lay on their sides with tips pointing starlike to six spheres clustered like a conventionalized five petaled primrose in the exact center. Five of these spheres—the petals—were, I roughly calculated, about an inch and a half in diameter, the ball they enclosed larger by almost an inch.
So orderly was their arrangement, so much like a geometrical design nicely done by some clever child that I hesitated to disturb it. I bent, and stiffened, the first touch of dread upon me.
For within the ring, close to the clustering globes, was a miniature replica of the giant track in the poppied valley!
It stood out from the dust with the same hint of crushing force, the same die cut sharpness, the same METALLIC suggestion—and pointing toward the globes were the claw marks of the four spreading star points.
I reached down and picked up one of the pyramids. It seemed to cling to the rock; it was with effort that I wrenched it away. It gave to the touch a slight sensation of warmth—how can I describe it?—a warmth that was living.
I weighed it in my hand. It was oddly heavy, twice the weight, I should say, of platinum. I drew out a glass and examined it. Decidedly the pyramid was metallic, but of finest, almost silken texture—and I could not place it among any of the known metals. It certainly was none I had ever seen; yet it was as certainly metal. It was striated—slender filaments radiating from tiny, dully lustrous points within the polished surface.
And suddenly I had the weird feeling that each of these points was an eye, peering up at me, scrutinizing me. There came a startled cry from Dick.
"Look at the ring!"
The ring was in motion!
Faster the cubes moved; faster the circle revolved; the pyramids raised themselves, stood bolt upright on their square bases; the six rolling spheres touched them, joined the spinning, and with sleight-of-hand suddenness the ring drew together; its units coalesced, cubes and pyramids and globes threading with a curious suggestion of ferment.
With the same startling abruptness there stood erect, where but a moment before they had seethed, a little figure, grotesque; a weirdly humorous, a vaguely terrifying foot-high shape, squared and angled and pointed and ANIMATE—as though a child should build from nursery blocks a fantastic shape which abruptly is filled with throbbing life.
A troll from the kindergarten! A kobold of the toys!
Only for a second it stood, then began swiftly to change, melting with quicksilver quickness from one outline into another as square and triangle and spheres changed places. Their shiftings were like the transformations one sees within a kaleidoscope. And in each vanishing form was the suggestion of unfamiliar harmonies, of a subtle, a transcendental geometric art as though each swift shaping were a symbol, a WORD—
Euclid's problems given volition!
Geometry endowed with consciousness!
It ceased. Then the cubes drew one upon the other until they formed a pedestal nine inches high; up this pillar rolled the larger globe, balanced itself upon the top; the five spheres followed it, clustered like a ring just below it. The other cubes raced up, clicked two by two on the outer arc of each of the five balls; at the ends of these twin blocks a pyramid took its place, tipping each with a point.
The Lilliputian fantasy was now a pedestal of cubes surmounted by a ring of globes from which sprang a star of five arms.
The spheres began to revolve. Faster and faster they spun around the base of the crowning globe; the arms became a disc upon which tiny brilliant sparks appeared, clustered, vanished only to reappear in greater number.
The troll swept toward me. It GLIDED. The finger of panic touched me. I sprang aside, and swift as light it followed, seemed to poise itself to leap.
"Drop it!" It was Ruth's cry.
But, before I could let fall the pyramid I had forgotten was in my hand, the little figure touched me and a paralyzing shock ran through me. My fingers clenched, locked. I stood, muscle and nerve bound, unable to move.
The little figure paused. Its whirling disc shifted from the horizontal plane on which it spun. It was as though it cocked its head to look up at me—and again I had the sense of innumerable eyes peering at me. It did not seem menacing—its attitude was inquisitive, waiting; almost as though it had asked for something and wondered why I did not let it have it. The shock still held me rigid, although a tingle in every nerve told me of returning force.
The disc tilted back to place, bent toward me again. I heard a shout; heard a bullet strike the pigmy that now clearly menaced; heard the bullet ricochet without the slightest effect upon it. Dick leaped beside me, raised a foot and kicked at the thing. There was a flash of light and upon the instant he crashed down as though struck by a giant hand, lay sprawling and inert upon the floor.
There was a scream from Ruth; there was softly sibilant rustling all about her. I saw her leap the crevice, drop on her knees beside Drake.
