How long we were within that glare I do not know; it seemed unending hours; it was of course only minutes — seconds, perhaps. Then I was sensible of a permeating shadow, a darkness gentle and healing.
I raised my head and opened my eyes. We were moving tranquilly, with a curious suggestion of homing leisureliness, through a soft, blue shimmering darkness. It was as though we were drifting within some high borderland of light; a region in which that rapid vibration we call the violet was mingled with a still more rapid vibration whose quick pulsing was felt by the brain but ever fled ere that brain could register it in terms of color. And there seemed to be a film over my sight; dazzlement from the unearthly blaze, I thought, shaking my head impatiently.
My eyes focused upon an object a little more than a foot away; my neck grew rigid, my scalp prickled while I stared, unbelieving. And that at which I stared was — a skeleton hand. Every bone a grayish black, sharply silhouetted, clean as some master surgeon’s specimen, it was extended as though clutching at — clutching at — what was that toward which it was reaching?
Again the icy prickling over scalp and skin — for its talons stretched out to grasp a steed that Death himself might have ridden, a rack whose bare skull hung drooping upon bent vertebrae.
I raised my hands to my face to shut out the ghostly sight — and swiftly the clutching bony hand moved toward me — was before my eyes — touched me.
The cry that sheer horror wrested from me was strangled by realization. And so acute was my relief, so reassuring was it to have in the midst of these mysteries some sane, understandable thing occur that I laughed aloud.
For the skeleton hand was my own. The mournful ghastly mount of death was — our pony. And when I looked again I knew what I would see — and see them I did — two tall skeletons, skulls resting on their bony arms, leaning against the frame of the beast.
While ahead of us, floating poised upon the surface of the glistening cube, were two women skeletons — Ruth and Norhala!
Weird enough was the sight. Dureresque, grimly awful as materialization of a scene of the Dance Macabre — and yet — vastly comforting.
For here was something which was well within the range of human knowledge. It was the light about us that did it; a vibration that even as I conjectured, was within the only partly explored region of the ultraviolet and the comparatively unexplored region above it.
Yet there were differences, for there was none of that misty halo around the bones, the flesh which the X-rays cannot render wholly invisible. The skeletons stood out clean cut, with no trace of fleshly vestments.
I crept over, spoke to the two.
“Don’t look up yet,” I said. “Don’t open your eyes. We’re going through a queer light. It has an X-ray quality. You’re going to see me as a skeleton —”
“What?” shouted Drake. Disobeying my warning he straightened, glared at me. And disquieting as the spectacle had been before, fully understanding it as I did, I could not restrain my shudder at the utter weirdness of that skull which was his head thrusting itself toward me.
The skeleton that was Ventnor turned to me; was arrested by the sight of the flitting pair ahead. I saw the fleshless jaws clamp, then opened to speak.
Abruptly, upon the skeletons in front the flesh dropped back. Girl and woman stood there once again robed in beauty.
So swift was that transition from the grisly unreal to the normal that even to my unsuperstitious mind it smacked of necromancy. The next instant the three of us stood looking at each other, clothed once more in the flesh, and the pony no longer the steed of death, but our shaggy, patient little companion.
The light had changed; the high violet had gone from it, and it was shot with yellow gleamings like fugitive sunbeams. We were passing through a wide corridor that seemed to be unending. The yellow light grew stronger.
“That light wasn’t exactly the Roentgen variety,” Drake interrupted my absorption in our surroundings. “And I hope to God it’s as different as it seemed. If it’s not we may be up against a lot of trouble.”
“More trouble than we’re in?” I asked, a trifle satirically.
“X-ray burns,” he answered, “and no way to treat them in this place — if we live to want treatment,” he ended grimly.
“I don’t think we were subjected to their action long enough —” I began, and was silent.
The corridor had opened without warning into a place for whose immensity I have no images that are adequate. It was a chamber that was vaster than ten score of the Great Halls of Karnac in one; great as that fabled hall in dread Amenti where Osiris sits throned between the Searcher of Hearts and the Eater of Souls, judging the jostling hosts of the newly dead.
Temple it was in its immensity, and its solemn vastness — but unlike any temple ever raised by human toil. In no ruin of earth’s youth giants’ work now crumbling under the weight of time had I ever sensed a shadow of the strangeness with which this was instinct. No — nor in the shattered fanes that once had held the gods of old Egypt, nor in the pillared shrines of Ancient Greece, nor Imperial Rome, nor mosque, basilica nor cathedral.
All these had been dedicated to gods which, whether created by humanity as science believes, or creators of humanity as their worshippers believed, still held in them that essence we term human.
The spirit, the force, that filled this place had in it nothing, NOTHING of the human.
No place? Yes, there was one — Stonehenge. Within that monolithic circle I had felt a something akin to this, as inhuman; a brooding spirit stony, stark, unyielding — as though not men but a people of stone had raised the great Menhirs.
This was a sanctuary built by a people of metal!
It was filled with a soft yellow glow like pale sunshine. Up from its floor arose hundreds of tremendous, square pillars down whose polished sides the crocus light seemed to flow.
Far, far as the gaze could reach, the columns marched, oppressively ordered, appallingly mathematical. From their massiveness distilled a sense of power, mysterious, mechanical yet — living; something priestly, hierophantic — as though they were guardians of a shrine.
Now I saw whence came the light suffusing this place. High up among the pillars floated scores of orbs that shone like pale gilt frozen suns. Great and small, through all the upper levels these strange luminaries gleamed, fixed and motionless, hanging unsupported in space. Out from their shining spherical surfaces darted rays of the same pale gold, rigid, unshifting, with the same suggestion of frozen stillness.
