Smoothly moved the colossal shape; on it we rode as easily as though cradled. It did not glide — it strode.
The columned legs raised themselves, bending from a thousand joints. The pedestals of the feet, huge and massive as foundations for sixteen-inch guns, fell with machinelike precision, stamping gigantically.
Under their tread the trees of the forest snapped, were crushed like reeds beneath the pads of a mastodon. From far below came the sound of their crashing. The thick forest checked the progress of the Shape less than tall grass would that of a man.
Behind us our trail was marked by deep, black pits in the forest’s green, clean cut and great as the Mark upon the poppied valley. They were the footprints of the Thing that carried us.
The wind streamed and whistled. A flock of the willow warblers arose, sworled about us with manifold beating of little frightened wings. Norhala’s face softened, her eyes smiled.
“Go — foolish little ones,” she cried, and waved her arms. They flew away, scolding.
A lammergeier swooped down on wide funereal wings; it peered at us; darted away toward the cliffs.
“There will be no carrion there for you, black eater of the dead, when I am through,” I heard Norhala whisper, eyes again somber.
Steadily grew the dawn light; from Norhala’s lips came again the chanting. And now that paean, the reckless pulse of the monster we rode, began to creep through my own veins. Into Drake’s too, I knew, for his head was held high and his eyes were clear and bright as hers who sang.
The jubilant pulse streamed through the hands that held us, throbbed through us. The pulse of the Thing — sang!
Closer and closer grew the cliffs. Down and crashing down fell the trees, the noise of their fall accompanying the battle chant of the Valkyr beside me like wild harp chords of storm-lashed surf. Up to the precipices the forest rolled, unbroken. Now the cliffs loomed overhead. The dawn had passed. It was full day.
Cutting up through the towering granite scarps was a rift. In it the black shadows clustered thickly. Straight toward that cleft we sped. As we drew near, the crest of the Shape began swiftly to lower. Down we sank and down — a hundred feet, two hundred; now we were two score yards above the tree tops.
Out shot a neck, a tremendous serpent body. Crested it was with pyramids; crested with them, too, was its immense head. Thickly the head bristled with them, poised motionless upon spinning globes as huge as they. For hundreds of feet that incredible neck stretched ahead of us and for twice as far behind a monstrous, lizard-shaped body writhed.
We rode now upon a serpent, a glittering blue metal dragon, spiked and knobbed and scaled. It was the weird steed of Norhala flattening, thrusting out to pierce the rift.
And still as when it had reared on high beat through it the wild, triumphant, questing pulse. Still rang out Norhala’s chanting.
The trees parted and fell upon each side of us as though we were some monster of the sea and they the waves we cleft.
The rift enclosed us. Lower we dropped; were not more than fifty feet above its floor. The Thing upon which we rode was a torrent roaring through it.
A deeper blackness enclosed us — a tunneling.
Through that we flowed. Out of it we darted into a widening filled with wan light drifting down through a pinnacle fanged mouth miles on high. Again the cleft shrunk. A thousand feet ahead was a crack, a narrowing of the cleft so small that hardly could a man pass through it.
Abruptly the metal dragon halted.
Norhala’s chanting changed; became again the arrogant clarioning. And close below us the huge neck split. It came to me then that it was as though Norhala were the overspirit of this chimera — as though it caught and understood and obeyed each quick thought of hers.
As though, indeed, she was a PART of it — as IT was in reality a part of that infinitely greater Thing, crouching there in its lair of the Pit — the Metal Monster that had lent this living part of itself to her for a steed, a champion. Little time had I to consider such matters.
Up thrust the Shape before us. Into it raced and spun Things angled, Things curved and Things squared. It gathered itself into a Titanic pillar out of which, instantly, thrust scores of arms.
Over them great globes raced; after these flew other scores of huge pyramids, none less than ten feet in height, the mass of them twenty and thirty. The manifold arms grew rigid. Quiet for a moment, a Titanic metal Briareous, it stood.
Then at the tips of the arms the globes began to spin — faster, faster. Upon them I saw the hosts of the pyramids open — as one into a host of stars. The cleft leaped out in a flood of violet light.
