Dwellers in the Mirage, by Abraham Merritt

Chapter IV.

Tentacle of Khalk’ru

I Waited for an hour, examining the curious contents of the room, and amusing myself with shadow-fencing with the two swords. I swung round to find the Uighur captain watching me from the doorway, pale eyes glowing.

“By Zarda!” he said. “Whatever you have forgotten, it is not your sword play! A warrior you left us, a warrior you have returned!”

He dropped upon a knee, bent his head: “Pardon, Dwayanu! I have been sent for you. It is time to go.”

A heady exaltation began to take me. I dropped the swords, and clapped him on the shoulder. He took it like an accolade. We passed through the corridor of the spearsmen and over the threshold of the great doorway. There was a thunderous shout.

“Dwayanu!”

And then a blaring of trumpets, a mighty roll of drums and the clashing of cymbals.

Drawn up in front of the palace was a hollow square of Uighur horsemen, a full five hundred of them, spears glinting, pennons flying from their shafts. Within the square, in ordered ranks, were as many more. But now I saw that these were both men and women, clothed in garments as ancient as those I wore, and shimmering in the strong sunlight like a vast multicoloured rug of metal threads. Banners and bannerets, torn and tattered and bearing strange symbols, fluttered from them. At the far edge of the square I recognized the old priest, his lesser priests flanking him, mounted and clad in the yellow. Above them streamed a yellow banner, and as the wind whipped it straight, black upon it appeared the shape of the Kraken. Beyond the square of horsemen, hundreds of the Uighurs pressed for a glimpse of me. As I stood there, blinking, another shout mingled with the roll of the Uighur drums.

“The King returns to his people!” Barr had said. Well, it was like that.

A soft nose nudged me. Beside me was the black stallion. I mounted him. The Uighur captain at my heels, we trotted down the open way between the ordered ranks. I looked at them as I went by. All of them, men and women, had the pale blue-grey eyes; each of them was larger than the run of the race. I thought that these were the nobles, the pick of the ancient families, those in whom the ancient blood was strongest. Their tattered banners bore the markings of their clans. There was exultation in the eyes of the men. Before I had reached the priests. I had read terror in the eyes of many of the women.

I reached the old priest. The line of horsemen ahead of us parted. We two rode through the gap, side by side. The lesser priests fell in behind us. The nobles followed them. A long thin line upon each side of the cavalcade, the Uighur horsemen trotted — with the Uighur trumpets blaring, the Uighur kettle-drums and long-drums beating, the Uighur cymbals crashing, in wild triumphal rhythms.

“The King returns —”

I would to that something had sent me then straight upon the Uighur spears!

We trotted through the green of the oasis. We crossed a wide bridge which had spanned the little stream when it had been a mighty river. We set our horses’ feet upon the ancient road that led straight to the mountain’s doorway a mile or more away. The heady exultation grew within me. I looked back at my company. And suddenly I remembered the repairs and patches on my breeches and my blouse. And my following was touched with the same shabbiness. It made me feel less a king, but it also made me pitiful. I saw them as men and women driven by hungry ghosts in their thinned blood, ghosts of strong ancestors growing weak as the ancient blood weakened, starving at it weakened, but still strong enough to clamour against extinction, still strong enough to command their brains and wills and drive them toward something the ghosts believed would feed their hunger, make them strong again.

Yes, I pitied them. It was nonsense to think I could appease the hunger of their ghosts, but there was one thing I could do for them. I could give them a damned good show! I went over in my mind the ritual the old priest had taught me, rehearsed each gesture.

I looked up to find we were at the threshold of the mountain door. It was wide enough for twenty horsemen to ride through abreast. The squat columns I had seen, under the touch of the old priest’s hands, lay shattered beside it. I felt no repulsion, no revolt against entering, as I then had. I was eager to be in and to be done with it.