“They look like big Christmas-tree stars,” muttered Drake.
“They’re lights,” I answered. “Of course they are. They’re not matter — not metal, I mean —”
“There’s something about them like St. Elmo’s fire, witch lights — condensations of atmospheric electricity,” Ventnor’s voice was calm; now that it was plain we were nearing the heart of this mystery in which we were enmeshed he had clearly taken fresh grip, was again his observant, scientific self.
We watched, once more silent; and indeed we had spoken little since we had begun that ride whose end we sensed close. In the unfolding of enigmatic happening after happening the mind had deserted speech and crouched listening at every door of sight and hearing to gather some clue to causes, some thread of understanding.
Slowly now we were gliding through the forest of pillars; so effortless, so smooth our flight that we seemed to be standing still, the tremendous columns flitting past us, turning and wheeling around us, dizzyingly. My head swam with the mirage motion, I closed my eyes.
“Look,” Drake was shaking me. “Look. What do you make of that?”
Half a mile ahead the pillars stopped at the edge of a shimmering, quivering curtain of green luminescence. High, high up past the pale gilt suns its smooth folds ran, into the golden amber mist that canopied the columns.
In its sparkling was more than a hint of the dancing corpuscles of the aurora; it was, indeed, as though woven of the auroral rays. And all about it played shifting, tremulous shadows formed by the merging of the golden light with the curtain’s emerald gleaming.
Up to its base swept the cube that bore Ruth and Norhala — and stopped. From it leaped the woman, and drew Ruth down beside her, then turned and gestured toward us.
That upon which we rode drew close. I felt it quiver beneath me; felt on the instant, the magnetic grip drop from me, angle downward and leave me free. Shakily I arose from aching knees, and saw Ventnor flash down and run, rifle in hand, toward his sister.
Drake bent for his gun. I moved unsteadily toward the side of the clustered cubes. There came a curious pushing motion driving me to the edge. Sliding over upon me came Drake and the pony —
The cube tilted, gently, playfully — and with the slightest of jars the three of us stood beside it on the floor, we two men gaping at it in renewed wonder, and the little beast stretching its legs, lifting its feet and whinnying with relief.
Then abruptly the four blocks that had been our steed broke from each other; that which had been the woman’s glided to them.
The four clicked into place behind it and darted from sight.
“Ruth!” Ventnor’s voice was vibrant with his fear. “Ruth! What is wrong with you? What has she done to you?”
We ran to his side. He stood clutching her hands, searching her eyes. They were wide, unseeing, dream filled. Upon her face the calm and stillness, which were mirrored reflections of Norhala’s unearthly tranquillity, had deepened.
“Brother.” The sweet voice seemed far away, drifting out of untroubled space, an echo of Norhala’s golden chimings —“Brother, there is nothing wrong with me. Indeed — all is — well with me — brother.”
He dropped the listless palms, faced the woman, tall figure tense, drawn with mingled rage and anguish.
“What have you done to her?” he whispered in Norhala’s own tongue.
Her serene gaze took him in, undisturbed by his anger save for the faintest shadow of wonder, of perplexity.
“Done?” she repeated, slowly. “I have stilled all that was troubled within her — have lifted her above sorrow. I have given her the peace — as I will give it to you if —”
“You’ll give me nothing,” he interrupted fiercely; then, his passion breaking through all restraint —“Yes, you damned witch — you’ll give me back my sister!”
In his rage he had spoken English; she could not, of course, have understood the words, but their anger and hatred she did understand. Her serenity quivered, broke. The strange stars within her eyes began to glitter forth as they had when she had summoned the Smiting Thing. Unheeding, Ventnor thrust out a hand, caught her roughly by one bare, lovely shoulder.
“Give her back to me, I say!” he cried. “Give her back to me!”
The woman’s eyes grew — awful. Out of the distended pupils the strange stars blazed; upon her face was something of the goddess outraged. I felt the shadow of Death’s wings.
“No! No — Norhala! No, Martin!” the veils of inhuman calm shrouding Ruth were torn; swiftly the girl we knew looked out from them. She threw herself between the two, arms outstretched.
“Ventnor!” Drake caught his arms, held them tight; “that’s not the way to save her!”
Ventnor stood between us, quivering, half sobbing. Never until then had I realized how great, how absorbing was that love of his for Ruth. And the woman saw it, too, even though dimly; envisioned it humanly. For, under the shock of human passion, that which I thought then as utterly unknown to her as her cold serenity was to us, the sleeping soul — I use the popular word for those emotional complexes that are peculiar to mankind — stirred, awakened.
Wrath fled from her knitted brows; her eyes dropping to the girl, lost their dreadfulness; softened. She turned them upon Ventnor, they brooded upon him; within their depths a half-troubled interest, a questioning.
A smile dawned upon the exquisite face, humanizing it, transfiguring it, touching with tenderness the sweet and sleeping mouth — as a hovering dream the lips of the slumbering maid.
And on the face of Ruth, as upon a mirror, I watched that same slow, understanding tenderness reflected!
“Come,” said Norhala, and led the way through the sparkling curtains. As she passed, an arm around Ruth’s neck, I saw the marks of Ventnor’s fingers upon her white shoulder, staining its purity, marring it like a blasphemy.
For an instant I hung behind, watching their figures grow misty within the shining shadows; then followed hastily. Entering the mists I was conscious of a pleasant tingling, an acceleration of the pulse, an increase of that sense of well-being which, I grew suddenly aware, had since the beginning of our strange journey minimized the nervous attrition of constant contact with the abnormal.
Striving to classify, to reduce to order, my sensations I drew close to the others, overtaking them in a dozen paces. A dozen paces more and we stepped out of the curtainings.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:11