The Metal Monster, by Abraham Merritt

Chapter XVIII

Into the Pit

High was the sun when I awakened; or so, I supposed, opening my eyes upon a flood of daylight. As I lay, lazily, recollection rushed upon me.

It was no sky into which I was gazing; it was the dome of Norhala’s elfin home. And Drake had not aroused me. Why? And how long had I slept?

I jumped to my feet, stared about. Ruth nor Drake nor the black eunuch was there!

“Ruth!” I shouted. “Drake!”

There was no answer. I ran to the doorway. Peering up into the white vault of the heavens I set the time of day as close to seven; I had slept then three hours, more or less. Yet short as that time of slumber had been, I felt marvelously refreshed, reenergized; the effect, I was certain, of the extraordinarily tonic qualities of the atmosphere of this place. But where were the others? Where Yuruk?

I heard Ruth’s laughter. Some hundred yards to the left, half hidden by a screen of flowering shrubs, I saw a small meadow. Within it a half-dozen little white goats nuzzled around her and Dick. She was milking one of them.

Reassured, I drew back into the chamber, knelt over Ventnor. His condition was unchanged. My gaze fell upon the pool that had been Norhala’s bath. Longingly I looked at it; then satisfying myself that the milking process was not finished, slipped off my clothes and splashed about.

I had just time to get back in my clothes when through the doorway came the pair, each carrying a porcelain pannikin full of milk.

There was no shadow of fear or horror on her face. It was the old Ruth who stood before me; nor was there effort in the smile she gave me. She had been washed clean in the waters of sleep.

“Don’t worry, Walter,” she said. “I know what you’re thinking. But I’m — ME again.”

“Where is Yuruk?” I turned to Drake bruskly to smother the sob of sheer happiness I felt rising in my throat; and at his wink and warning grimace abruptly forebore to press the question.

“You men pick out the things and I’ll get breakfast ready,” said Ruth.

Drake picked up the teakettle and motioned me before him.

“About Yuruk,” he whispered when he had gotten outside. “I gave him a little object lesson. Persuaded him to go down the line a bit, showed him my pistol, and then picked off one of Norhala’s goats with it. Hated to do it, but I knew it would be good for his soul.

“He gave one screech and fell on his face and groveled. Thought it was a lightning bolt, I figure; decided I had been stealing Norhala’s stuff. ‘Yuruk,’ I told him, ‘that’s what you’ll get, and worse, if you lay a finger on that girl inside there.’”

“And then what happened?” I asked.

“He beat it back there.” He grinned, pointing toward the forest through which ran the path the eunuch had shown me. “Probably hiding back of a tree.”

As we filled the container at the outer spring, I told him of the revelations and the offer Yuruk had made to me.

“Whew-w!” he whistled. “In the nutcracker, eh? Trouble behind us and trouble in front of us.”

“When do we start?” he asked, as we turned back.

“Right after we’ve eaten,” I answered. “There’s no use putting it off. How do you feel about it?”

“Frankly, like the chief guest at a lynching party,” he said. “Curious but none too cheerful.”

Nor was I. I was filled with a fever of scientific curiosity. But I was not cheerful — no!

We ministered to Ventnor as well as we could; forcing open his set jaws, thrusting a thin rubber tube down past his windpipe into his gullet and dropping through it a few ounces of the goat milk. Our own breakfasting was silent enough.

We could not take Ruth with us upon our journey; that was certain; she must stay here with her brother. She would be safer in Norhala’s home than where we were going, of course, and yet to leave her was most distressing. After all, I wondered, was there any need of both of us taking the journey; would not one do just as well?

Drake could stay —

“No use of putting all our eggs in one basket,” I broached the subject. “I’ll go down by myself while you stay and help Ruth. You can always follow if I don’t turn up in a reasonable time.”

His indignation at this proposal was matched only by her own.

“You’ll go with him, Dick Drake,” she cried, “or I’ll never look at or speak to you again!”

“Good Lord! Did you think for a minute I wouldn’t?” Pain and wrath struggled on his face. “We go together or neither of us goes. Ruth will be all right here, Goodwin. The only thing she has any cause to fear is Yuruk — and he’s had his lesson.

“Besides, she’ll have the rifles and her pistols, and she knows how to use them. What d’ye mean by making such a proposition as that?” His indignation burst all bounds.