There was movement on the flagging where she stood. A score or more of faintly shining, bluish shapes were marching there—pyramids and cubes and spheres like those forming the shape that stood before me. There was a curious sharp tang of ozone in the air, a perceptible tightening as of electrical tension.
They swept to the edge of the fissure, swam together, and there, hanging half over the gap was a bridge, half spanning it, a weird and fairy arch made up of alternate cube and angle. The shape at my feet disintegrated; resolved itself into units that raced over to the beckoning span.
At the hither side of the crack they clicked into place, even as had the others. Before me now was a bridge complete except for the one arc near the middle where an angled gap marred it.
I felt the little object I held pulse within my hand, striving to escape. I dropped it. The tiny shape swept to the bridge, ascended it—dropped into the gap.
The arch was complete—hanging in one flying span over the depths!
Upon it, over it, as though they had but awaited this completion, rolled the six globes. And as they dropped to the farther side the end of the bridge nearest me raised itself in air, curved itself like a scorpion's tail, drew itself into a closer circled arc, and dropped upon the floor beyond.
Again the sibilant rustling—and cubes and pyramids and spheres were gone.
Nerves tingling slowly back to life, mazed in absolute bewilderment, my gaze sought Drake. He was sitting up, feebly, his head supported by Ruth's hands.
"Goodwin!" he whispered. "What—what were they?"
"Metal," I said—it was the only word to which my whirling mind could cling—"metal—"
"Metal!" he echoed. "These things metal? Metal—ALIVE AND THINKING!"
Suddenly he was silent, his face a page on which, visibly, dread gathered slowly and ever deeper.
And as I looked at Ruth, white-faced, and at him, I knew that my own was as pallid, as terror-stricken as theirs.
"They were such LITTLE THINGS," muttered Drake. "Such little things—bits of metal—little globes and pyramids and cubes—just little THINGS."
"Babes! Only babes!" It was Ruth—"BABES!"
"Bits of metal"—Dick's gaze sought mine, held it—"and they looked for each other, they worked with each other—THINKINGLY, CONSCIOUSLY—they were deliberate, purposeful—little things—and with the force of a score of dynamos—living, THINKING—"
"Don't!" Ruth laid white hands over his eyes. "Don't—don't YOU be frightened!"
"Frightened?" he echoed. "I'M not afraid—yes, I AM afraid—"
He arose, stiffly—and stumbled toward me.
Afraid? Drake afraid. Well—so was I. Bitterly, TERRIBLY afraid.
For what we had beheld in the dusk of that dragoned, ruined chamber was outside all experience, beyond all knowledge or dream of science. Not their shapes—that was nothing. Not even that, being metal, they had moved.
But that being metal, they had moved consciously, thoughtfully, deliberately.
They were metal things with—MINDS!
That—that was the incredible, the terrifying thing. That—and their power.
Thor compressed within Hop-o'-my-thumb—and thinking. The lightnings incarnate in metal minacules—and thinking.
The inert, the immobile, given volition, movement, cognoscence—thinking.
Metal with a brain!
CHAPTER V. THE SMITING THING
Silently we looked at each other, and silently we passed out of the courtyard. The dread was heavy upon me. The twilight was stealing upon the close-clustered peaks. Another hour, and their amethyst-and-purple mantles would drop upon them; snowfields and glaciers sparkle out in irised beauty; nightfall.
As I gazed upon them I wondered to what secret place within their brooding immensities the little metal mysteries had fled. And to what myriads, it might be, of their kind? And these hidden hordes—of what shapes were they? Of what powers? Small like these, or—or—
Quick on the screen of my mind flashed two pictures, side by side—the little four-rayed print in the great dust of the crumbling ruin and its colossal twin on the breast of the poppied valley.
I turned aside, crept through the shattered portal and looked over the haunted hollow.
Unbelieving, I rubbed my eyes; then leaped to the very brim of the bowl.
A lark had risen from the roof of one of the shattered heaps and had flown caroling up into the shadowy sky.
A flock of the little willow warblers flung themselves across the valley, scolding and gossiping; a hare sat upright in the middle of the ancient roadway.
The valley itself lay serenely under the ambering light, smiling, peaceful—emptied of horror!
I dropped over the side, walked cautiously down the road up which but an hour or so before we had struggled so desperately; paced farther and farther with an increasing confidence and a growing wonder.