The spearsmen trotted up, and formed a guard beside the opening. I dismounted, and handed one of them the stallion’s rein. The old priest beside me, the lesser ones behind us, we passed over the threshold of the mined doorway, and into the mountain. The passage, or vestibule, was lighted by wall cressets in which burned the dear, white flame. A hundred paces from the entrance, another passage opened, piercing inward at an angle of about fifteen degrees to the wider one. Into this the old priest turned. I glanced back. The nobles bad not yet entered; I could see them dismounting at the entrance. We went along this passage in silence for perhaps a thousand feet. It opened into a small square chamber, cut in the red sandstone, at whose side was another door, covered with heavy tapestries. In this chamber was nothing except a number of stone coffers of various sizes ranged along its walls.

The old priest opened one of these. Within it was a wooden box, grey with age. He lifted its lid, and took from it two yellow garments. He slipped one of these garments over my head. It was like a smock, falling to my knees. I glanced down; woven within it, its tentacles encircling me, was the black octopus.

The other he drew over his own head. It, too, bore the octopus, but only on the breast, the tentacles did not embrace him. He bent and took from the coffer a golden staff, across the end of which ran bars. From these fell loops of small golden bells.

From the other coffers the lesser priests had taken drums, queerly shaped oval instruments some three feet long, with sides of sullen red metal. They sat, rolling the drumheads under their thumbs, tightening them here and there while the old priest gently shook his staff of bells, testing their chiming. They were for all the world like an orchestra tuning up. I again felt a desire to laugh;

I did not then know how the commonplace can intensify the terrible.

There were sounds outside the tapestried doorway, rustlings. There were three clangorous strokes like a hammer upon an anvil. Then silence. The twelve priests walked through the doorway with their drums in their arms. The high priest beckoned me to follow him, and we passed through after them.

I looked out upon an immense cavern, cut from the living rock by the hands of men dust now for thousands of years. It told its immemorial antiquity as clearly as though the rocks had tongue. It was more than ancient; it was primeval. It was dimly lighted, so dimly that hardly could I see the Uighur nobles. They were standing, the banners of their dans above them, their faces turned up to me, upon the stone floor, a hundred yards Wso away, and ten feet below me. Beyond them and behind them the cavern extended, vanishing hi darkness. I saw that in front of them was a curving trough, wide — like the trough between two long waves — and that like a wave it swept upward from the hither side of the trough, curving, its lip crested, as though that wave of sculptured stone were a gigantic comber rushing back upon them. This lip formed the edge of the raised place on which I stood.

The high priest touched my arm. I turned my head to him, and followed his eyes. A hundred feet away from me stood a girl. She was naked. She had not long entered womanhood and quite plainly was soon to be a mother. Her eyes were as blue as those of the old priest, her hair was reddish brown, touched with gold, her skin was palest olive. The blood of the old fair race was strong within her. For all she held herself so bravely, there was terror in her eyes, and the rapid rise and fall of her rounded breasts further revealed that terror.

She stood in a small hollow. Around her waist was a golden ring, and from that ring dropped three golden chaias fastened to the rock floor. I recognized their purpose. She could not run, and if she dropped or fell, she could not writhe away, out of the cup. But run, or writhe away from what? Certainly not from me! I ‘looked at her and smiled. Her eyes searched mine. The terror suddenly fled from them. She smiled back at me, trustingly.

God forgive me — I smiled at her and she trusted me! I looked beyond her, from whence had come a glitter of yellow like a flash from a huge topaz. Up from the rock a hundred yards behind the girl jutted an immense fragment of the same yellow translucent stone that formed the jewel in my ring. It was like the fragment of a gigantic shattered pane. Its shape was roughly triangular. Black within it was a tentacle of the Kraken. The tentacle swung down within the yellow stone, broken from the monstrous body when the stone had been broken. It was all of fifty feet long. Its inner side was turned toward me, and plain upon all its length clustered the hideous sucking discs.

Well, it was ugly enough — but nothing to be afraid of, I thought. I smiled again at the chained girl, and met once more her look of utter trust.

