Dawn came. Drake had slept well. But I, who had not his youthful resiliency, lay for long, awake and uneasy. I had hardly sunk into troubled slumber before dawn awakened me.
As we breakfasted, I approached directly that matter which my growing liking for him was turning into strong desire.
“Drake,” I asked. “Where are you going?”
“With you,” he laughed. “I’m foot loose and fancy free. And I think you ought to have somebody with you to help watch that cook. He might get away.”
The idea seemed to appall him.
“Fine!” I exclaimed heartily, and thrust out my hand to him. “I’m thinking of striking over the range soon to the Manasarowar Lakes. There’s a curious flora I’d like to study.”
“Anywhere you say suits me,” he answered.
We clasped hands on our partnership and soon we were on our way to the valley’s western gate; our united caravans stringing along behind us. Mile after mile we trudged through the blue poppies, discussing the enigmas of the twilight and of the night.
In the light of day their breath of vague terror was dissipated. There was no place for mystery nor dread under this floor of brilliant sunshine. The smiling sapphire floor rolled ever on before us.
Whispering little playful breezes flew down the slopes to gossip for a moment with the nodding flowers. Flocks of rose finches raced chattering overhead to quarrel with the tiny willow warblers, the chi-u-teb-tok, holding fief of the drooping, graceful bowers bending down to the little laughing stream that for the past hour had chuckled and gurgled like a friendly water baby beside us.
I had proven, almost to my own satisfaction, that what we had beheld had been a creation of the extraordinary atmospheric attributes of these highlands, an atmosphere so unique as to make almost anything of the kind possible. But Drake was not convinced.
“I know,” he said. “Of course I understand all that — superimposed layers of warmer air that might have bent the ray; vortices in the higher levels that might have produced just that effect of the captured aurora. I admit it’s all possible. I’ll even admit it’s all probable, but damn me, Doc, if I BELIEVE it! I had too clearly the feeling of a CONSCIOUS force, a something that KNEW exactly what it was doing — and had a REASON for it.”
It was mid-afternoon.
The spell of the valley upon us, we had gone leisurely. The western mount was close, the mouth of the gorge through which we must pass, now plain before us. It did not seem as though we could reach it before dusk, and Drake and I were reconciled to spending another night in the peaceful vale. Plodding along, deep in thought, I was startled by his exclamation.
He was staring at a point some hundred yards to his right. I followed his gaze.
The towering cliffs were a scant half mile away. At some distant time there had been an enormous fall of rock. This, disintegrating, had formed a gently-curving breast which sloped down to merge with the valley’s floor. Willow and witch alder, stunted birch and poplar had found roothold, clothed it, until only their crowding outposts, thrusting forward in a wavering semicircle, held back seemingly by the blue hordes, showed where it melted into the meadows.
In the center of this breast, beginning half way up its slopes and stretching down into the flowered fields was a colossal imprint.
Gray and brown, it stood out against the green and blue of slope and level; a rectangle all of thirty feet wide, two hundred long, the heel faintly curved and from its hither end, like claws, four slender triangles radiating from it like twenty-four points of a ten-rayed star.
Irresistibly was it like a footprint — but what thing was there whose tread could leave such a print as this?
I ran up the slope — Drake already well in advance. I paused at the base of the triangles where, were this thing indeed a footprint, the spreading claws sprang from the flat of it.
The track was fresh. At its upper edges were clipped bushes and split trees, the white wood of the latter showing where they had been sliced as though by the stroke of a scimitar.
I stepped out upon the mark. It was as level as though planed; bent down and stared in utter disbelief of what my own eyes beheld. For stone and earth had been crushed, compressed, into a smooth, microscopically grained, adamantine complex, and in this matrix poppies still bearing traces of their coloring were imbedded like fossils. A cyclone can and does grip straws and thrust them unbroken through an inch board — but what force was there which could take the delicate petals of a flower and set them like inlay within the surface of a stone?
Into my mind came recollection of the wailings, the crashings in the night, of the weird glow that had flashed about us when the mist arose to hide the chained aurora.
“It was what we heard,” I said. “The sounds — it was then that this was made.”
“The foot of Shin-je!” Chiu–Ming’s voice was tremulous. “The lord of Hell has trodden here!”
I translated for Drake’s benefit.
“Has the lord of Hell but one foot?” asked Dick, politely.
“He bestrides the mountains,” said Chiu–Ming. “On the far side is his other footprint. Shin-je it was who strode the mountains and set here his foot.”
Again I interpreted.
Drake cast a calculating glance up to the cliff top.
“Two thousand feet, about,” he mused. “Well, if Shin-je is built in our proportions that makes it about right. The length of this thing would give him just about a two thousand foot leg. Yes — he could just about straddle that hill.”
“You’re surely not serious?” I asked in consternation.
“What the hell!” he exclaimed, “am I crazy? This is no foot mark. How could it be? Look at the mathematical nicety with which these edges are stamped out — as though by a die —
“That’s what it reminds me of — a die. It’s as if some impossible power had been used to press it down. Like — like a giant seal of metal in a mountain’s hand. A sigil — a seal —”
“But why?” I asked. “What could be the purpose —”
“Better ask where the devil such a force could be gotten together and how it came here,” he said. “Look — except for this one place there isn’t a mark anywhere. All the bushes and the trees, all the poppies and the grass are just as they ought to be.
“How did whoever or whatever it was that made this, get here and get away without leaving any trace but this? Damned if I don’t think Chiu–Ming’s explanation puts less strain upon the credulity than any I could offer.”
I peered about. It was so. Except for the mark, there was no slightest sign of the unusual, the abnormal.
But the mark was enough!
“I’m for pushing up a notch or two and getting into the gorge before dark,” he was voicing my own thought. “I’m willing to face anything human — but I’m not keen to be pressed into a rock like a flower in a maiden’s book of poems.” Just at twilight we drew out of the valley into the pass. We traveled a full mile along it before darkness forced us to make camp. The gorge was narrow. The far walls but a hundred feet away; but we had no quarrel with them for their neighborliness, no! Their solidity, their immutability, breathed confidence back into us.
And after we had found a deep niche capable of holding the entire caravan we filed within, ponies and all, I for one perfectly willing thus to spend the night, let the air at dawn be what it would. We dined within on bread and tea, and then, tired to the bone, sought each his place upon the rocky floor. I slept well, waking only once or twice by Chiu–Ming’s groanings; his dreams evidently were none of the pleasantest. If there was an aurora I neither knew nor cared. My slumber was dreamless.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:53