Gone was that soul of loneliness; vanished the whirlpool of despair that had striven to drag us down to death.
The bowl was nothing but a quiet, smiling lovely little hollow in the hills. I looked back. Even the ruins had lost their sinister shape; were time-worn, crumbling piles—nothing more.
I saw Ruth and Drake run out upon the ledge and beckon me; made my way back to them, running.
"It's all right," I shouted. "The place is all right."
I stumbled up the side; joined them.
"It's empty," I cried. "Get Martin and Chiu-Ming quick! While the way's open—"
A rifle-shot rang out above us; another and another. From the portal scampered Chiu-Ming, his robe tucked up about his knees.
"They come!" he gasped. "They come!"
There was a flashing of spears high up the winding mountain path. Down it was pouring an avalanche of men. I caught the glint of helmets and corselets. Those in the van were mounted, galloping two abreast upon sure-footed mountain ponies. Their short swords, lifted high, flickered.
After the horsemen swarmed foot soldiers, a forest of shining points and dully gleaming pikes above them. Clearly to us came their battlecries.
Again Ventnor's rifle cracked. One of the foremost riders went down; another stumbled over him, fell. The rush was checked for an instant, milling upon the road.
"Dick," I cried, "rush Ruth over to the tunnel mouth. We'll follow. We can hold them there. I'll get Martin. Chiu-Ming, after the pony, quick."
I pushed the two over the rim of the hollow. Side by side the Chinaman and I ran back through the gateway. I pointed to the animal and rushed back into the fortress.
"Quick, Mart!" I shouted up the shattered stairway. "We can get through the hollow. Ruth and Drake are on their way to the break we came through. Hurry!"
"All right. Just a minute," he called.
I heard him empty his magazine with almost machine-gun quickness. There was a short pause, and down the broken steps he leaped, gray eyes blazing.
"The pony?" He ran beside me toward the portal. "All my ammunition is on him."
"Chiu-Ming's taking care of that," I gasped.
We darted out of the gateway. A good five hundred yards away were Ruth and Drake, running straight to the green tunnel's mouth. Between them and us was Chiu-Ming urging on the pony.
As we sped after him I looked back. The horsemen had recovered, were now a scant half-mile from where the road swept past the fortress. I saw that with their swords the horsemen bore great bows. A little cloud of arrows sparkled from them; fell far short.
"Don't look back," grunted Ventnor. "Stretch yourself, Walter. There's a surprise coming. Hope to God I judged the time right."
We turned off the ruined way; raced over the sward.
"If it looks as though—we can't make it," he panted, "YOU beat it after the rest. I'll try to hold 'em until you get into the tunnel. Never do for 'em to get Ruth."
"Right." My own breathing was growing labored, "WE'LL hold them. Drake can take care of Ruth."
"Good boy," he said. "I wouldn't have asked you. It probably means death."
"Very well," I gasped, irritated. "But why borrow trouble?"
He reached out, touched me.
"You're right, Walter," he grinned. "It does—seem—like carrying coals—to Newcastle."
There was a thunderous booming behind us; a shattering crash. A cloud of smoke and dust hung over the northern end of the ruined fortress.
It lifted swiftly, and I saw that the whole side of the structure had fallen, littering the road with its fragments. Scattered prone among these were men and horses; others staggered, screaming. On the farther side of this stony dike our pursuers were held like rushing waters behind a sudden fallen tree.
"Timed to a second!" cried Ventnor. "Hold 'em for a while. Fuses and dynamite. Blew out the whole side, right on 'em, by the Lord!"
On we fled. Chiu-Ming was now well in advance; Ruth and Dick less than half a mile from the opening of the green tunnel. I saw Drake stop, raise his rifle, empty it before him, and, holding Ruth by the hand, race back toward us.
Even as he turned, the vine-screened entrance through which we had come, through which we had thought lay safety, streamed other armored men. We were outflanked.
"To the fissure!" shouted Ventnor. Drake heard, for he changed his course to the crevice at whose mouth Ruth had said the—Little Things—had lain.
After him streaked Chiu-Ming, urging on the pony. Shouting out of the tunnel, down over the lip of the bowl, leaped the soldiers. We dropped upon our knees, sent shot after shot into them. They fell back, hesitated. We sprang up, sped on.