The old priest had been watching me dosely. We walked forward until we were half-way between the edge and the girl. At the lip squatted the twelve lesser priests, their drums on their laps.

The old priest and I faced the girl and the broken tentacle. He raised his staff of golden bells and shook them. From the darkness of the cavern began a low chanting, a chant upon three minor themes, repeated and repeated, and intermingled.

It was as primeval as the cavern; it was the voice of the cavern itself.

The girl never took her eyes from me.

The chanting ended. I raised my hands and made the curious gestures of salutation I had been taught. I began the ritual to Khalk’ru . . . .

With the first words, the odd feeling of recognition swept over me — with something added. The words, the gestures, were automatic. I did not have to exert any effort of memory; they remembered themselves. I no longer saw the chained girl. All I saw was the black tentacle in the shattered stone.

On swept the ritual and on . . . was the yellow stone dissolving from around the tentacle . . . was the tentacle swaying?

Desperately I tried to halt the words, the gesturing. I could not!

Something stronger than myself possessed me, moving my muscles, speaking from my throat. I had a sense of inhuman power. On to the climax of the evil evocation — and how I knew how utterly evil it was — the ritual rushed, while I seemed to stand apart, helpless to check it.

It ended.

And the tentacle quivered . . . it writhed . . . it reached outward to the chained girl . . . .

There was a devil’s roll of drums, rushing up fast and ever faster to a thunderous crescendo . . . .

The girl was still looking at me . . . but the trust was gone from her eyes . . . her face reflected the horror stamped upon my own.

The black tentacle swung up and out!

I had a swift vision of a vast cloudy body from which other cloudy tentacles writhed. A breath that had in it the cold of outer space touched me.

The black tentacle coiled round the girl . . . .

She screamed — inhumanly . . . she faded . . . she dissolved . . . her screaming faded . . . her screaming became a small shrill agonized piping . . . a sigh.

I heard the dash of metal from where the girl had stood. The clashing of the golden chains and girdle that had held her, falling empty on the rock.

The girl was gone!

I stood, nightmare horror such as I had never known in worst of nightmares paralysing me —

The child had trusted me . . . I had smiled at her, and she had trusted me . . . and I had summoned the Kraken to destroy her!

Searing remorse, white hot rage, broke the chains that held me. I saw the fragment of yellow stone in its place, the black tentacle inert within it. At my feet lay the old priest, flat on his face, his withered body shaking; his withered hands clawing at the rock. Beside their drums lay the lesser priests, and flat upon the floor of the cavern were the nobles — prostrate, abased, blinds and deaf in stunned worship of that dread Thing I had summoned.

I ran to the tapestried doorway. I had but one desire — to get out of the temple of Khalk’ru. Out of the lair of the Kraken. To get far and far away from it. To get back . . . back to the camp-home. I ran through the little room, through the passages and, still running, reached the entrance to the temple. I stood there for an instant, dazzled by the sunlight.

There was a roaring shout from hundreds of throats — then silence. My sight cleared. They lay there, in the dust, prostrate before me — the troops of the Uighur spearsmen.

I looked for the black stallion. He was close beside me. I sprang upon his back, gave him the reins. He shot forward like a black thunderbolt through the prostrate ranks, and down the road to the oasis. We raced through the oasis. I bad vague glimpses of running crowds, shouting. None tried to stop me. None could have stayed the rush of that great horse.

And now I was close to the inner gates of the stone fort through which we had passed on the yesterday. They were open. Their guards stood gaping at me. Drums began to beat, peremptorily, from the temple. I looked back. There was a confusion at its entrance, a chaotic milling. The Uighur spearsmen were streaming down the wide road.

The gates began to close. I shot the stallion forward, bowling over the guards, and was inside the fort. I reached the further gates. They were closed. Louder beat the drums, threatening, commanding.

Something of sanity returned to me. I ordered the guards to open. They stood, trembling, staring at me. But they did not obey. I leaped from the stallion and ran to them. I raised my hand. The ring of Khalk’ru flittered. They threw themselves on the ground before me — but they did not open the gates.