Now for another instant the stars which had been motionless, poised upon the whirling spheres, joined in their mad spinning. Cyclopean pin wheels they turned; again as one they ceased. More brilliant now was their light, dazzling; as though in their whirling they had gathered greater force.
Under me I felt the split Thing quiver with eagerness.
From the stars came a hurricane of lightning! A cataract of electric flame poured into the crack, splashed and guttered down the granite walls. We were blinded by it; were deafened with thunders.
The face of the precipice smoked and split; was whirled away in clouds of dust.
The crack widened — widened as a gulley in a sand bank does when a swift stream rushes through it. Lightnings these were — and more than lightnings; lightnings keyed up to an invincible annihilating weapon that could rend and split and crumble to atoms the living granite.
Steadily the cleft expanded. As its walls melted away the Blasting Thing advanced, spurting into it the flaming torrents. Behind it we crept. The dust of the shattered rocks swirled up toward us like angry ghosts — before they reached us they were blown away as though by strong winds streaming from beneath us.
On we went, blinded, deafened. Interminably, it seemed, poured forth the hurricane of blue fire; interminably the thunder bellowed.
There came a louder clamor — volcanic, chaotic, dulling the thunders. The sides of the cleft quivered, bent outward. They split; crashed down. Bright daylight poured in upon us, a flood of light toward which the billows of dust rushed as though seeking escape; out it poured like the smoke of ten thousand cannon.
And the Blasting Thing shook — as though with laughter!
The stars closed. Back into the Shape ran globe and pyramid. It slid toward us — joined the body from which it had broken away. Through all the mass ran a wave of jubilation, a pulse of mirth — a colossal, metallic — SILENT— roar of laughter.
We glided forward — out of the cleft. I felt a shifting movement.
Up and up we were thrust. Dazed I looked behind me. In the face of a sky climbing wall of rock, smoked a wide chasm. Out of it the billowing clouds of dust still streamed, pursuing, threatening us. The whole granite barrier seemed to quiver with agony. Higher we rose and higher.
“Look,” whispered Drake, and whirled me around.
Less than five miles away was Ruszark, the City of Cherkis. And it was like some ancient city come into life out of long dead centuries. A page restored from once conquering Persia’s crumbled book. A city of the Chosroes transported by Jinns into our own time.
Built around and upon a low mount, it stood within a valley but little larger than the Pit. The plain was level, as though once it had been the floor of some primeval lake; the hill of the City was its only elevation.
Beyond, I caught the glinting of a narrow stream, meandering. The valley was ringed with precipitous cliffs falling sheer to its floor.
Slowly we advanced.
The city was almost square, guarded by double walls of hewn stone. The first raised itself a hundred feet on high, turreted and parapeted and pierced with gates. Perhaps a quarter of a mile behind it the second fortification thrust up.
The city itself I estimated covered about ten square miles. It ran upward in broad terraces. It was very fair, decked with blossoming gardens and green groves. Among the clustering granite houses, red and yellow roofed, thrust skyward tall spires and towers. Upon the mount’s top was a broad, flat plaza on which were great buildings, marble white and golden roofed; temples I thought, or palaces, or both.
Running to the city out of the grain fields and steads that surrounded it, were scores of little figures, rat-like. Here and there among them I glimpsed horsemen, arms and armor glittering. All were racing to the gates and the shelter of the battlements.
Nearer we drew. From the walls came now a faint sound of gongs, of drums, of shrill, flutelike pipings. Upon them I could see hosts gathering; hosts of swarming little figures whose bodies glistened, from above whom came gleamings — the light striking upon their helms, their spear and javelin tips.
“Ruszark!” breathed Norhala, eyes wide, red lips cruelly smiling. “Lo — I am before your gates. Lo — I am here — and was there ever joy like this!”
The constellations in her eyes blazed. Beautiful, beautiful was Norhala — as Isis punishing Typhon for the murder of Osiris; as avenging Diana; shining from her something of the spirit of all wrathful Goddesses.
