Was it true that Time is within ourselves — that like Space, its twin, it is only a self-created illusion of the human mind? There are hours that flash by on hummingbird wings; there are seconds that shuffle on shod in leaden shoes.
Was it true that when death faces us the consciousness finds power through its will to live to conquer the illusion — to prolong Time? That, recoiling from oblivion, we can recreate in a fractional moment whole years gone past, years yet to come — striving to lengthen our existence, stretching out our apperception beyond the phantom boundaries, overdrawing upon a Barmecide deposit of minutes, staking fresh claims upon a mirage?
How else explain the seeming slowness with which we were falling — the seeming leisureness with which the wall drifted up past us?
And was this punishment — a sentence meted out for profaning with our eyes a forbidden place; a penalty for touching with our gaze the ark of the Metal Tribes — their holy of holies — the budding place of the Metal Babes?
The valley was swinging — swinging in slow broad curves; was oscillating dizzily.
Slowly the colossal wall slipped upward.
Realization swept me; left me amazed; only half believing. This was no illusion. After that first swift plunge our fall had been checked. We were swinging — not the valley.
Deliberately, in wide arcs like pendulums, we were swinging across the City’s scarp; three feet out from it, and as we swung, slowly sinking.
And now I saw the countless eyes of the watching wall again were twinkling, regarding us with impish mockery.
It was the grip of the living wall that held us; that rocked us from side to side as though giving greater breadths of it chance to behold us; that was dropping us gently, carefully, to the valley floor now a scant two thousand feet below.
A storm of rage, of intensest resentment swept me; as once before any gratitude I should have felt for escape was submerged in the utter humiliation with which it was charged.
I shook my fists at the twinkling wall, strove to kick and smite it like an angry child, cursed it — not childishly. Dared it to hurl me down to death.
I felt Drake’s hand touch mine.
“Steady,” he said. “Steady, old boy. It’s no use. Steady. Look down.”
Hot with shame for my outburst, weak from its violence, I obeyed. The valley floor was not more than a thousand feet away. Thronging about where we must at last touch, clustered and seething, was a multitude of the Metal Things. They seemed to be looking up at us, watching, waiting for us.
“Reception committee,” grinned Drake.
I glanced away; over the valley. It was luminously clear; yet the sky was overcast, no stars showing. The light was no stronger than that of the moon at full, but it held a quality unfamiliar to me. It cast no shadows; though soft, it was piercing, revealing all it bathed with the distinctness of bright sunshine. The illumination came, I thought, from the encircling veils falling from the band of amethyst.
And, as I peered, out of the veils and far away sped a violet spark. With meteor speed it flew toward us. Close to the base of the vast facade it landed with a flashing of blue incandescence. I knew it for one of the Flying Things, the Mark Makers — one of the incredible messengers.
Close upon its fall came increase in the turmoil of the crowding throng awaiting us. Came, too, an abrupt change in our own motion. The long arcs lessened. We were dropped more swiftly.
Far away in the direction from which the Flying Thing had flown I sensed another movement; something coming that carried with it subtle suggestion of unlikeness to all the other incessant, linked movement over the pit. Closer it drew.
“Norhala!” gasped Drake.
Robed in her silken amber swathings, red-copper hair streaming, woven with elfin sparklings, she was racing toward the City like some lovely witch, riding upon the back of a steed of huge cubes.
Nearer she raced. More direct became our fall. Now we were dropping as though at the end of an unreeling plummet cord; the floor of the valley was no more than two hundred feet below.
“Norhala!” we shouted; and again and again — again “Norhala!”
Before our cries could have reached her the cubes swerved; came to a halt beneath us. Through the hundred feet of space between I caught the brilliancy of the weird constellations in Norhala’s great eyes — saw with a vague but no less dire foreboding that on her face dwelt a terrifying, a blasting wrath.
As softly as though by the hand of a giant of cloud we were lifted out from the wall, and were set with no perceptible shock beside her on the back of the cubes.