All too short was the check, but once more we held them—and again.
Now Ruth and Dick were a scant fifty yards from the crevice. I saw him stop, push her from him toward it. She shook her head.
Now Chiu-Ming was with them. Ruth sprang to the pony, lifted from its back a rifle. Then into the mass of their pursuers Drake and she poured a fusillade. They huddled, wavered, broke for cover.
"A chance!" gasped Ventnor.
Behind us was a wolflike yelping. The first pack had re-formed; had crossed the barricade the dynamite had made; was rushing upon us.
I ran as I had never known I could. Over us whined the bullets from the covering guns. Close were we now to the mouth of the fissure. If we could but reach it. Close, close were our pursuers, too—the arrows closer.
"No use!" said Ventnor. "We can't make it. Meet 'em from the front. Drop—and shoot."
We threw ourselves down, facing them. There came a triumphant shouting. And in that strange sharpening of the senses that always goes hand in hand with deadly peril, that is indeed nature's summoning of every reserve to meet that peril, my eyes took them in with photographic nicety—the linked mail, lacquered blue and scarlet, of the horsemen; brown, padded armor of the footmen; their bows and javelins and short bronze swords, their pikes and shields; and under their round helmets their cruel, bearded faces—white as our own where the black beards did not cover them; their fierce and mocking eyes.
The springs of ancient Persia's long dead power, these. Men of Xerxes's ruthless, world-conquering hordes; the lustful, ravening wolves of Darius whom Alexander scattered—in this world of ours twenty centuries beyond their time!
Swiftly, accurately, even as I scanned them, we had been drilling into them. They advanced deliberately, heedless of their fallen. Their arrows had ceased to fly. I wondered why, for now we were well within their range. Had they orders to take us alive—at whatever cost to themselves?
"I've got only about ten cartridges left, Martin," I told him.
"We've saved Ruth anyway," he said. "Drake ought to be able to hold that hole in the wall. He's got lots of ammunition on the pony. But they've got us."
Another wild shouting; down swept the pack.
We leaped to our feet, sent our last bullets into them; stood ready, rifles clubbed to meet the rush. I heard Ruth scream—
What was the matter with the armored men? Why had they halted? What was it at which they were glaring over our heads? And why had the rifle fire of Ruth and Drake ceased so abruptly?
Simultaneously we turned.
Within the black background of the fissure stood a shape, an apparition, a woman—beautiful, awesome, incredible!
She was tall, standing there swathed from chin to feet in clinging veils of pale amber, she seemed taller even than tall Drake. Yet it was not her height that sent through me the thrill of awe, of half incredulous terror which, relaxing my grip, let my smoking rifle drop to earth; nor was it that about her proud head a cloud of shining tresses swirled and pennoned like a misty banner of woven copper flames—no, nor that through her veils her body gleamed faint radiance.
It was her eyes—her great, wide eyes whose clear depths were like pools of living star fires. They shone from her white face—not phosphorescent, not merely lucent and light reflecting, but as though they themselves were SOURCES of the cold white flames of far stars—and as calm as those stars themselves.
And in that face, although as yet I could distinguish nothing but the eyes, I sensed something unearthly.
"God!" whispered Ventnor. "What IS she?"
The woman stepped from the crevice. Not fifty feet from her were Ruth and Drake and Chiu-Ming, their rigid attitudes revealing the same shock of awe that had momentarily paralyzed me.
She looked at them, beckoned them. I saw the two walk toward her, Chiu-Ming hang back. The great eyes fell upon Ventnor and myself. She raised a hand, motioned us to approach.
I turned. There stood the host that had poured down the mountain road, horsemen, spearsmen, pikemen—a full thousand of them. At my right were the scattered company that had come from the tunnel entrance, threescore or more.
There seemed a spell upon them. They stood in silence, like automatons, only their fiercely staring eyes showing that they were alive.
"Quick," breathed Ventnor.
We ran toward her who had checked death even while its jaws were closing upon us.
Before we had gone half-way, as though our flight had broken whatever bonds had bound them, a clamor arose from the host; a wild shouting, a clanging of swords on shields. I shot a glance behind. They were in motion, advancing slowly, hesitatingly as yet—but I knew that soon that hesitation would pass; that they would sweep down upon us, engulf us.
