The Metal Monster, by Abraham Merritt

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.

“Cross!”

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.

I walked at first slowly, then with ever-increasing confidence, for up from the surface streamed a guiding, a holding force, that was like a host of little invisible hands, steadying me, keeping firm my feet. I looked down; the myriads of enigmatic eyes were staring, staring up at me from deep within. They fascinated me; I felt my pace slowing; a vertigo seized me. Resolutely I dragged my gaze up and ahead; marched on.

From the depths came more clearly the sound of the waters. Now there were but a few feet more of the bridge before me. I reached its end, dropped my feet over, felt them touch a smaller cube, and descended.

Over the span came Ventnor. He was leading his laden pony. He had bandaged its eyes so that it could not look upon the narrow way it was treading. And close behind, a band resting reassuringly upon its flank, strode Drake, swinging along carelessly. The little beast ambled along serenely, sure-footed as all its mountain kind, and docile to darkness and guidance.

Then, an arm about Ruth, floated Norhala. Now she was beside us; dropped her arm from Ruth; glided past us. On for a hundred yards or more we went, and then she drew us a little toward the unseen canyon wall.

She stood before us, shielding us. One golden call she sent.

I looked back into the darkness. Something like an enormous, dimly shimmering rod was raising itself. Higher it rose and higher. Now it stood, upright, a slender towering pillar, a gigantic slim figure whose tip pointed a full hundred feet in the air.

Then slowly it inclined itself toward us; drew closer, closer to the ground; touched and lay there for an instant inert. Abruptly it vanished.

But well I knew what I had seen. The span over which we had passed had raised itself even as had the baby bridge of the fortress; had lifted itself across the chasm and dropping itself upon the hither verge had disintegrated into its units; was following us.

A bridge of metal that could build itself — and break itself. A thinking, conscious metal bridge! A metal bridge with volition — with mind — that was following us.

There sighed from behind a soft, sustained wailing; rapidly it neared us. A wanly glimmering shape drew by; halted. It was like a rigid serpent cut from a gigantic square bar of cold blue steel.

Its head was a pyramid, a tetrahedron; its length vanished in the further darkness. The head raised itself, the blocks that formed its neck separating into open wedges like a Brobdignagian replica of those jointed, fantastic, little painted reptiles the Japanese toy-makers cut from wood.

It seemed to regard us — mockingly. The pointed head dropped — past us streamed the body. Upon it other pyramids clustered — like the spikes that guarded the back of the nightmare Brontosaurus. Its end came swiftly into sight — its tail another pyramid twin to its head.

It FLIRTED by — gaily; vanished.

I had thought the span must disintegrate to follow — and it did not need to! It could move as a COMPOSITE as well as in UNITS. Move intelligently, consciously — as the Smiting Thing had moved.

“Come!” Norhala’s command checked my thoughts; we fell in behind her. Looking up I caught the friendly sparkle of a star; knew the cleft was widening.

The star points grew thicker. We stepped out into a valley small as that hollow from which we had fled; ringed like it with heaven-touching summits. I could see clearly. The place was suffused with a soft radiance as though into it the far, bright stars were pouring all their rays, filling it as a cup with their pale flames.

It was luminous as the Alaskan valleys when on white arctic nights they are lighted, the Athabascans believe, by the gleaming spears of hunting gods. The walls of the valley seemed to be drawn back into infinite distances.

The shimmering mists that had nimbused Norhala had vanished — or merging into the wan gleaming had become one with it.

I stared straight at her, striving to clarify in my own clouded thought what it was that I had sensed as inhuman — never of OUR world or its peoples. Yet this conviction came not because of the light that had hovered about her, nor of her summonings of the lightnings; nor even of her control of those — things — which had smitten the armored men and spanned for us the abyss.

All of that I was certain lay in the domain of the explicable, could be resolved into normality once the basic facts were gained.

Suddenly, I knew. Side by side with what we term the human there dwelt within this woman an actual consciousness foreign to earth, passionless, at least as we know passion, ordered, mathematical — an emanation of the eternal law which guides the circling stars.

This it was that had moved in the gestures which had evoked the lightnings. This it was that had spoken in the song which were those gestures transformed into sound. This it was that something greater than my consciousness knew and accepted.

Something which shared, no — that reigned, serene and untroubled, upon the throne of her mind; something utterly UNCOMPREHENDING, utterly unconscious OF, cosmically blind TO all human emotion; that spread itself like a veil over her own consciousness; that PLATED her thought — that was a strange word — why had it come to me — something that had set its mark upon her like — like — the gigantic claw print on the poppied field, the little print of the dragoned hall.

I caught at my mind, whirling I thought then in the grip of fantasy; strove by taking minute note of her to bring myself back to normal.

Her veils had slipped from her, baring her neck, her arms, the right shoulder. Under the smooth throat a buckle of dull gold held the sheer, diaphanous folds of the pale amber silk which swathed the high and rounded breasts, hiding no goddess curve of them.

A wide and golden girdle clasped the waist, covered the rounded hips and thighs. The long, narrow, and high-arched feet were shod with golden sandals, laced just below the rounded knees with flat turquoise studded bands.

And shining through the amber folds, as glowing above them, the miracle of her body.

The dream of master sculptor given life. A goddess of earth’s youth reborn in Himalayan wilds.

She raised her eyes; broke the long silence.

“Now being with you,” she said dreamily, “there waken within me old thoughts, old wisdom, old questioning — all that I had forgotten and thought forgotten forever —”

The golden voice died — she who had spoken was gone from us, like the fading out of a phantom; like the breaking of a film.

A flicker shot over the skies, another and another. A brilliant ray of intense green like that of a distant searchlight swept to the zenith, hung for a moment and withdrew. Up came pouring the lances and the streamers of the aurora; faster and faster, banners and slender shining spears of green and iridescent blues and smoky, glistening reds.

The valley sprang into full view.

I felt Ventnor’s grip upon my wrist. I followed his pointing finger. Into the valley from the right ran a black spur of rock, half a mile from us, fifty feet high.

Upon its crest stood — Norhala!

Her arms were lifted to the sparkling sky; her braids were loosened — and as the fires of the aurora rose and fell, raced and were still, the silken cloud of her tresses swirled and eddied with them. Little clouds of coruscations danced gaily like fireflies about and through it.

And all her bared body was outlined in living light, glowed and throbbed with light — light filled her like a vessel, she bathed in it. She thrust arms through the streaming, flaming locks; held them out from her, prisoned. She swayed slowly, rhythmically; like a faint, golden chiming came the echo of her song.

Abruptly around her, half circling her on the black spur, gleamed myriads of gem fires. Flares and flames of pale emerald, steady glowing of flame rubies, glints and lambencies of deepest sapphire, of wan sapphire, flickering opalescences, irised glitterings. A moment they gleamed. Then from them came bolt upon bolt of lightning — lightning that darted upon the lovely shape swaying there; lightnings that fell upon her, broke and dashed, cascading, from her radiant body.

The lightnings bathed her — she bathed in them.

The skies were covered by a swift mist. The aurora was veiled.

The valley filled with a palely shimmering radiance which dropped like veils upon it, hiding all within it. Hiding within fold upon luminous fold — Norhala!

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