“Norhala —” I stopped. For this was no Norhala whom we had known. Gone was all calm, vanished every trace of unearthly tranquillity. It was a Norhala awakened at last — all human.
Yet in the still rage that filled her I sensed a force, an intensity, more than human. Over the blazing eyes the brows were knit in a rigid, golden bar; the delicate nostrils were pinched; the sweet red mouth was white and merciless. It was as though in its long sleep her human self had gathered more than human strength, and that now, awakened and unleashed, the violence of its rage touched the vibrant zenith of that sphere of which her quiet had been the nadir.
She was like an urn filled and flaming with the fires of the Gods of wrath.
What was it that had awakened her — what in awakening had changed the inpouring human consciousness into this flood of fury? Foreboding gripped me.
“Norhala!” My voice was shaking. “Those we left —”
“They are gone!” The golden voice was octaves deeper, vibrant, throbbing with that muffled, menacing note that must have pulsed from the golden tambours that summoned to battle Timur’s fierce hordes. “They were — taken.”
“Taken!” I gasped. “Taken by what — these?” I swept my hands out toward the Metal Things milling around us.
“No! THESE are mine. These are they who obey me.” The golden voice now shrilled with her passion. “Taken by — men!”
Drake had read my face although he could not understand our words.
“Taken,” I said. “Both Ruth and Ventnor. Taken by the armored men — the men of Cherkis!”
“Cherkis!” She had caught the word. “Yes — Cherkis! And now he and all his men — and all his women — and every living thing he rules shall pay. And fear not — you two. For I, Norhala, will bring back my own.
“Woe, woe to you, Cherkis, and to all of yours! For I, Norhala, am awake, and I, Norhala, remember. Woe to you, Cherkis, woe — for now all ends for you!
“Not by the gods of my mother who turned their strength against her do I promise this. I, Norhala, have no need for them — I, Norhala, who have strength greater than they. And would I could crush those gods as I shall crush you, Cherkis — and every living thing of yours! Yea — and every UNLIVING thing as well!”
Not halting now was Norhala’s speech; it poured from the ruthless lips — flamingly.
“We go,” she cried. “And something of vengeance I have saved for you — as is your right.”
She tossed her arms high; stamped upon the back of the Metal Thing that held us.
It quivered and sped away. Swiftly dwindled the City’s bulk; fast faded its glimmering watchful face.
Not toward the veils of light but out over the plain we flew. Above us, crouching against the blast of our going, streamed like a silken banner Norhala’s hair, gemmed with the witch lights.
We were far out now, the City far away. The cube slowed. Norhala threw high her head. From the arched, exquisite throat pealed a trumpet call — golden, summoning, imperious. Thrice it rang forth — and all the surrounding valley seemed to halt and listen.
Followed upon its ending, a chanting as goldenly sonorous. Wild, peremptory, triumphant. It was like a mustering shouting to adventurous stars, buglings to buccaneering winds, cadenced beckonings to restless ranks of viking waves, signaling to all the corsairs and picaroons of the elemental.
A cosmic call to slay!
The gigantic block upon which we rode quivered; I myself felt a thousand needle-pointed roving arrows prick me, urging me on to some jubilant, reckless orgy of destruction.
Obeying that summoning there swirled to us cube and globe and pyramid by the score — by the hundreds. They swept into our wake and followed — lifting up behind us, an ever-rising sea.
Higher and higher arose the metal wave — mounting, ever mounting as other score upon score leaped upon it, rushed up it and swelled its crest. And soon so great it was that it shadowed us, hung over us.
The cubes we rode angled in their course; raced now with ever-increasing speed toward the spangled curtains.
And still Norhala’s golden chant lured; higher and even higher reached the following wave. Now we were rising upon a steep slope; now the amethystine, gleaming ring was almost overheard.
Norhala’s song ceased. One breathless, soundless moment and we had pierced the veils. A globule of sapphire shone afar, the elfin bubble of her home. We neared it.
Heart leaping, I saw three ponies, high and empty saddles turquoise studded, lift their heads from their roadway browsing. For a moment they stood, stiff with terror; then whimpering raced away.
