Slowly we descended that mount of desolation; lingeringly, as though the brooding eyes of Norhala were not yet sated with destruction. Of human life, of green life, of life of any kind there was none.
Man and tree, woman and flower, babe and bud, palace, temple and home — Norhala had stamped flat. She had crushed them within the rock — even as she had promised.
The tremendous tragedy had absorbed my every faculty; I had had no time to think of my companions; I had forgotten them. Now in the painful surges of awakening realization, of full human understanding of that inhuman annihilation, I turned to them for strength. Faintly I wondered again at Ruth’s scantiness of garb, her more than half nudity; dwelt curiously upon the red brand across Ventnor’s forehead.
In his eyes and in Drake’s I saw reflected the horror I knew was in my own. But in the eyes of Ruth was none of this — sternly, coldly triumphant, indifferent to its piteousness as Norhala herself, she scanned the waste that less than an hour since had been a place of living beauty.
I felt a shock of repulsion. After all, those who had been destroyed so ruthlessly could not ALL have been wholly evil. Yet mother and blossoming maid, youth and oldster, all the pageant of humanity within the great walls were now but lines within the stone. According to their different lights, it came to me, there had been in Ruszark no greater number of the wicked than one could find in any great city of our own civilization.
From Norhala, of course, I looked for no perception of any of this. But from Ruth —
My reaction grew; the pity long withheld racing through me linked with a burning anger, a hatred for this woman who had been the directing soul of that catastrophe.
My gaze fell again upon the red brand. I saw that it was a deep indentation as though a thong had been twisted around Ventnor’s head biting the bone. There was dried blood on the edges, a double ring of swollen white flesh rimming the cincture. It was the mark of — torture!
“Martin,” I cried. “That ring? What did they do to you?”
“They waked me with that,” he answered quietly. “I suppose I ought to be grateful — although their intentions were not exactly — therapeutic —”
“They tortured him,” Ruth’s voice was tense, bitter; she spoke in Persian — for Norhala’s benefit I thought then, not guessing a deeper reason. “They tortured him. They gave him agony until he — returned. And they promised him other agonies that would make him pray long for death.
“And me — me”— she raised little clenched hands —“me they stripped like a slave. They led me through the city and the people mocked me. They took me before that swine Norhala has punished — and stripped me before him — like a slave. Before my eyes they tortured my brother. Norhala — they were evil, all evil! Norhala — you did well to slay them!”
She caught the woman’s hands, pressed close to her. Norhala gazed at her from great gray eyes in which the wrath was dying, into which the old tranquillity, the old serenity was flowing. And when she spoke the golden voice held more than returning echoes of the far-away, faint chimings.
“It is done,” she said. “And it was well done — sister. Now you and I shall dwell together in peace — sister. Or if there be those in the world from which you came that you would have slain, then you and I shall go forth with our companies and stamp them out — even as I did these.”
My heart stopped beating — for from the depths of Ruth’s eyes shining shadows were rising, wraiths answering Norhala’s calling; and, as they rose, steadily they drew life from the clear radiance summoning — drew closer to the semblance of that tranquil spirit which her vengeance had banished but that had now returned to its twin thrones of Norhala’s eyes.
And at last it was twin sister of Norhala who looked upon her from the face of Ruth!
The white arms of the woman encircled her; the glorious head bent over her; flaming tresses mingled with tender brown curls.
“Sister!” she whispered. “Little sister! These men you shall have as long as it pleases you — to do with as you will. Or if it is your wish they shall go back to their world and I will guard them to its gates.
“But you and I, little sister, will dwell together — in the vastnesses — in the peace. Shall it not be so?”
With no faltering, with no glance toward us three — lover, brother, old friend — Ruth crept closer to her, rested her head upon the virginal, royal breasts.
“It shall be so!” she murmured. “Sister — it shall be so. Norhala — I am tired. Norhala — I have seen enough of men.”
An ecstasy of tenderness, a flame of unearthly rapture, trembled over the woman’s wondrous face. Hungrily, defiantly, she pressed the girl to her; the stars in the lucid heavens of her eyes were soft and gentle and caressing.
“Ruth!” cried Drake — and sprang toward them. She paid no heed; and even as he leaped he was caught, whirled back against us.