"To the crevice," I shouted to Drake. He paid no heed to me, nor did Ruth—their gaze fastened upon the swathed woman.
Ventnor's hand shot out, gripped my shoulder, halted me. She had thrown up her head. The cloudy METALLIC hair billowed as though wind had blown it.
From the lifted throat came a low, a vibrant cry; harmonious, weirdly disquieting, golden and sweet—and laden with the eery, minor wailings of the blue valley's night, the dragoned chamber.
Before the cry had ceased there poured with incredible swiftness out of the crevice score upon score of the metal things. The fissures vomited them!
Globes and cubes and pyramids—not small like those of the ruins, but shapes all of four feet high, dully lustrous, and deep within that luster the myriads of tiny points of light like unwinking, staring eyes.
They swirled, eddied and formed a barricade between us and the armored men.
Down upon them poured a shower of arrows from the soldiers. I heard the shouts of their captains; they rushed. They had courage—those men—yes!
Again came the woman's cry—golden, peremptory.
Sphere and block and pyramid ran together, seemed to seethe. I had again that sense of a quicksilver melting. Up from them thrust a thick rectangular column. Eight feet in width and twenty feet high, it shaped itself. Out from its left side, from right side, sprang arms—fearful arms that grew and grew as globe and cube and angle raced up the column's side and clicked into place each upon, each after, the other. With magical quickness the arms lengthened.
Before us stood a monstrous shape; a geometric prodigy. A shining angled pillar that, though rigid, immobile, seemed to crouch, be instinct with living force striving to be unleashed.
Two great globes surmounted it—like the heads of some two-faced Janus of an alien world.
At the left and right the knobbed arms, now fully fifty feet in length, writhed, twisted, straightened; flexing themselves in grotesque imitation of a boxer. And at the end of each of the six arms the spheres were clustered thick, studded with the pyramids—again in gigantic, awful, parody of the spiked gloves of those ancient gladiators who fought for imperial Nero.
For an instant it stood here, preening, testing itself like an athlete—a chimera, amorphous yet weirdly symmetric—under the darkening sky, in the green of the hollow, the armored hosts frozen before it—
And then—it struck!
Out flashed two of the arms, with a glancing motion, with appalling force. They sliced into the close-packed forward ranks of the armored men; cut out of them two great gaps.
Sickened, I saw fragments of man and horse fly. Another arm javelined from its place like a flying snake, clicked at the end of another, became a hundred-foot chain which swirled like a flail through the huddling mass. Down upon a knot of the soldiers with a straight-forward blow drove a third arm, driving through them like a giant punch.
All that host which had driven us from the ruins threw down sword, spear, and pike; fled shrieking. The horsemen spurred their mounts, riding heedless over the footmen who fled with them.
The Smiting Thing seemed to watch them go with—AMUSEMENT!
Before they could cover a hundred yards it had disintegrated. I heard the little wailing sounds—then behind the fleeing men, close behind them, rose the angled pillar; into place sprang the flexing arms, and again it took its toll of them.
They scattered, running singly, by twos, in little groups, for the sides of the valley. They were like rats scampering in panic over the bottom of a great green bowl. And like a monstrous cat the shape played with them—yes, PLAYED.
It melted once more—took new form. Where had been pillar and flailing arms was now a tripod thirty feet high, its legs alternate globe and cube and upon its apex a wide and spinning ring of sparkling spheres. Out from the middle of this ring stretched a tentacle—writhing, undulating like a serpent of steel, four score yards at least in length.
At its end cube, globe and pyramid had mingled to form a huge trident. With the three long prongs of this trident the thing struck, swiftly, with fearful precision—JOYOUSLY—tining those who fled, forking them, tossing them from its points high in air.
It was, I think, that last touch of sheer horror, the playfulness of the Smiting Thing, that sent my dry tongue to the roof of my terror-parched mouth, and held open with monstrous fascination eyes that struggled to close.
Ever the armored men fled from it, and ever was it swifter than they, teetering at their heels on its tripod legs.
From half its length the darting snake streamed red rain.
I heard a sigh from Ruth; wrested my gaze from the hollow; turned. She lay fainting in Drake's arms.