We were at Norhala’s door; were lifted down; stood close to its threshold. Slaves to a single thought, Drake and I sprang to enter.
“Wait!” Norhala’s white hands caught us. “There is peril there — without me! Me you must — follow!”
Upon the exquisite face was no unshadowing of wrath, no diminishing of rage, no weakening of dreadful determination. The star-flecked eyes were not upon us; they looked over and beyond — coldly, calculatingly.
“Not enough,” I heard her whisper. “Not enough — for that which I will do.”
We turned, following her gaze. A hundred feet on high, stretching nearly across the gorge, an incredible curtain was flung. Over its folds was movement — arms of spinning globes that thrust forth like paws and down upon which leaped pyramid upon pyramid stiffening as they clung like bristling spikes of hair; great bars of clicking cubes that threw themselves from the shuttering — shook and withdrew. The curtain was a ferment — shifting, mercurial; it throbbed with desire, palpitated with eagerness.
“Not enough!” murmured Norhala.
Her lips parted; from them came another trumpeting — tyrannic, arrogant and clangorous. Under it the curtaining writhed — out from it spurted thin cascades of cubes. They swarmed up into tall pillars that shook and swayed and gyrated.
With blinding flash upon flash the sapphire incandescences struck forth at their feet. A score of flaming columned shapes leaped up and curved in meteor flight over the tumultuous curtain. Streaming with violet fires they shot back to the valley of the City.
“Hai!” shouted Norhala as they flew. “Hai!”
Up darted her arms; the starry galaxies of her eyes danced madly, shot forth visible rays. The mighty curtain of the Metal Things pulsed and throbbed; its units interweaving — block and globe and pyramid of which it was woven, each seeming to strain at leash.
“Come!” cried Norhala — and led the way through the portal.
Close behind her we pressed. I stumbled, nearly fell, over a brown-faced, leather-cuirassed body that lay half over, legs barring the threshold.
Contemptuously Norhala stepped over it. We were within that chamber of the pool. About it lay a fair dozen of the armored men. Ruth’s defense, I thought with a grim delight, had been most excellent — those who had taken her and Ventnor had not done so without paying full toll.
A violet flashing drew my eyes away. Close to the pool wherein we had first seen the white miracle of Norhala’s body, two immense, purple fired stars blazed. Between them, like a suppliant cast from black iron, was Yuruk.
Poised upon their nether tips the stars guarded him. Head touching his knees, eyes hidden within his folded arms, the black eunuch crouched.
There was an unearthly mercilessness in Norhala’s voice.
The eunuch raised his head; slowly, fearfully.
“Goddess!” he whispered. “Goddess! Mercy!”
“I saved him,” she turned to us, “for you to slay. He it was who brought those who took the maid who was mine and the helpless one she loved. Slay him.”
Drake understood — his hand twitched down to his pistol, drew it. He leveled the gun at the black eunuch. Yuruk saw it — shrieked and cowered. Norhala laughed — sweetly, ruthlessly.
“He dies before the stroke falls,” she said. “He dies doubly therefore — and that is well.”
Drake slowly lowered the automatic; turned to me.
“I can’t,” he said. “I can’t — do it —”
“Masters!” Upon his knees the eunuch writhed toward us. “Masters — I meant no wrong. What I did was for love of the Goddess. Years upon years I have served her. And her mother before her.
“I thought if the maid and the blasted one were gone, that you would follow. Then I would be alone with the Goddess once more. Cherkis will not slay them — and Cherkis will welcome you and give the maid and the blasted one back to you for the arts that you can teach him.
“Mercy, Masters, I meant no harm — bid the Goddess be merciful!”
The ebon pools of eyes were clarified of their ancient shadows by his terror; age was wiped from them by fear, even as it was wiped from his face. The wrinkles were gone. Appallingly youthful, the face of Yuruk prayed to us.
“Why do you wait?” she asked us. “Time presses, and even now we should be on the way. When so many are so soon to die, why tarry over one? Slay him!”