I saw upon the wall goatskins full of water. I snatched one of these and a sack of grain. Upon the floor was a huge slab of stone. I lifted it as though it had been a pebble, and hurled it at the gates where the two halves met. They burst asunder. I threw the skin of water and sack of grain over the high saddle, and rode through the broken gates.

The great horse skimmed through the ravine like a swallow. And now we were over the crumbling bridge and thundering down the ancient road.

We came to the end of the far ravine. I knew it by the fall of rock. I looked back. There was no sign of pursuit But I could hear the faint throb of the drums.

It was now well past mid-afternoon. We picked our way through the ravine and came out at the edge of the sandstone range. It was cruel to force the stallion, but I could not afford to spare him. By nightfall we had readied semi-arid country. The stallion was reeking with sweat, and tired. Never once had he slackened or turned surly. He had a great heart, that horse. I made up my mind that he should rest, come what might.

I found a sheltered place behind some high boulders. Suddenly I realized that I was still wearing the yellow ceremonial smock. I tore it off with sick loathing. I rubbed the horse down with it. I watered him and gave him some of the grain. I realized, too, that I was ravenously hungry and had eaten nothing since morning. I chewed some of the grain and washed it down with the tepid water. As yet, there were no signs of pursuit, and the drums were silent. I wondered uneasily whether the Uighurs knew of a shorter road and were outflanking me. I threw the smock over the stallion and stretched myself on the ground. I did not intend to sleep. But I did go to sleep.

I awakened abruptly. Dawn was breaking. Looking down upon me were the old priest and the cold-eyed Uighur captain. My hiding place was ringed with spearsmen. The old priest spoke, gently.

“We mean you no harm, Dwayanu. If it is your will to leave us, we cannot stay you. He whose call Khalk’ru has answered has nothing to fear from us. His will is our will.”

I did not answer. Looking at him, I saw again — could only see — that which I had seen in the cavern. He sighed.

“It is your will to leave us! So shall it be!”

The Uighur captain did not speak.

“We have brought your clothing, Dwayanu, thinking that you might wish to go from us as you came,” said the old priest.

I stripped and dressed in my old clothes. The old priest took my faded finery. He lifted the octopus robe from the stallion. The captain spoke:

“Why do you leave us, Dwayanu? You have made our peace with Khalk’ru. You have unlocked the gates. Soon the desert will blossom as of old. Why will you not remain and lead us on our march to greatness?”

I shook my head. The old priest sighed again.

“It is his will! So shall it be! But remember, Dwayanu — he whose call Khalk’ru has answered must answer when Khalk’ru calls him. And soon or late — Khalk’ru will call him!”

He touched my hair with his trembling old hands, touched my heart, and turned. A troop of spearsmen wheeled round him. They rode away.

The Uighur captain said:

“We wait to guard Dwayanu on his journey.”

I mounted the stallion. We reached the expedition’s new camp. It was deserted. We rode on, toward the old camp. Late that afternoon we saw ahead of us a caravan. As we came nearer they halted, made hasty preparations for defence. It was the expedition — still on the march. I waved my hands to them and shouted.

I dropped off the black stallion, and handed the reins to the Uighur.

“Take him,” I said. His face lost its sombre sternness, brightened.

“He shall be ready for you when you return to us, Dwayanu. He or his sons,” he said. He touched my hand to his forehead, knelt. “So shall we all be, Dwayanu — ready for you, we or our sons. When you return.”

He mounted his horse. He faced me with his troop. They raised their spears. There was one crashing shout —

“Dwayanu!”

They raced away.

I walked to where Fairchild and the others awaited me.

As soon as I could arrange it, I was on my way back to America. I wanted only one thing — to put as many miles as possible between myself and Khalk’ru’s temple.

I stopped. Involuntarily my hand sought the buckskin bag on my breast.

“But now,” I said, “it appears that it is not so easy to escape him. By anvil stroke, by chant and drums — Khalk’ru calls me ‘”

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