Beside the two the swathed woman stood, looking out upon that slaughter, calm and still, shrouded with an unearthly tranquillity—viewing it, it came to me, with eyes impersonal, cold, indifferent as the untroubled stars which look down upon hurricane and earthquake in this world of ours.
There was a rushing of many feet at our left; a wail from Chiu-Ming. Were they maddened by fear, driven by despair, determined to slay before they themselves were slain? I do not know. But those who still lived of the men from the tunnel mouth were charging us.
They clustered close, their shields held before them. They had no bows, these men. They moved swiftly down upon us in silence—swords and pikes gleaming.
The Smiting Thing rocked toward us, the metal tentacle straining out like a rigid, racing serpent, flying to cut between its weird mistress and those who menaced her.
I heard Chiu-Ming scream; saw him throw up his hands, cover his eyes—run straight upon the pikes!
"Chiu-Ming!" I shouted. "Chiu-Ming! This way!"
I ran toward him. Before I had gone five paces Ventnor flashed by me, revolver spitting. I saw a spear thrown. It struck the Chinaman squarely in the breast. He tottered—fell upon his knees.
Even as he dropped, the giant flail swept down upon the soldiers. It swept through them like a scythe through ripe grain. It threw them, broken and torn, far toward the valley's sloping sides. It left only fragments that bore no semblance to men.
Ventnor was at Chiu-Ming's head; I dropped beside him. There was a crimson froth upon his lips.
"I thought that Shin-Je was about to slay us," he whispered. "Fear blinded me."
His head dropped; his body quivered, lay still.
We arose, looked about us dazedly. At the side of the crevice stood the woman, her gaze resting upon Drake, his arms about Ruth, her head hidden on his breast.
The valley was empty—save for the huddled heaps that dotted it.
High up on the mountain path a score of figures crept, all that were left of those who but a little before had streamed down to take us captive or to slay. High up in the darkening heavens the lammergeiers, the winged scavengers of the Himalayas, were gathering.
The woman lifted her hand, beckoned us once more. Slowly we walked toward her, stood before her. The great clear eyes searched us—but no more intently than our own wondering eyes did her.
CHAPTER VI. NORHALA OF THE LIGHTNINGS
We looked upon a vision of loveliness such, I think, as none has beheld since Trojan Helen was a maid. At first all I could note were the eyes, clear as rain-washed April skies, crystal clear as some secret spring sacred to crescented Diana. Their wide gray irises were flecked with golden amber and sapphire—flecks that shone like clusters of little aureate and azure stars.
Then with a strange thrill of wonder I saw that these tiny constellations were not in the irises alone; that they clustered even within the pupils—deep within them, like far-flung stars in the depths of velvety, midnight heavens.
Whence had come those cold fires that had flared from them, I wondered—more menacing, far more menacing, in their cold tranquillity than the hot flames of wrath? These eyes were not perilous—no. Calm they were and still—yet in them a shadow of interest flickered; a ghost of friendliness smiled.
Above them were level, delicately penciled brows of bronze. The lips were coral crimson and—asleep. Sweet were those lips as ever master painter, dreaming his dream of the very soul of woman's sweetness, saw in vision and limned upon his canvas—and asleep, nor wistful for awakening.
A proud, straight nose; a broad low brow, and over it the masses of the tendriling tresses—tawny, lustrous topaz, cloudy, METALLIC. Like spun silk of ruddy copper; and misty as the wisps of cloud that Soul'tze, Goddess of Sleep, sets in the skies of dawn to catch the wandering dreams of lovers.
Down from the wondrous face melted the rounded column of her throat to merge into exquisite curves of shoulders and breasts, half revealed beneath the swathing veils.
But upon that face, within her eyes, kissing her red lips and clothing her breasts, was something unearthly.
Something that came straight out of the still mysteries of the star-filled spaces; out of the ordered, the untroubled, the illimitable void.
A passionless spirit that watched over the human passion in the scarlet mouth, in every slumbering, sculptured line of her—guarding her against its awakening.
Twilight calm dropping down from the sun sleep to still the restless mountain tarn. Ishtar dreamlessly asleep within Nirvana.
Something not of this world we know—and yet of it as the winds of the Cosmos are to the summer breeze, the ocean to the wave, the lightnings to the glowworm.