“Norhala,” I answered, “we cannot slay him so. When we kill, we kill in fair fight — hand to hand. The maid we both love has gone, taken with her brother. It will not bring her back if we kill him through whom she was taken. We would punish him — yes, but slay him we cannot. And we would be after the maid and her brother quickly.”
A moment she looked at us, perplexity shading the high and steady anger.
“As you will,” she said at last; then added, half sarcastically, “Perhaps it is because I who am now awake have slept so long that I cannot understand you. But Yuruk has disobeyed ME. That of MINE which I committed to his care he has given to the enemies of me and those who were mine. It matters nothing to me what YOU would do. Matters to me only what I will to do.”
She pointed to the dead.
“Yuruk”— the golden voice was cold —“gather up these carrion and pile them together.”
The eunuch arose, stole out fearfully from between the two stars. He slithered to body after body, dragging them one after the other to the center of the chamber, lifting them and forming of them a heap. One there was who was not dead. His eyes opened as the eunuch seized him, the blackened mouth opened.
“Water!” he begged. “Give me drink. I burn!”
I felt a thrill of pity; lifted my canteen and walked toward him.
“You of the beard,” the merciless chime rang out, “he shall have no water. But drink he shall have, and soon — drink of fire!”
The soldier’s fevered eyes rolled toward her, saw and read aright the ruthlessness in the beautiful face.
“Sorceress!” he groaned. “Cursed spawn of Ahriman!” He spat at her.
The black talons of Yuruk stretched around his throat
“Son of unclean dogs!” he whined. “You dare blaspheme the Goddess!”
He snapped the soldier’s neck as though it had been a rotten twig.
At the callous cruelty I stood for an instant petrified; I heard Drake swear wildly, saw his pistol flash up.
Norhala struck down his arm.
“Your chance has passed,” she said, “and not for THAT shall you slay him.”
And now Yuruk had cast that body upon the others; the pile was complete.
“Mount!” commanded Norhala, and pointed. He cast himself at her feet, writhing, moaning, imploring. She looked at one of the great Shapes; something of command passed from her, something it understood plainly.
The star slipped forward — there was an almost imperceptible movement of its side points. The twitching form of the black seemed to leap up from the floor, to throw itself like a bag upon the mound of the dead.
Norhala threw up her hands. Out of the violet ovals beneath the upper tips of the Things spurted streams of blue flame. They fell upon Yuruk and splashed over him upon the heap of the slain. In the mound was a dreadful movement, a contortion; the bodies stiffened, seemed to try to rise, to push away — dead nerves and muscles responding to the blasting energy passing through them.
Out from the stars rained bolt upon bolt. In the chamber was the sound of thunder, crackling like broken glass. The bodies flamed, crumbled. There was a little smoke — nauseous, feebly protesting, beaten out by the consuming fires almost before it could rise.
Where had been the heap of slain capped by the black eunuch there was but a little whirling cloud of sad gray dust. Caught by a passing draft, it eddied, slipped over the floor, vanished through the doorway. Motionless stood the blasting stars, contemplating us. Motionless stood Norhala, her wrath no whit abated by the ghastly sacrifice. And paralyzed by what we had beheld, motionless stood we.
“Listen,” she said. “You two who love the maid. What you have seen is nothing to that which you SHALL see — a wisp of mist to the storm cloud.”
“Norhala”— I found speech —“can you tell us when it was that the maid was captured?”
Perhaps there was still time to overtake the abductors before Ruth was thrust into the worse peril waiting where she was being carried. Crossed this thought another — puzzling, baffling. The cliffs Yuruk had pointed out to me as those through which the hidden way passed were, I had estimated then, at least twenty miles away. And how long was the pass, the tunnel, through them? And then how far this place of the armored men? It had been past dawn when Drake had frightened the black eunuch with his pistol. It was not yet dawn now. How could Yuruk have made his way to the Persians so swiftly — how could they so swiftly have returned?