“Wait,” said Ventnor, and caught him by the arm as wrathfully, blindedly, he strove against the force that held him. “Wait. No use — now.”
There was a curious understanding in his voice — a curious sympathy, too, in the patient, untroubled gaze that dwelt upon his sister and this weirdly exquisite woman who held her.
“Wait!” exclaimed Drake. “Wait — hell! The damned witch is stealing her away from us!”
Again he threw himself forward; recoiled as though swept back by an invisible arm; fell against us and was clasped and held by Ventnor. And as he struggled the Thing we rode halted. Like metal waves back into it rushed the enigmatic billows that had washed over the fragments of the city.
We were lifted; between us and the woman and girl a cleft appeared; it widened into a rift. It was as though Norhala had decreed it as a symbol of this her second victory — or had set it between us as a barrier.
Wider grew the rift. Save for the bridge of our voices it separated us from Ruth as though she stood upon another world.
Higher we rose; the three of us now upon the flat top of a tower upon whose counterpart fifty feet away and facing the homeward path, Ruth and Norhala stood with white arms interlaced.
The serpent shape flashed toward us; it vanished beneath, merging into the waiting Thing.
Then slowly the Thing began to move; quietly it glided to the chasm it had blasted in the cliff wall. The shadow of those walls fell upon us. As one we looked back; as one we searched out the patch of blue with the black blot at its breast.
We found it; then the precipices hid it. Silently we streamed through the chasm, through the canyon and the tunnel — speaking no word, Drake’s eyes fixed with bitter hatred upon Norhala, Ventnor brooding upon her always with that enigmatic sympathy. We passed between the walls of the further cleft; stood for an instant at the brink of the green forest.
There came to us as though from immeasurable distances, a faint, sustained thrumming — like the beating of countless muffled drums. The Thing that carried us trembled — the sound died away. The Thing quieted; it began its steady, effortless striding through the crowding trees — but now with none of that speed with which it had come, spurred forward by Norhala’s awakened hate.
Ventnor stirred; broke the silence. And now I saw how wasted was his body, how sharpened his face; almost ethereal; purged not only by suffering but by, it came to me, some strange knowledge.
“No use, Drake,” he said dreamily. “All this is now on the knees of the gods. And whether those gods are humanity’s or whether they are — Gods of Metal — I do not know.
“But this I do know — only one way or another can the balance fall; and if it be one way, then you and we shall have Ruth back. And if it falls the other way — then there will be little need for us to care. For man will be done!”
“Martin! What do you mean?”
“It is the crisis,” he answered. “We can do nothing, Goodwin — nothing. Whatever is to be steps forth now from the womb of Destiny.”
Again there came that distant rolling — louder, now. Again the Thing trembled.
“The drums,” whispered Ventnor. “The drums of destiny. What is it they are heralding? A new birth of Earth and the passing of man? A new child to whom shall be given dominion — nay, to whom has been given dominion? Or is it — taps — for Them?”
The drumming died as I listened — fearfully. About us was only the swishing, the sighing of the falling trees beneath the tread of the Thing. Motionless stood Norhala; and as motionless Ruth.
“Martin,” I cried once more, a dreadful doubt upon me. “Martin — what do you mean?”
“Whence did — They — come?” His voice was clear and calm, the eyes beneath the red brand clear and quiet, too. “Whence did They come — these Things that carry us? That strode like destroying angels over Cherkis’s city? Are they spawn of Earth — as we are? Or are they foster children — changelings from another star?
“These creatures that when many still are one — that when one still are many. Whence did They come? What are They?”
He looked down upon the cubes that held us; their hosts of tiny eyes shone up at him, enigmatically — as though they heard and understood.
“I do not forget,” he said. “At least not all do I forget of what I saw during that time when I seemed an atom outside space — as I told you, or think I told you, speaking with unthinkable effort through lips that seemed eternities away from me, the atom, who strove to open them.
“There were three — visions, revelations — I know not what to call them. And though each seemed equally real, of two of them, only one, I think, can be true; and of the third — that may some time be true but surely is not yet.”
Through the air came a louder drum roll — in it something ominous, something sinister. It swelled to a crescendo; abruptly ceased. And now I saw Norhala raise her head; listen.
