Dwellers in the Mirage, by Abraham Merritt

Chapter III.

Ritual of Khalk’ru

The stallion settled down to a steady, swinging lope. He carried my weight easily. About an hour from dusk we were over the edge of the desert. At our right loomed a low range of red sandstone hills Close ahead was a defile. We rode into it, and picked our way through it. In about half an hour we emerged into a boulder-strewn region, upon what had once been a wide road. The road stretched straight ahead of us to the north-east, toward another and higher range of red sandstone, perhaps five miles away. This we reached just as night began, and here my guide halted, saying that we would encamp until dawn. Some twenty of the troop dismounted; the rest rode on.

Those who remained waited, looking at me, plainly expectant. I wondered what I was supposed to do; then, noticing that the stallion had been sweating, I called for something to rub him down, and for food and water for him. This, apparently, was what had been looked for. The captain himself brought me the cloths, grain and water while the men whispered. After the horse was cooled down, I fed him. I then asked for blankets to put on him, for the nights were cold. When I had finished I found that supper had been prepared. I sat beside a fire with the leader. I was hungry, and, as usual when it was possible, I ate voraciously. I asked few questions, and most of these were answered so evasively, with such obvious reluctance, that I soon asked none. When the supper was over, I was sleepy. I said so. I was given blankets, and walked over to the stallion. I spread my blankets beside him, dropped, and rolled myself up.

The stallion bent his head, nosed me gently, blew a long breath down my neck, and lay down carefully beside me. I shifted so that I could rest my head on his neck. I heard excited whispering among the Uighurs. I went to sleep.

At dawn I was awakened. Breakfast was ready. We set out again on the ancient road. It ran along the hills, skirting the bed of what had long ago been a large river. For some time the eastern hills protected us from the sun. When it began to strike directly down upon us, we rested under the shadow of some immense rocks. By mid-aftemoon we were once more on our way. Shortly before sun-down, we crossed the dry river bed over what had once been a massive bridge. We passed into another defile through which the long-gone stream had flowed, and just at dusk reached its end.

Each side of the end of the shallow gorge was commanded by stone forts. They were manned by dozens of the Uighurs. They shouted as we drew near, and again I heard the word “Dwayanu” repeated again and again.

The heavy gates of the right-hand fort swung open. We went through, into a passage under the thick wall. We trotted across a wide enclosure. We passed out of it through similar gates.

I looked upon an oasis hemmed in by the bare mountains. It had once been the site of a fair-sized city, for ruins dotted it everywhere. What had possibly been the sources of the river had dwindled to a brook which sunk into the sands not far from where I stood. At the right of this brook there was vegetation and trees; to the left of it was a desolation. The road passed through the oasis and ran on across this barren. It stopped at, or entered, a huge square-cut opening in the rock wall more than a mile away, an opening that was like a door in that mountain, or like the entrance to some gigantic Egyptian tomb.

We rode straight down into the fertile side. There were hundreds of the ancient stone buildings here, and fair attempts had been made to keep some in repair. Even so, their ancientness struck against my nerves. There were tents among the trees also. And out of the buildings and tents were pouring Uighurs, men, women and children. There must have been a thousand of the warriors alone. Unlike the men at the guardhouses, these watched me in awed silence as I passed.

We halted in front of a time-bitten pile that might have been a palace — five thousand years or twice that ago. Or a temple. A colonnade of squat, square columns ran across its front. Heavier ones stood at its entrance. Here we dismounted. The stallion and my guide’s horse were taken by our escort. Bowing low at the threshold, my guide invited me to enter.

I stepped into a wide corridor, lined with spearsmen and lighted by torches of some resinous wood. The Uighur leader walked beside me. The corridor led into a huge room — high-ceilinged, so wide and long that the flambeaux on the walls made its centre seem the darker. At the fax end of this place was a low dais, and upon it a stone table, and seated at this table were a number of hooded men.

As I drew nearer, I felt the eyes of these hooded men intent upon me, and saw that they were thirteen-six upon each side and one seated in a larger chair at the table’s end. High cressets of metal stood about them in which burned some substance that gave out a steady, dear white light. I came close, and halted. My guide did not speak. Nor did these others.

Suddenly, the light glinted upon the ring on my thumb.

The hooded man at the table’s end stood up, gripping its edge with trembling hands that were like withered claws. I heard him whisper —“Dwayanu!”

The hood slipped back from his head. I saw an old, old face in which were eyes almost as blue as my own, and they were filled with stark wonder and avid hope. It touched me, for it was the look of a man long lost to despair who sees a saviour appear.

Now the others arose, slipped back their hoods. They were old men, all of them, but not so old as he who had whispered. Their eyes of cold-blue-grey weighed me. The high priest, for that I so guessed him and such he turned out to be, spoke again:

“They told me — but I could not believe! Will you come to me?”

I jumped on the dais and walked to him. He drew his old face close to mine, searching my eyes. He touched my hair. He thrust his hand within my shirt and laid it on my heart. He said:

“Let me see your hands.”