Lamely I tried to justify myself.

“I’ll be all right,” said Ruth. “I’m not afraid of Yuruk. And none of these Things will hurt me — not after — not after —” Her eyes fell, her lips quivered, then she faced us steadily. “Don’t ask me how I know that,” she said quietly. “Believe me, I do know it. I am closer to — them than you two are. And if I choose I can call upon that alien strength their master gave me. It is for you two that I fear.”

“No fear for us,” Drake burst out hastily. “We’re Norhala’s little playthings. We’re tabu. Take it from me, Ruth, I’d bet my head there isn’t one of these Things, great or small, and no matter how many, that doesn’t by this time know all about us.

“We’ll probably be received with demonstrations of interest by the populace as welcome guests. Probably we’ll find a sign —‘Welcome to our City’— hung up over the front gate.”

She smiled, a trifle tremulously.

“We’ll come back,” he said. Suddenly he leaned forward, put his hands on her shoulders. “Do you think there is anything that could keep me from coming back?” he whispered.

She trembled, wide eyes searching deep into his.

“Well,” I broke in, a bit uncomfortably, “we’d better be starting. I think as Drake does, that we’re tabu. Barring accident there’s no danger. And if I guess right about these Things, accident is impossible.”

“As inconceivable as the multiplication table going wrong,” he laughed, straightening.

And so we made ready. Our rifles would be worse than useless, we knew; our pistols we decided to carry as Drake put it, “for comfort.” Canteens filled with water; a couple of emergency rations, a few instruments, including a small spectroscope, a selection from the medical kit — all these packed in a little haversack which he threw over his broad shoulders.

I pocketed my compact but exceedingly powerful field-glasses. To my poignant and everlasting regret my camera had been upon the bolting pony, and Ventnor had long been out of films for his.

We were ready for our journey.

Our path led straight away, a smooth and dark-gray road whose surface resembled cement packed under enormous pressure. It was all of fifty feet wide and now, in daylight, glistened faintly as though overlaid with some vitreous coating. It narrowed abruptly into a wedged way that stopped at the threshold of Norhala’s door.

Diminishing through the distance, it stretched straight as an arrow onward and vanished between perpendicular cliffs which formed the frowning gateway through which the night before we had passed upon the coursing cubes from the pit of the city. Here, as then, a mistiness checked the gaze.

Ruth with us, we made a brief inspection of the surroundings of Norhala’s house. It was set as though in the narrowest portion of an hour-glass. The precipitous walls marched inward from the gateway forming the lower half of the figure; at the back they swung apart at a wider angle.

This upper part of the hour-glass was filled with a park-like forest. It was closed, perhaps twenty miles away, by a barrier of cliffs.

How, I wondered, did the path which Yuruk had pointed out to me pierce them? Was it by pass or tunnel; and why was it the armored men had not found and followed it?

The waist between these two mountain wedges was a valley not more than a mile wide. Norhala’s house stood in its center; and it was like a garden, dotted with flowering and fragrant lilies and here and there a tiny green meadow. The great globe of blue that was Norhala’s dwelling seemed less to rest upon the ground than to emerge from it; as though its basic curvatures were hidden in the earth.

What was its substance I could not tell. It was as though built of the lacquer of the gems whose colors it held. And beautiful, wondrously, incredibly beautiful it was — an immense bubble of froth of molten sapphires and turquoises.

We had not time to study its beauties. A few last instructions to Ruth, and we set forth down the gray road. Hardly had we taken a few steps when there came a faint cry from her.

“Dick! Dick — come here!”

He sprang to her, caught her hands in his. For a moment, half frightened it seemed, she considered him.

“Dick,” I heard her whisper. “Dick — come back safe to me!”

I saw his arms close about her, hers tighten around his neck; black hair touched the silken brown curls, their lips met, clung. I turned away.

In a little time he joined me; head down, silent, he strode along beside me, utterly dejected.

A hundred more yards and we turned. Ruth was still standing on the threshold of the house of mystery, watching us. She waved her hands, flitted in, was hidden from us. And Drake still silent, we pushed on.