“I saw a world, a vast world, Goodwin, marching stately through space. It was no globe — it was a world of many facets, of smooth and polished planes; a huge blue jewel world, dimly luminous; a crystal world cut out from Aether. A geometric thought of the Great Cause, of God, if you will, made material. It was airless, waterless, sunless.
“I seemed to draw closer to it. And then I saw that over every facet patterns were traced; gigantic symmetrical designs; mathematical hieroglyphs. In them I read unthinkable calculations, formulas of interwoven universes, arithmetical progressions of armies of stars, pandects of the motions of the suns. In the patterns was an appalling harmony — as though all the laws from those which guide the atom to those which direct the cosmos were there resolved into completeness — totalled.
“The faceted world was like a cosmic abacist, tallying as it marched the errors of the infinite.
“The patterned symbols constantly changed form. I drew nearer — the symbols were alive. They were, in untold numbers — These!”
He pointed to the Thing that bore us.
“I was swept back; looked again upon it from afar. And a fantastic notion came to me — fantasy it was, of course, yet built I know around a nucleus of strange truth. It was”— his tone was half whimsical, half apologetic —“it was that this jeweled world was ridden by some mathematical god, driving it through space, noting occasionally with amused tolerance the very bad arithmetic of another Deity the reverse of mathematical — a more or less haphazard Deity, the god, in fact, of us and the things we call living.
“It had no mission; it wasn’t at all out to do any reforming; it wasn’t in the least concerned in rectifying any of the inaccuracies of the Other. Only now and then it took note of the deplorable differences between the worlds it saw and its own impeccably ordered and tidy temple with its equally tidy servitors.
“Just an itinerant demiurge of supergeometry riding along through space on its perfectly summed-up world; master of all celestial mechanics; its people independent of all that complex chemistry and labor for equilibrium by which we live; needing neither air nor water, heeding neither heat nor cold; fed with the magnetism of interstellar space and stopping now and then to banquet off the energy of some great sun.”
A thrill of amazement passed through me; fantasy all this might be but — how, if so, had he gotten that last thought? He had not seen, as we had, the orgy in the Hall of the Cones, the prodigious feeding of the Metal Monster upon our sun.
“That passed,” he went on, unnoticing. “I saw vast caverns filled with the Things; working, growing, multiplying. In caverns of our Earth — the fruit of some unguessed womb? I do not know.
“But in those caverns, under countless orbs of many colored lights”— again the thrill of amaze shook me — “they grew. It came to me that they were reaching out toward sunlight and the open. They burst into it — into yellow, glowing sunlight. Ours? I do not know. And that picture passed.”
His voice deepened.
“There came a third vision. I saw our Earth — I knew, Goodwin, indisputably, unmistakably that it was our earth. But its rolling hills were leveled, its mountains were ground and shaped into cold and polished symbols — geometric, fashioned.
“The seas were fettered, gleaming like immense jewels in patterned settings of crystal shores. The very Polar ice was chiseled. On the ordered plains were traced the hieroglyphs of the faceted world. And on all Earth, Goodwin, there was no green life, no city, no trace of man. On this Earth that had been ours were only — These.
“Visioning!” he said. “Don’t think that I accept them in their entirety. Part truth, part illusion — the groping mind dazzled with light of unfamiliar truths and making pictures from half light and half shadow to help it understand.
“But still — SOME truth in them. How much I do not know. But this I do know — that last vision was of a cataclysm whose beginnings we face now — this very instant.”
The picture flashed behind my own eyes — of the walled city, its thronging people, its groves and gardens, its science and its art; of the Destroying Shapes trampling it flat — and then the dreadful, desolate mount.
And suddenly I saw that mount as Earth — the city as Earth’s cities — its gardens and groves as Earth’s fields and forests — and the vanished people of Cherkis seemed to expand into all humanity.
“But Martin,” I stammered, fighting against choking, intolerable terror, “there was something else. Something of the Keeper of the Cones and of our striking through the sun to destroy the Things — something of them being governed by the same laws that govern us and that if they broke them they must fall. A hope — a PROMISE, that they would NOT conquer.”