Amazingly she answered the spoken question and the unspoken.
“They came long before dusk,” she said. “By the night before Yuruk had won to Ruszark, the city of Cherkis; and long before dawn they were on their way hither. This the black dog I slew told me.”
“But Yuruk was with us here at dawn yesterday,” I gasped.
“A night has passed since then,” she said, “and another night is almost gone.”
Stunned, I considered this. If this were true — and not for an instant did I doubt her — then not for a few hours had we lain there at the foot of the living wall in the Hall of the Cones — but for the balance of that day and that night, and another day and part of still another night.
“What does she say?” Drake stared anxiously into my whitened face. I told him.
“Yes.” Norhala spoke again. “The dusk before the last dusk that has passed I returned to my house. The maid was there and sorrowing. She told me you had gone into the valley, prayed me to help you and to bring you back. I comforted her, and something of — the peace — I gave her; but not all, for she fought against it. A little we played together, and I left her sleeping. I sought you and found you also sleeping. I knew no harm would come to you, and I went my ways — and forgot you. Then I came here again — and found Yuruk and these the maid had slain.”
The great eyes flashed.
“Now do I honor the maid for the battle that she did,” she said, “though how she slew so many strong men I do not know. My heart goes out to her. And therefore when I bring her back she shall no more be plaything to Norhala, but sister. And with you it shall be as she wills. And woe to those who have taken her!”
She paused, listening. From without came a rising storm of thin wailings, insistent and eager.
“But I have an older vengeance than this to take,” the golden voice tolled somberly. “Long have I forgotten — and shame I feel that I had forgot. So long have I forgotten all hatreds, all lusts, all cruelty — among — these —” She thrust a hand forth toward the hidden valley. “Forgot — dwelling in the great harmonies. Save for you and what has befallen I would never have stirred from them, I think. But now awakened, I take that vengeance. After it is done”— she paused —“after it is over I shall go back again. For this awakening has in it nothing of the ordered joy I love — it is a fierce and slaying fire. I shall go back —”
The shadow of her far dreaming flitted over, softened the angry brilliancy of her eyes.
“Listen, you two!” The shadow of dream fled. “Those that I am about to slay are evil — evil are they all, men and women. Long have they been so — yea, for cycles of suns. And their children grow like them — or if they be gentle and with love for peace they are slain or die of heartbreak. All this my mother told me long ago. So no more children shall be born from them either to suffer or to grow evil.”
Again she paused, nor did we interrupt her musing.
“My father ruled Ruszark,” she said at last. “Rustum he was named, of the seed of Rustum the Hero even as was my mother. They were gentle and good, and it was their ancestors who built Ruszark when, fleeing from the might of Iskander, they were sealed in the hidden valley by the falling mountain.
“Then there sprang from one of the families of the nobles — Cherkis. Evil, evil was he, and as he grew he lusted for rule. On a night of terror he fell upon those who loved my father and slew; and barely had my father time to fly from the city with my mother, still but a bride, and a handful of those loyal to him.
“They found by chance the way to this place, hiding in the cleft which is its portal. They came, and they were taken by — Those who are now my people. Then my mother, who was very beautiful, was lifted before him who rules here and she found favor in his sight and he had built for her this house, which now is mine.
“And in time I was born — but not in this house. Nay — in a secret place of light where, too, are born my people.”
She was silent. I shot a glance at Drake. The secret place of light — was it not that vast vault of mystery, of dancing orbs and flames transmuted into music into which we had peered and for which sacrilege, I had thought, had been thrust from the City? And did in this lie the explanation of her strangeness? Had she there sucked in with her mother’s milk the enigmatic life of the Metal Hordes, been transformed into half human changeling, become true kin to them? What else could explain —
“My mother showed me Ruszark,” her voice, taking up once more her tale, checked my thoughts. “Once when I was little she and my father bore me through the forest and through the hidden way. I looked upon Ruszark — a great city it is and populous, and a caldron of cruelty and of evil.