"She isn't—human," I heard Ventnor whispering at my ear. "Look at her eyes; look at the skin of her—"
Her skin was white as milk of pearls; gossamer fine, silken and creamy; translucent as though a soft brilliancy dwelt within it. Beside it Ruth's fair skin was like some sun-and-wind-roughened country lass's to Titania's.
She studied us as though she were seeing for the first time beings of her own kind. She spoke—and her voice was elfin distant, chimingly sweet like hidden little golden bells; filled with that tranquil, far off spirit that was part of her—as though indeed a tiny golden chime should ring out from the silences, speak for them, find tongues for them. The words were hesitating, halting as though the lips that uttered them found speech strange—as strange as the clear eyes found our images.
And the words were Persian—purest, most ancient Persian.
"I am Norhala," the golden voice chimed forth, whispered down into silence. "I am Norhala."
She shook her head impatiently. A hand stole forth from beneath her veils, slender, long-fingered with nails like rosy pearls; above the wrist was coiled a golden dragon with wicked little crimson eyes. The slender white hand touched Ruth's head, turned it until the strange, flecked orbs looked directly into the misty ones of blue.
Long they gazed—and deep. Then she who had named herself Norhala thrust out a finger, touched the tear that hung upon Ruth's curled lashes, regarded it wonderingly.
Something of recognition, of memory, seemed to awaken within her.
"You are—troubled?" she asked with that halting effort.
Ruth shook her head.
"THEY—do not trouble you?"
She pointed to the huddled heaps strewing the hollow. And then I saw whence the light which had streamed from her great eyes came. For the little azure and golden stars paled, trembled, then flashed out like galaxies of tiny, clustered silver suns.
From that weird radiance Ruth shrank, affrighted.
"No—no," she gasped. "I weep for—HIM."
She pointed where Chiu-Ming lay, a brown blotch at the edge of the shattered men.
"For—him?" There was puzzlement in the faint voice. "For—that? But why?"
She looked at Chiu-Ming—and I knew that to her the sight of the crumpled form carried no recognition of the human, nothing of kin to her. There was a faint wonder in her eyes, no longer light-filled, when at last she turned back to us. Long she considered us.
"Now," she broke the silence, "now something stirs within me that it seems has long been sleeping. It bids me take you with me. Come!"
Abruptly she turned from us, glided to the crevice. We looked at each other, seeking council, decision.
"Chiu-Ming," Drake spoke. "We can't leave him like that. At least let's cover him from the vultures."
"Come." The woman had reached the mouth of the fissure.
"I'm afraid! Oh, Martin—I'm afraid." Ruth reached little trembling hands to her tall brother.
"Come!" Norhala called again. There was an echo of harshness, a clanging, peremptory and inexorable, in the chiming.
Ventnor shrugged his shoulders.
"Come, then," he said.
With one last look at the Chinese, the lammergeiers already circling about him, we walked to the crevice. Norhala waited, silent, brooding until we passed her; then glided behind us.
Before we had gone ten paces I saw that the place was no fissure. It was a tunnel, a passage hewn by human hands, its walls covered with the writhing dragon lines, its roof the mountain.
The swathed woman swept by us. Swiftly we followed her. Far, far ahead was a wan gleaming. It quivered, a faintly shimmering, ghostly curtain, a full mile away.
Now it was close; we passed through it and were out of the tunnel. Before us stretched a narrow gorge, a sword slash in the body of the towering giant under whose feet the tunnel crept. High above was the ribbon of the sky.
The sides were dark, but it came to me that here were no trees, no verdure of any kind. Its floor was strewn with boulders, fantastically shaped, almost indistinguishable in the fast closing dark.
Twin monoliths bulwarked the passage end; the gigantic stones were leaning, crumbling. Fissures radiated from the opening, like deep wrinkles in the rock, showing where earth warping, range pressure, had long been working to close this hewn way.
"Stop," Norhala's abrupt, golden note halted us; and again through the clear eyes I saw the white starshine flash.
"It may be well—" She spoke as though to herself. "It may be well to close this way. It is not needed—"
Her voice rang out again, vibrant, strangely disquieting, harmonious. Murmurous chanting it was at first, rhythmic and low; ripples and flutings, tones and progressions utterly unknown to me; unfamiliar, abrupt, and alien themes that kept returning, droppings of crystal-clear jewels of sound, golden tollings—and all ordered, mathematical, GEOMETRIC, even as had been the gestures of the shapes; Lilliputians of the ruins, Brobdignagian of the haunted hollow.
