Norhala’s hand that had gone from my wrist dropped down again; the other fell upon Drake’s.
Kulun loosed his hood, let it fall about his shoulders.
He stepped forward, held out his arms to Norhala.
“A strong man!” she cried approvingly. “Hail — my bridegroom! But stay — stand back a moment. Stand beside that man for whom I came to Ruszark. I would see you together!”
Kulun’s face darkened. But Cherkis smiled with evil understanding, shrugged his shoulders and whispered to him. Sullenly Kulun stepped back. The ring of the archers lowered their bows; they leaped to their feet and stood aside to let him pass.
Quick as a serpent’s tongue a pyramid tipped tentacle flicked out beneath us. It darted through the broken circle of the bowmen.
It LICKED up Ruth and Ventnor and — Kulun!
Swiftly as it had swept forth it returned, coiled and dropped those two I loved at Norhala’s feet.
It flashed back on high with the scarlet length of Cherkis’s son sprawled along its angled end.
The great body of Cherkis seemed to wither.
Up from all the wall went a tempestuous sigh of horror.
Out rang the merciless chimes of Norhala’s laughter.
“Tchai!” she cried. “Tchai! Fat fool there. Tchai — you Cherkis! Toad whose wits have sickened with your years!
“Did you think to catch me, Norhala, in your filthy web? Princess! Queen! Empress of Earth! Ho — old fox I have outplayed and beaten, what now have you to trade with Norhala?”
Mouth sagging open, eyes glaring, the tyrant slowly raised his arms — a suppliant.
“You would have back the bridegroom you gave me?” she laughed. “Take him, then.”
Down swept the metal arm that held Kulun. The arm dropped Cherkis’s son at Cherkis’s feet; and as though Kulun had been a grape — it crushed him!
Before those who had seen could stir from their stupor the tentacle hovered over Cherkis, glaring down at the horror that had been his son.
It did not strike him — it drew him up to it as a magnet draws a pin.
And as the pin swings from the magnet when held suspended by the head, so swung the great body of Cherkis from the under side of the pyramid that held him. Hanging so he was carried toward us, came to a stop not ten feet from us —
Weird, weird beyond all telling was that scene — and would I had the power to make you who read see it as we did.
The animate, living Shape of metal on which we stood, with its forest of hammer-handed arms raised menacingly along its mile of spindled length; the great walls glistening with the armored hosts; the terraces of that fair and ancient city, their gardens and green groves and clustering red and yellow-roofed houses and temples and palaces; the swinging gross body of Cherkis in the clutch of the unseen grip of the tentacle, his grizzled hair touching the side of the pyramid that held him, his arms half outstretched, the gemmed cloak flapping like the wings of a jeweled bat, his white, malignant face in which the evil eyes were burning slits flaming hell’s own blackest hatred; and beyond the city, from which pulsed almost visibly a vast and hopeless horror, the watching column — and over all this the palely radiant white sky under whose light the encircling cliffs were tremendous stony palettes splashed with a hundred pigments.
Norhala’s laughter had ceased. Somberly she looked upon Cherkis, into the devil fires of his eyes.
“Cherkis!” she half whispered. “Now comes the end for you — and for all that is yours! But until the end’s end you shall see.”
The hanging body was thrust forward; was thrust up; was brought down upon its feet on the upper plane of the prostrate pyramid tipping the metal arm that held him. For an instant he struggled to escape; I think he meant to hurl himself down upon Norhala, to kill her before he himself was slain.
If so, after one frenzied effort he realized the futility, for with a certain dignity he drew himself upright, turned his eyes toward the city.
Over that city a dreadful silence hung. It was as though it cowered, hid its face, was afraid to breathe.
“The end!” murmured Norhala.
There was a quick trembling through the Metal Thing. Down swung its forest of sledges. Beneath the blow down fell the smitten walls, shattered, crumbling, and with it glittering like shining flies in a dust storm fell the armored men.
Through that mile-wide breach and up to the inner barrier I glimpsed confusion chaotic. And again I say it — they were no cowards, those men of Cherkis. From the inner battlements flew clouds of arrows, of huge stones — as uselessly as before.