The walls of the gateway were close. The sparse vegetation along the base of the cliffs had ceased; the roadway itself had merged into the smooth, bare floor of the canyon. From vertical edge to vertical edge of the rocky portal stretched a curtain of shimmering mist. As we drew nearer we saw that this was motionless, and less like vapor of water than vapor of light; it streamed in oddly fixed lines like atoms of crystals in a still solution. Drake thrust an arm within it, waved it; the mist did not move. It seemed instead to interpenetrate the arm — as though bone and flesh were spectral, without power to dislodge the shining particles from position.

We passed within it — side by side.

Instantly I knew that whatever these veils were, they were not moisture. The air we breathed was dry, electric. I was sensible of a decided stimulation, a pleasant tingling along every nerve, a gaiety almost light-headed. We could see each other quite plainly, the rocky floor on which we trod as well. Within this vapor of light there was no ghost of sound; it was utterly empty of it. I saw Drake turn to me, his mouth open in a laugh, his lips move in speech — and although he bent close to my ear, I heard nothing. He frowned, puzzled, and walked on.

Abruptly we stepped into an opening, a pocket of clear air. Our ears were filled with a high, shrill humming as unpleasantly vibrant as the shriek of a sand blast. Six feet to our right was the edge of the ledge on which we stood; beyond it was a sheer drop into space. A shaft piercing down into the void and walled with the mists.

But it was not that shaft that made us clutch each other. No! It was that through it uprose a colossal column of the cubes. It stood a hundred feet from us. Its top was another hundred feet above the level of our ledge and its length vanished in the depths.

And its head was a gigantic spinning wheel, yards in thickness, tapering at its point of contact with the cliff wall into a diameter half that of the side closest the column, gleaming with flashes of green flame and grinding with tremendous speed at the face of the rock.

Over it, attached to the cliff, was a great vizored hood of some pale yellow metal, and it was this shelter that cutting off the vaporous light like an enormous umbrella made the pocket of clarity in which we stood, the shaft up which sprang the pillar.

All along the length of that column as far as we could see the myriad tiny eyes of the Metal People shone out upon us, not twinkling mischievously, but — grotesque as this may seem, I cannot help it — wide with surprise.

Only an instant longer did the great wheel spin. I saw the screaming rock melting beneath it, dropping like lava. Then, as though it had received some message, abruptly its motion now ceased.

It tilted; looked down upon us!

I noted that its grinding surface was studded thickly with the smaller pyramids and that the tips of these were each capped with what seemed to be faceted gems gleaming with the same pale yellow radiance as the Shrine of the Cones.

The column was bending; the wheel approaching.

Drake seized me by the arm, drew me swiftly back into the mists. We were shrouded in their silences. Step by step we went on, peering for the edge of the shelf, feeling in fancy that prodigious wheeled face stealing upon us; afraid to look behind lest in looking we might step too close to the unseen verge.

Yard after yard we slowly covered. Suddenly the vapors thinned; we passed out of them —

A chaos of sound beat about us. The clanging of a million anvils; the clamor of a million forges; the crashing of a hundred years of thunder; the roarings of a thousand hurricanes. The prodigious bellowings of the Pit beating against us now as they had when we had flown down the long ramp into the depths of the Sea of Light.

Instinct with unthinkable power was that clamor; the very voice of Force. Stunned, nay BLINDED, by it, we covered ears and eyes.

As before, the clangor died, leaving in its wake a bewildered silence. Then that silence began to throb with a vast humming, and through that humming rang a murmur as that of a river of diamonds.

We opened our eyes, felt awe grip our throats as though a hand had clutched them.

Difficult, difficult almost beyond thought is it for me now to essay to draw in words the scene before us then. For although I can set down what it was we saw, I nor any man can transmute into phrases its essence, its spirit, the intangible wonder that was its synthesis — the appallingly beautiful, soul-shaking strangeness of it, its grandeur, its fantasy, and its alien terror.

The Domain of the Metal Monster — it was filled like a chalice with Its will; was the visible expression of that will.

We stood at the very rim of a wide ledge. We looked down into an immense pit, shaped into a perfect oval, thirty miles in length I judged, and half that as wide, and rimmed with colossal precipices. We were at the upper end of this deep valley and on the tip of its axis; I mean that it stretched longitudinally before us along the line of greatest length. Five hundred feet below was the pit’s floor. Gone were the clouds of light that had obscured it the night before; the air crystal clear; every detail standing out with stereoscopic sharpness.