I placed them, palms upward, on the table. He gave them the same minute scrutiny as had the Uighur leader. The twelve others clustered round, following his fingers as be pointed to this marking and to that. He lifted from his neck a chain of golden links, drawing from beneath his robe a large, flat square of jade. He opened this. Within it was a yellow stone, larger than that in my ring, but otherwise precisely similar, the black octopus — or the Kraken — writhing from its depths. Beside it was a small phial of jade and a small, lancet-like jade knife. He took my right hand, and brought the wrist over the yellow stone. He looked at me and at the others with eyes in which was agony.

“The last test.” he whispered. “The blood!”

He nicked a vein of my wrist with the knife. Blood fell, slow drop by drop upon the stone; I saw then that it was slightly concave. As the blood dripped, it spread like a thin film from bottom to lip. The old priest lifted the phial of jade, unstoppered it, and by what was plainly violent exercise of his will, held it steadily over the yellow stone. One drop of colourless fluid fell and mingled with my blood.

The room was now utterly silent, high priest and his ministers seemed not to breathe, staring at the stone. I shot a glance at the Uighur leader, and he was glaring at me, fanatic fires in his eyes.

There was an exclamation from the high priest, echoed by the others. I looked down at the stone. The pinkish film was changing colour. A curious sparkle ran through it; it changed into a film of clear, luminous green.

“Dwayanu!” gasped the high priest, and sank back into his chair, covering his face with shaking hands. The others stared at me and back at the stone and at me again as though they beheld some miracle. I looked at the Uighur leader. He lay flat upon his face at the base of the dais.

The high priest uncovered his face. It seemed to me that he had become incredibly younger, transformed; his eyes were no longer hopeless, agonized; they were filled with eagerness. He arose from his chair, and sat me in it.

“Dwayanu,” he said, “what do you remember?”

I shook my head, puzzled; it was an echo of the Uighur’s remark at the camp.

“What should I remember?” I asked.

His gaze withdrew from me, sought the faces of the others, questioningly; as though he had spoken to them, they looked at one another, then nodded. He shut the jade case and thrust it into his breast. He took my hand, twisted the bezel of the ring behind my thumb and closed my hand on it.

“Do you remember —” his voice sank to the faintest of whispers —“Khalk’ru?”

Again the stillness dropped upon the great chamber — this time like a tangible thing. I sat, considering. There was something familiar about that name. I had an irritated feeling that I ought to know it; that if I tried hard enough, I could remember it; that memory of it was fust over the border of consciousness. Also I had the feeling that it meant something rather dreadful. Something better forgotten. I felt vague stirrings of repulsion, coupled with sharp resentment.

“No,” I answered.

I heard the sound of sharply exhaled breaths. The old priest walked behind me and placed his hands over my eyes.

“Do you remember — this?”

My mind seemed to blur, and then I saw a picture as clearly as though I were looking at it with my open eyes. I was galloping through the oasis straight to the great doorway in the mountain. Only now it was no oasis. It was a city with gardens, and a river ran sparkling through it. The ranges were not barren red sandstone, but green with trees. There were others with me, galloping behind me — men and women like myself, fair and strong. Now I was close to the doorway. There were immense square stone columns flanking it . . . and now I had dismounted from my horse . . . a great black stallion . . . I was entering . . .

I would not enter! If I entered, I would remember — Khalk’ru! I thrust myself back . . . and out . . . I felt hands over my eyes . . . I reached and tore them away . . . the old priest’s hands. I jumped from the chair, quivering with anger. I faced him. His face was benign, his voice gentle.

“Soon,” he said, “you will remember more!”

I did not answer, struggling to control my inexplicable rage. Of course, the old priest had tried to hypnotize me; what I had seen was what he had willed me to see. Not without reason had the priests of the Uighurs gained their reputation as sorcerers. But it was not that which had stirred this wrath that took all my will to keep from turning berserk. No, it had been something about that name of Khalk’ru. Something that lay behind the doorway in the mountain through which I had almost been forced.

“Are you hungry?” The abrupt transition to the practical in the old priest’s question brought me back to normal. I laughed outright, and told him that I was, indeed. And getting sleepy. I had feared that such an important personage as I had apparently become would have to dine with the high priest. I was relieved when he gave me in charge of the Uighur captain. The Uighur followed me out like a dog, he kept his eyes upon me like a dog upon its master, and he waited on me like a servant while I ate. I told him I would rather sleep in a tent than in one of the stone houses. His eyes flashed at that, and for the first time he spoke other than in respectful monosyllables.

“Still a warrior!” he grunted approvingly. A tent was set up for me. Before I went to sleep I peered through the flap. The Uighur leader was squatting at the opening, and a double ring of spearsmen stood shoulder to shoulder on guard.

Early next morning, a delegation of the lesser priests called for me. We went into the same building, but to a much smaller room, bare of all furnishings. The high priest and the rest of the lesser priests were awaiting me. I had expected many questions. He asked me none; he had, apparently, no curiosity as to my origin, where I had come from, nor how I had happened to be in Mongolia. It seemed to be enough that they had proved me to be who they had hoped me to be — whoever that was. Furthermore, I had the strongest impression that they were anxious to hasten on to the consummation of a plan that had begun with my lessons. The high priest west straight to the point.