Then out from the opened gates poured regiments of horsemen, brandishing javelins and great maces, and shouting fiercely as they drove down upon each end of the Metal Shape. Under cover of their attack I saw cloaked riders spurring their ponies across the plain to shelter of the cliff walls, to the chance of hiding places within them. Women and men of the rich, the powerful, flying for safety; after them ran and scattered through the fields of grain a multitude on foot.
The ends of the spindle drew back before the horsemen’s charge, broadening as they went — like the heads of monstrous cobras withdrawing into their hoods. Abruptly, with a lightning velocity, these broadenings expanded into immense lunettes, two tremendous curving and crablike claws. Their tips flung themselves past the racing troops; then like gigantic pincers began to contract.
Of no avail now was it for the horsemen to halt dragging their mounts on their haunches, or to turn to fly. The ends of the lunettes had met, the pincer tips had closed. The mounted men were trapped within half-mile-wide circles. And in upon man and horse their living walls marched. Within those enclosures of the doomed began a frantic milling — I shut my eyes —
There was a dreadful screaming of horses, a shrieking of men. Then silence.
Shuddering, I looked. Where the mounted men had been was — nothing.
Nothing? There were two great circular spaces whose floors were glistening, wetly red. Fragments of man or horse — there was none. They had been crushed into — what was it Norhala had promised — had been stamped into the rock beneath the feet of her — servants.
Sick, I looked away and stared at a Thing that writhed and undulated over the plain; a prodigious serpentine Shape of cubes and spheres linked and studded thick with the spikes of the pyramid. Through the fields, over the plain its coils flashed.
Playfully it sped and twisted among the fugitives, crushing them, tossing them aside broken, gliding over them. Some there were who hurled themselves upon it in impotent despair, some who knelt before it, praying. On rolled the metal convolutions, inexorable.
Within my vision’s range there were no more fugitives. Around a corner of the broken battlements raced the serpent Shape. Where it had writhed was now no waving grain, no trees, no green thing. There was only smooth rock upon which here and there red smears glistened wetly.
Afar there was a crying, in its wake a rumbling. It was the column, it came to me, at work upon the further battlements. As though the sound had been a signal the spindle trembled; up we were thrust another hundred feet or more. Back dropped the host of brandished arms, threaded themselves into the parent bulk.
Right and left of us the spindle split into scores of fissures. Between these fissures the Metal Things that made up each now dissociate and shapeless mass geysered; block and sphere and tetrahedron spike spun and swirled. There was an instant of formlessness.
Then right and left of us stood scores of giant, grotesque warriors. Their crests were fully fifty feet below our living platform. They stood upon six immense, columnar stilts. These sextuple legs supported a hundred feet above their bases a huge and globular body formed of clusters of the spheres. Out from each of these bodies that were at one and the same time trunks and heads, sprang half a score of colossal arms shaped like flails; like spike-studded girders, Titanic battle maces, Cyclopean sledges.
From legs and trunks and arms the tiny eyes of the Metal Hordes flashed, exulting.
There came from them, from the Thing we rode as well, a chorus of thin and eager wailings and pulsed through all that battle-line, a jubilant throbbing.
Then with a rhythmic, JOCUND stride they leaped upon the city.
Under the mallets of the smiting arms the inner battlements fell as under the hammers of a thousand metal Thors. Over their fragments and the armored men who fell with them strode the Things, grinding stone and man together as we passed.
All of the terraced city except the side hidden by the mount lay open to my gaze. In that brief moment of pause I saw crazed crowds battling in narrow streets, trampling over mounds of the fallen, surging over barricades of bodies, clawing and tearing at each other in their flight.
There was a wide, stepped street of gleaming white stone that climbed like an immense stairway straight up the slope to that broad plaza at the top where clustered the great temples and palaces — the Acropolis of the city. Into it the streets of the terraces flowed, each pouring out upon it a living torrent, tumultuous with tuliped, sparkling little waves, the gay coverings and the arms and armor of Ruszark’s desperate thousands seeking safety at the shrines of their gods.
Here great carven arches arose; there slender, exquisite towers capped with red gold — there was a street of colossal statues, another over which dozens of graceful, fretted bridges threw their spans from feathery billows of flowering trees; there were gardens gay with blossoms in which fountains sparkled, green groves; thousands upon thousands of bright multicolored pennants, banners, fluttered.