The flaming hair whirled and snapped. From all her sweet body came white-hot furious force, a withering perfume of destruction. She pressed against me, and I trembled at the contact.
Lawless, wild imaginings ran through me. Life, human life, dwindled. The City seemed but a thing of toys.
On — let us crush it! On — on!
Again the monster shook beneath us. Faster we moved. Louder grew the clangor of the drums, the gongs, the pipes. Nearer came the walls; and ever more crowded with the swarming human ants that manned them.
We were close upon the heels of the last fleeing stragglers. The Thing slackened in its stride; waited patiently until they were close to the gates. Before they could reach them I heard the brazen clanging of their valves. Those shut out beat frenziedly upon them; dragged themselves close to the base of the battlements, cowered there or crept along them seeking some hole in which to hide.
With a slow lowering of its height the Thing advanced. Now its form was that of a spindle a full mile in length on whose bulging center we three stood.
A hundred feet from the outer wall we halted. We looked down upon it not more than fifty feet above its broad top. Hundreds of the soldiers were crouching behind the parapets, companies of archers with great bows poised, arrows at their cheeks, scores of leather jerkined men with stands of javelins at their right hands, spearsmen and men with long, thonged slings.
Set at intervals were squat, powerful engines of wood and metal beside which were heaps of huge, rounded boulders. Catapults I knew them to be and around each swarmed a knot of soldiers, fixing the great stones in place, drawing back the thick ropes that, loosened, would hurl forth the projectiles. From each side came other men, dragging more of these balisters; assembling a battery against the prodigious, gleaming monster that menaced their city.
Between outer wall and inner battlements galloped squadrons of mounted men. Upon this inner wall the soldiers clustered as thickly as on the outer, preparing as actively for its defense.
The city seethed. Up from it arose a humming, a buzzing, as of some immense angry hive.
Involuntarily I visualized the spectacle we must present to those who looked upon us — this huge incredible Shape of metal alive with quicksilver shifting. This — as it must have seemed to them — hellish mechanism of war captained by a sorceress and two familiars in form of men. There came to me dreadful visions of such a monster looking down upon the peace-reared battlements of New York — the panic rush of thousands away from it.
There was a blaring of trumpets. Up on the parapet leaped a man clad all in gleaming red armor. From head to feet the close linked scales covered him. Within a hood shaped somewhat like the tight-fitting head coverings of the Crusaders a pallid, cruel face looked out upon us; in the fierce black eyes was no trace of fear.
Evil as Norhala had said these people of Ruszark were, wicked and cruel — they were no cowards, no!
The red armored man threw up a hand.
“Who are you?” he shouted. “Who are you three, you three who come driving down upon Ruszark through the rocks? We have no quarrel with you?”
“I seek a man and a maid,” cried Norhala. “A maid and a sick man your thieves took from me. Bring him forth!”
“Seek elsewhere for them then,” he answered. “They are not here. Turn now and seek elsewhere. Go quickly, lest I loose our might upon you and you go never.”
Mockingly rang her laughter — and under its lash the black eyes grew fiercer, the cruelty on the white face darkened.
“Little man whose words are so big! Fly who thunders! What are you called, little man?”
Her raillery bit deep — but its menace passed unheeded in the rage it called forth.
“I am Kulun,” shouted the man in scarlet armor. “Kulun, the son of Cherkis the Mighty, and captain of his hosts. Kulun — who will cast your skin under my mares in stall for them to trample and thrust your red flayed body upon a pole in the grain fields to frighten away the crows! Does that answer you?”
Her laughter ceased; her eyes dwelt upon him — filled with an infernal joy.
“The son of Cherkis!” I heard her murmur. “He has a son —”
There was a sneer on the cruel face; clearly he thought her awed. Quick was his disillusionment.
“Listen, Kulun,” she cried. “I am Norhala — daughter of another Norhala and of Rustum, whom Cherkis tortured and slew. Now go, you lying spawn of unclean toads — go and tell your father that I, Norhala, am at his gates. And bring back with you the maid and the man. Go, I say!”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:11