“Dwayanu,” he said, “we would recall to your memory a certain ritual. Listen carefully, watch carefully, repeat faithfully each inflection, each gesture.” “To what purpose?” I asked.

“That you shall learn —” he began, then interrupted himself fiercely. “No! I will tell you now! So that this which is desert shall once more become fertile. That the Uighurs shall recover their greatness. That the ancient sacrilege against Khalk’ru, whose fruit was the desert, shall be expiated!”

“What have I, a stranger, to do with all this?” I asked.

“We to whom you have come,” he answered, “have not enough of the ancient blood to bring this about. You are no stranger. You are Dwayanu — the Releaser. You are of the pure blood. Because of that, only you — Dwayanu — can lift the doom.”

I thought how delighted Barr would be to hear that explanation; how he would crow over Fairchild. I bowed to the old priest, and told him I was ready. He took from my thumb the ring, lifted the chain and its pendent jade from his neck, and told me to strip. While I was doing so, he divested himself of his own robes, and the others followed suit. A priest carried the things away, quickly returning. I looked at the shrunken shapes of the old men standing mother-naked round me, and suddenly lost all desire to laugh. The proceedings were being touched by the sinister. The lesson began.

It was not a ritual; it was an invocation — rather, it was an evocation of a Being, Power, Force, named Khalk’ru. It was exceedingly curious, and so were the gestures that accompanied it. It was dearly couched in the archaic form of the Uighur. There were many words I did not understand. Obviously, it had been passed down from high priest to high priest from remote antiquity. Even an indifferent churchman would have considered it blasphemous to the point of damnation. I was too much interested to think much of that phase of it. I had the same odd sense of familiarity with it that I had felt at the first naming of Khalk’ru. I felt none of the repulsion, however. I felt strongly in earnest. How much this was due to the force of the united wills of the twelve priests who never took their eyes off me, I do not know.

I won’t repeat it, except to give the gist of it. Khalk’ru was the Beginning-without-Beginning, as he would be the End-without-End. He was the Lightless Timeless Void. The Destroyer. The Eater-up of Life. The Annihilator. The Dissolver. He was not Death — Death was only a part of him. He was alive, very much so, but his quality of living was the antithesis of Life as we know it. Life was an invader, troubling Khalk’ru’s ageless calm. Gods and man, animals and birds and all creatures, vegetation and water and air and fire, sun and stars and moon — all were his to dissolve into Himself, the Living Nothingness, if he so willed. But let them go on a little longer. Why should Khalk’ru care when in the end there would be only — Khalk’ru! Let him withdraw from the barren places so life could enter and cause them to blossom again; let him touch only those who were the enemies of his worshippers, so that his worshippers would be great and powerful, evidence that Khalk’ru was the All in All. It was only for a breath in the span of his eternity. Let Khalk’ru make himself manifest in the form of his symbol and take what was offered him as evidence he had listened and consented.

There was more, much more, but that was the gist of it. A dreadful prayer, but I felt no dread — then.

Three times, and I was letter-perfect. The high priest gave me one more rehearsal and nodded to the priest who had taken away the clothing. He went out and returned with the robes — but not my clothes. Instead, he produced a long white mantle and a pair of sandals. I asked for my own clothes and was told by the old priest that I no longer needed them, that hereafter I would be dressed as befitted me. I agreed that this was desirable, but said I would like to have them so I could look at them once in a while. To this he acquiesced.

They took me to another room. Faded, ragged tapestries hung on its walls. They were threaded with scenes of the hunt and of war. There were oddly shaped stools and chairs of some metal that might have been copper but also might have been gold. a wide and low divan, in one corner spears, a bow and two swords, a shield and a cap-shaped bronze helmet. Everything, except the rugs spread over the stone floor, had the appearance of great antiquity. Here I was washed and carefully shaved and my long hair trimmed — a ceremonial cleansing accompanied by rites of purification which, at times, were somewhat startling.

These ended, I was given a cotton undergarment which sheathed me from toes to neck. After this, a pair of long, loose, girdled trousers that seemed spun of threads of gold reduced by some process to the softness of silk. I noticed with amusement that they had been carefully repaired and patched. I wondered how many centuries the man who had first worn them had been dead. There was a long, blouse-like coat of the same material, and my feet were slipped into cothurms, or high buskins, whose elaborate embroidery was a bit ragged.

The old priest placed the ring on my thumb, and stood back, staring at me raptly. Quite evidently he saw nothing of the ravages of time upon my garments.

I was to him the splendid figure from the past that he thought me.

“So did you appear when our race was great,” he said. “And soon, when it has recovered a little of its greatness, we shall bring back those who still dwell in the Shadow-land.”

“The Shadow-land?” I asked.

“It is far to the East, over the Great Water,” he said. “But we know they dwell there, those of Khalk’ru who fled at the time of the great sacrilege which changed fecund Uighuriand into desert. They will be of the pure blood like yourself, Dwayanu, and you shall find mates among the women. And in time, we of the thinned blood shall pass away, and Uighuriand again be peopled by its ancient race.”

He walked abruptly away, the lesser priests following. At the door he turned.

“Wait here,” he said, “until the word comes from me.”

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