A fair, a lovely city was Cherkis’s stronghold of Ruszark.
Its beauty filled the eyes; out from it streamed the fragrance of its gardens — the voice of its agony was that of the souls in Dis.
The row of destroying shapes lengthened, each huge warrior of metal drawing far apart from its mates. They flexed their manifold arms, shadow boxed — grotesquely, dreadfully.
Down struck the flails, the sledges. Beneath the blows the buildings burst like eggshells, their fragments burying the throngs fighting for escape in the thoroughfares that threaded them. Over their ruins we moved.
Down and ever down crashed the awful sledges. And ever under them the city crumbled.
There was a spider Shape that crawled up the wide stairway hammering into the stone those who tried to flee before it.
Stride by stride the Destroying Things ate up the city.
I felt neither wrath nor pity. Through me beat a jubilant roaring pulse — as though I were a shouting corpuscle of the rushing hurricane, as though I were one of the hosts of smiting spirits of the bellowing typhoon.
Through this stole another thought — vague, unfamiliar, yet seemingly of truth’s own essence. Why, I wondered, had I never recognized this before? Why had I never known that these green forms called trees were but ugly, unsymmetrical excrescences? That these high projections of towers, these buildings were deformities?
That these four-pronged, moving little shapes that screamed and ran were — hideous?
They must be wiped out! All this misshapen, jumbled, inharmonious ugliness must be wiped out! It must be ground down to smooth unbroken planes, harmonious curvings, shapeliness — harmonies of arc and line and angle!
Something deep within me fought to speak — fought to tell me that this thought was not human thought, not my thought — that it was the reflected thought of the Metal Things!
It told me — and fiercely it struggled to make me realize what it was that it told. Its insistence was borne upon little despairing, rhythmic beatings — throbbings that were like the muffled sobbings of the drums of grief. Louder, closer came the throbbing; clearer with it my perception of the inhumanness of my thought.
The drum beat tapped at my humanity, became a dolorous knocking at my heart.
It was the sobbing of Cherkis!
The gross face was shrunken, the cheeks sagging in folds of woe; cruelty and wickedness were wiped from it; the evil in the eyes had been washed out by tears. Eyes streaming, bull throat and barrel chest racked by his sobbing, he watched the passing of his people and his city.
And relentlessly, coldly, Norhala watched him — as though loath to lose the faintest shadow of his agony.
Now I saw we were close to the top of the mount. Packed between us and the immense white structures that crowned it were thousands of the people. They fell on their knees before us, prayed to us. They tore at each other, striving to hide themselves from us in the mass that was themselves. They beat against the barred doors of the sanctuaries; they climbed the pillars; they swarmed over the golden roofs.
There was a moment of chaos — a chaos of which we were the heart. Then temple and palace cracked, burst; were shattered; fell. I caught glimpses of gleaming sculptures, glitterings of gold and of silver, flashing of gems, shimmering of gorgeous draperies — under them a weltering of men and women.
We closed down upon them — over them!
The dreadful sobbing ceased. I saw the head of Cherkis swing heavily upon a shoulder; the eyes closed.
The Destroying Things touched. Their flailing arms coiled back, withdrew into their bodies. They joined, forming for an instant a tremendous hollow pillar far down in whose center we stood. They parted; shifted in shape? rolled down the mount over the ruins like a widening wave — crushing into the stone all over which they passed.
Afar away I saw the gleaming serpent still at play — still writhing among, still obliterating the few score scattered fugitives that some way, somehow, had slipped by the Destroying Things.
We halted. For one long moment Norhala looked upon the drooping body of him upon whom she had let fall this mighty vengeance.
Then the metal arm that held Cherkis whirled. Thrown from it, the cloaked form flew like a great blue bat. It fell upon the flattened mound that had once been the proud crown of his city. A blue blot upon desolation the broken body of Cherkis lay.
A black speck appeared high in the sky; grew fast — the lammergeier.
“I have left carrion for you — after all!” cried Norhala.
With an ebon swirling of wings the vulture dropped beside the blue heap — thrust in it its beak.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58