What was it? I had it—IT WAS THOSE GESTURES TRANSFORMED INTO SOUND!
There was a movement down by the tunnel mouth. It grew more rapid, seemed to vibrate with her song. Within the darkness there were little flashes; glimmerings of light began to come and go—like little awakenings of eyes of soft, jeweled flames, like giant gorgeous fireflies; flashes of cloudy amber, gleam of rose, sparkles of diamonds and of opals, of emeralds and of rubies—blinking, gleaming.
A shimmering mist drew down around them—a swift and swirling mist. It thickened, was shot with slender shuttled threads like cobweb, coruscating strands of light.
The shining threads grew thicker, pulsed, were spangled with tiny vivid sparklings. They ran together, condensed—and all this in an instant, in a tenth of the time it takes me to write it.
From fiery mist and gemmed flashes came bolt upon bolt of lightning. The cliff face leaped out, a cataract of green flame. The fissures widened, the monoliths trembled, fell.
In the wake of that dazzling brilliancy came utter blackness. I opened my blinded eyes; slowly the flecks of green fire cleared. A faint lambency still clung to the cliff. By it I saw that the tunnel's mouth had vanished, had been sealed—where it had gaped were only tons of shattered rock.
Came a rushing past us as of great bodies; something grazed my hand, something whose touch was like that of warm metal—but metal throbbing with life. They rushed by—and whispered down into silence.
"Come!" Norhala flitted ahead of us, a faintly luminous shape in the darkness. Swiftly we followed. I found Ruth beside me; felt her hand grip my wrist.
"Walter," she whispered, "Walter—she isn't human!"
"Nonsense," I muttered. "Nonsense, Ruth. What do you think she is—a goddess, a spirit of the Himalayas? She's as human as you or I."
"No." Even in the darkness I could sense the stubborn shake of her curly head. "Not all human. Or how could she have commanded those things? Or have summoned the lightnings that blasted the tunnel's mouth? And her skin and hair—they're too WONDERFUL, Walter.
"Why, she makes me look—look coarse. And the light that hovers about her—why, it is by that light we are making our way. And when she touched me—I—I glowed—all through.
"Human, yes—but there is something else in her—something stronger than humanness, something that—makes it sleep!" she added astonishingly.
The ground was level as a dancing floor. We followed the enigmatic glow—emanation, it seemed to me—from Norhala which was as a light for us to follow within the darkness. The high ribbon of sky had vanished—seemed to be overcast, for I could see no stars.
Within the darkness I began again to sense faint movement; soft stirring all about us. I had the feeling that on each side and behind us moved an invisible host.
"There's something moving all about us—going with us," Ruth echoed my thought.
"It's the wind," I said, and paused—for there was no wind.
From the blackness before us came a succession of curious, muffled clickings, like a smothered mitrailleuse. The luminescence that clothed Norhala brightened, deepening the darkness.
She pointed into the void ahead; then, as we started forward, thrust out a hand to Ruth, held her back. Drake and Ventnor drew close to them, questioningly, anxious. But I stepped forward, out of the dim gleaming.
Before me were two cubes; one I judged in that uncertain light to be six feet high, the other half its bulk. From them a shaft of pale-blue phosphorescence pierced the murk. They stood, the smaller pressed against the side of the larger, for all the world like a pair of immense nursery blocks, placed like steps by some giant child.
As my eyes swept over them, I saw that the shining shaft was an unbroken span of cubes; not multi-arched like the Lilliputian bridge of the dragon chamber, but flat and running out over an abyss that gaped at my very feet. All of a hundred feet they stretched; a slender, lustrous girder crossing unguessed depths of gloom. From far, far below came the faint whisper of rushing waters.
I faltered. For these were the blocks that had formed the body of the monster of the hollow, its flailing arms. The thing that had played so murderously with the armored men.
And now had shaped itself into this anchored, quiescent bridge.
"Do not fear." It was the woman speaking, softly, as one would reassure a child. "Ascend. Cross. They obey me."
I stepped firmly upon the first block, climbed to the second. The span stretched, sharp edged, smooth, only a slender, shimmering line revealing where each great cube held fast to the other.