First the eyes rested upon a broad band of fluorescent amethyst, ringing the entire rocky wall. It girdled the cliffs at a height of ten thousand feet, and from this flaming zone, as though it clutched them, fell the curtains of sparkling mist, the enigmatic, sound-slaying vapors.

But now I saw that all of these veils were not motionless like those through which we had just passed. To the northwest they were pulsing like the aurora, and like the aurora they were shot through with swift iridescences, spectrums, polychromatic gleamings. And always these were ordered, geometric — like immense and flitting prismatic crystals flying swiftly to the very edges of the veils, then darting as swiftly back.

From zone and veils the gaze leaped to the incredible City towering not two miles away from us.

Blue black, shining, sharply cut as though from polished steel, it reared full five thousand feet on high!

How great it was I could not tell, for the height of its precipitous walls barred the vision. The frowning facade turned toward us was, I estimated, five miles in length. Its colossal scarp struck the eyes like a blow; its shadow, falling upon us, checked the heart. It was overpowering — dreadful as that midnight city of Dis that Dante saw rising up from another pit.

It was a metal city, mountainous.

Featureless, smooth, the immense wall of it heaved heavenward. It should have been blind, that vast oblong face — but it was not blind. From it radiated alertness, vigilance. It seemed to gaze toward us as though every foot were manned with sentinels; guardians invisible to the eyes whose concentration of watchfulness was caught by some subtle hidden sense higher than sight.

It was a metal city, mountainous and — AWARE.

About its base were huge openings. Through and around these portals swirled hordes of the Metal People; in units and in combinations coming and going, streaming in and out, forming as they came and went patterns about the openings like the fretted spume of great breakers surging into, retreating from, ocean-bitten gaps in some iron-bound coast.

From the immensity of the City the eyes dropped back to the Pit in which it lay. Its floor was plaquelike, a great plane smooth as though turned by potter’s wheel, broken by no mound nor hillock, slope nor terrace; level, horizontal, flawlessly flat. On it was no green living thing — no tree nor bush, meadow nor covert.

It was alive with movement. A ferment that was as purposeful as it was mechanical, a ferment symmetrical, geometrical, supremely ordered —

The surging of the Metal Hordes.

There they moved beneath us, these enigmatic beings, in a countless host. They marched and countermarched in battalions, in regiments, in armies. Far to the south I glimpsed a company of colossal shapes like mobile, castellated and pyramidal mounts. They were circling, weaving about each other with incredible rapidity — like scores of great pyramids crowned with gigantic turrets and dancing. From these turrets came vivid flashes, lightning bright — on their wake the rolling echoes of faraway thunder.

Out of the north sped a squadron of obelisks from whose tops flamed and flared the immense spinning wheels, appearing at this distance like fiery whirling disks.

Up from their setting the Metal People lifted themselves in a thousand incredible shapes, shapes squared and globed and spiked and shifting swiftly into other thousands as incredible. I saw a mass of them draw themselves up into the likeness of a tent skyscraper high; hang so for an instant, then writhe into a monstrous chimera of a dozen towering legs that strode away like a gigantic headless and bodiless tarantula in steps two hundred feet long. I watched mile-long lines of them shape and reshape into circles, into interlaced lozenges and pentagons — then lift in great columns and shoot through the air in unimaginable barrage.

Through all this incessant movement I sensed plainly purpose, knew that it was definite activity toward a definite end, caught the clear suggestion of drill, of maneuver.

And when the shiftings of the Metal Hordes permitted we saw that all the flat floor of the valley was stripped and checkered, stippled and tessellated with every color, patterned with enormous lozenges and squares, rhomboids and parallelograms, pentagons and hexagons and diamonds, lunettes, circles and spirals; harlequined yet harmonious; instinct with a grotesque suggestion of a super-Futurism.

But always this patterning was ordered, always COHERENT. As though it were a page on which was spelled some untranslatable other world message.

Fourth Dimensional revelations by some Euclidean deity! Commandments traced by some mathematical God!

Looping across the vale, emerging from the sparkling folds of the southernmost curtainings and vanishing into the gleaming veils of the easternmost, ran a broad ribbon of pale-green jade; not straightly but with manifold convolutions and flourishes. It was like a sentence in Arabic.

It was margined with sapphire blue. All along its twisting course two broad bands of jet margined the cerulean shore. It was spanned by scores of flashing crystal arches. Nor were these bridges — even from that distance I knew they were no bridges. From them came the crystalline murmurings.