“Not like me were my father and mother. They longed for their kind and sought ever for means to regain their place among them. There came a time when my father, driven by his longing, ventured forth to Ruszark, seeking friends to help him regain that place — for these who obey me obeyed not him as they obey me; nor would he have marched them — as I shall — upon Ruszark if they had obeyed him.
“Cherkis caught him. And Cherkis waited, knowing well that my mother would follow. For Cherkis knew not where to seek her, nor where they had lain hid, for between his city and here the mountains are great, unscalable, and the way through them is cunningly hidden; by chance alone did my mother’s mother and those who fled with her discover it: And though they tortured him, my father would not tell. And after a while forthwith those who still remained of hers stole out with my mother to find him. They left me here with Yuruk. And Cherkis caught my mother.”
The proud breasts heaved, the eyes shot forth visible flames.
“My father was flayed alive and crucified,” she said. “His skin they nailed to the City’s gates. And when Cherkis had had his will with my mother he threw her to his soldiers for their sport.
“All of those who went with them he tortured and slew — and he and his laughed at their torment. But one there was who escaped and told me — me who was little more than a budding maid. He called on me to bring vengeance — and he died. A year passed — and I am not like my mother and my father — and I forgot — dwelling here in the great tranquillities, barred from and having no thought for men and their way.
“AIE, AIE!” she cried; “woe to me that I could forget! But now I shall take my vengeance — I, Norhala, will stamp them flat — Cherkis and his city of Ruszark and everything it holds! I, Norhala, and my servants shall stamp them into the rock of their valley so that none shall know that they have been! And would that I could meet their gods with all their powers that I might break them, too, and stamp them into the rock under the feet of my servants!”
She threw out white arms.
Why had Yuruk lied to me? I wondered as I watched her. The Disk had not slain her mother. Of course! He had lied to play upon our terrors; had lied to frighten us away.
The wailings were rising in a sustained crescendo. One of the slaying stars slipped over the chamber floor, folded its points and glided out the door.
“Come!” commanded Norhala, and led the way. The second star closed, followed us. We stepped over the threshold.
For one astounded, breathless moment we paused. In front of us reared a monster — a colossal, headless Sphinx. Like forelegs and paws, a ridge of pointed cubes, and globes thrust against each side of the canyon walls. Between them for two hundred feet on high stretched the breast.
And this was a shifting, weaving mass of the Metal Things; they formed into gigantic cuirasses, giant bucklers, corselets of living mail. From them as they moved — nay, from all the monster — came the wailings. Like a headless Sphinx it crouched — and as we stood it surged forward as though it sprang a step to greet us.
“HAI!” shouted Norhala, battle buglings ringing through the golden voice. “HAI! my companies!”
Out from the summit of the breast shot a tremendous trunk of cubes and spinning globes. And like a trunk it nuzzled us, caught us up, swept us to the crest. An instant I tottered dizzily; was held; stood beside Norhala upon a little, level twinkling eyed platform; upon her other side swayed Drake.
Now through the monster I felt a throbbing, an eager and impatient pulse. I turned my head. Still like some huge and grotesque beast the back of the clustered Things ran for half a mile at least behind, tapering to a dragon tail that coiled and twisted another full mile toward the Pit. And from this back uprose and fell immense spiked and fan-shaped ruffs, thickets of spikes, whipping knouts of bristling tentacles, fanged crests. They thrust and waved, whipped and fell constantly; and constantly the great tail lashed and snapped, fantastic, long and living.
“HAI!” shouted Norhala once more. From her lifted throat came again the golden chanting — but now a relentless, ruthless song of slaughter.
Up reared the monstrous bulk. Into it ran the dragon tail. Into it poured the fanged and bristling back.
Up, up we were thrust — three hundred feet, four hundred, five hundred. Over the blue globe of Norhala’s house bent a gigantic leg. Spiderlike out from each side of the monster thrust half a score of others.
Overhead the dawn began to break. Through it with ever increasing speed we moved, straight to the line of the cliffs behind which lay the city of the armored men — and Ruth and Ventnor.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58