Jade? This stream jade? If so then it must be in truth molten, for I caught its swift and polished rushing! It was no jade. It was in truth a river; a river running like a writing across a patterned plane.

I looked upward — up to the circling peaks. They were a stupendous coronet thrusting miles deep into the dazzling sky. I raised my glasses, swept them. In color they were an immense and variegated flower with countless multiform petals of stone; in outline they were a ring of fortresses built by fantastic unknown Gods.

Up they thrust — domed and arched, spired and horned, pyramided, fanged and needled. Here were palisades of burning orange with barbicans of incandescent bronze; there aiguilles of azure rising from bastions of cinnabar red; turrets of royal purple, obelisks of indigo; titanic forts whose walls were splashed with vermilion, with citron yellows and with rust of rubies; watch towers of flaming scarlet.

Scattered among them were the flashing emeralds of the glaciers and the immense pallid baroques of the snow fields.

Like a diadem the summits ringed the Pit. Below them ran the ring of flashing amethyst with its aural mists. Between them lay the vast and patterned flat covered with still symbol and inexplicable movement. Under their summits brooded the blue black, metallic mass of the Seeing City.

Within circling walls, over plain and from the City hovered a cosmic spirit not to be understood by man. Like an emanation of stars and space, it was yet gem fine and gem hard, crystalline and metallic, lapidescent and —

Conscious!

Down from the ledge where we stood fell a steep ramp, similar to that by which, in the darkness, we had descended. It dropped at an angle of at least forty-five degrees; its surface was smooth and polished.

Through the mists at our back stole a shining block. It paused, seemed to perk itself; spun so that in turn each of its six faces took us in.

I felt myself lifted upon it by multitudes of little invisible hands; saw Drake whirling up beside me. I moved toward him — through the force that held us. A block swept away from the ledge, swayed for a moment. Under us, as though we were floating in air, the Pit lay stretched. There was a rapid readjustment, a shifting of our two selves upon another surface. I looked down upon a tremendous, slender pillar of the cubes, dropping below, five hundred feet to the valley’s floor a column of which the block that held us was the top.

Gone was the whirling wheel that had crowned it, but I knew this for the Grinding Thing from which we had fled; the questing block had been its scout. As though curious to know more of us, the Shape had sought us out through the mists, its messenger had caught us, delivered us to it.

The pillar leaned over — bent like that shining pillar that had bridged for us, at Norhala’s commands, the abyss. The floor of the valley arose to meet us. Further and further leaned the pillar. Again there was a rapid shifting of us to another surface of the crowning cube. Fast now swept up toward us the valley floor. A dizziness clouded my sight. There was a little shock, a rolling over the Thing that had held us —

We stood upon the floor of the Pit.

And breaking from the immense and prostrate shaft on whose top we had ridden downward came score upon score of the cubes. They broke from it, disintegrating it; circled about us, curiously, interestedly, twinkling at us from their deep sparkling points of eyes.

Helplessly we gazed at those who circled around us. Then suddenly I felt myself lifted once more, was tossed to the surface of the nearest block. Upon it I spun while the tiny eyes searched me. Then like a human ball it tossed me to another. I caught a glimpse of Drake’s tall figure drifting through the air.

The play became more rapid, breathtaking. It was play; I recognized that. But it was perilous play for us. I felt myself as fragile as a doll of glass in the hands of careless children.

I was tossed to a waiting cube. On the ground, not ten feet from me, was Drake, swaying dizzily. Suddenly the cube that held me tightened its grip; tightened it so that it drew me irresistibly flat down upon its surface. Before I dropped, Drake’s body leaped toward me as though drawn by a lasso. He fell at my side.

Then pursued by scores of the Things and like some mischievous boy bearing off the spoils, the block that held us raced away, straight for an open portal. A blaze of incandescent blue flame blinded me; again as the dazzlement faded I saw Drake beside me — a skeleton form. Swiftly flesh melted back upon him, clothed him.

The cube stopped, abruptly; the hosts of little unseen hands raised us, slid us gently over its edge, set us upright beside it. And it sped away.

All about us stretched another of those vast halls in which on high burned the pale-gilt suns. Between its colossal columns streamed thousands of the Metal Folk; no longer hurriedly, but quietly, deliberately, sedately.

We were within the City — even as Ventnor had commanded.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 23:09