“I remember,” he replied, “but not clearly. There WAS something — a shadow upon them, a menace. It was a shadow that seemed to be born of our own world — some threatening spirit of earth hovering over them.
“I cannot remember; it eludes me. Yet it is because I remember but a little of it that I say those drums may not be — taps — for us.”
As though his words had been a cue, the sounds again burst forth — no longer muffled nor faint. They roared; they seemed to pelt through air and drop upon us; they beat about our ears with thunderous tattoo like covered caverns drummed upon by Titans with trunks of great trees.
The drumming did not die; it grew louder, more vehement; defiant and deafening. Within the Thing under us a mighty pulse began to throb, accelerating rapidly to the rhythm of that clamorous roll.
I saw Norhala draw herself up, sharply; stand listening and alert. Under me, the throbbing turned to an uneasy churning, a ferment.
“Drums?” muttered Drake. “THEY’RE no drums. It’s drum fire. It’s like a dozen Marnes, a dozen Verduns. But where could batteries like those come from?”
“Drums,” whispered Ventnor. “They ARE drums. The drums of Destiny!”
Louder the roaring grew. Now it was a tremendous rhythmic cannonading. The Thing halted. The tower that upheld Ruth and Norhala swayed, bent over the gap between us, touched the top on which we rode.
Gently the two were plucked up; swiftly they were set beside us.
Came a shrill, keen wailing — louder than ever I had heard before. There was an earthquake trembling; a maelstrom swirling in which we spun; a swift sinking.
The Thing split in two. Up before us rose a stupendous, stepped pyramid; little smaller it was than that which Cheops built to throw its shadows across holy Nile. Into it streamed, over it clicked, score upon score of cubes, building it higher and higher. It lurched forward — away from us.
From Norhala came a single cry — resonant, blaring like a wrathful, golden trumpet.
The speeding shape halted, hesitated; it seemed about to return. Crashed down upon us an abrupt crescendo of the distant drumming; peremptory, commanding. The shape darted forward; raced away crushing to straw the trees beneath it in a full quarter-mile-wide swath.
Great gray eyes wide, filled with incredulous wonder, stunned disbelief, Norhala for an instant faltered. Then out of her white throat, through her red lips pelted a tempest of staccato buglings.
Under them what was left of the Thing leaped, tore on. Norhala’s flaming hair crackled and streamed; about her body of milk and pearl — about Ruth’s creamy skin — a radiant nimbus began to glow.
In the distance I saw a sapphire spark; knew it for Norhala’s home. Not far from it now was the rushing pyramid — and it came to me that within that shape was strangely neither globe nor pyramid. Nor except for the trembling cubes that made the platform on which we stood, did the shrunken Thing carrying us hold any unit of the Metal Monster except its spheres and tetrahedrons — at least within its visible bulk.
The sapphire spark had grown to a glimmering azure marble. Steadily we gained upon the pyramid. Never for an instant ceased that scourging hail of notes from Norhala — never for an instant lessened the drumming clamor that seemed to try to smother them.
The sapphire marble became a sapphire ball, a great globe. I saw the Thing we sought to join lift itself into a prodigious pillar; the pillar’s base thrust forth stilts; upon them the Thing stepped over the blue dome of Norhala’s house.
The blue bubble was close; now it curved below us. Gently we were lifted down; were set before its portal. I looked up at the bulk that had carried us.
I had been right — built it was only of globe and pyramid; an inconceivably grotesque shape, it hung over us.
Throughout the towering Shape was awful movement; its units writhed within it. Then it was lost to sight in the mists through which the Thing we had pursued had gone.
In Norhala’s face as she watched it go was a dismay, a poignant uncertainty, that held in it something indescribably pitiful.
“I am afraid!” I heard her whisper.
She tightened her grasp upon dreaming Ruth; motioned us to go within. We passed, silently; behind us she came, followed by three of the great globes, by a pair of her tetrahedrons.
Beside a pile of the silken stuffs she halted. The girl’s eyes dwelt upon hers trustingly.
“I am afraid!” whispered Norhala again. “Afraid — for you!”
Tenderly she looked down upon her, the galaxies of stars in her eyes soft and tremulous.
“I am afraid, little sister,” she whispered for the third time. “Not yet can you go as I do — among the fires.” She hesitated. “Rest here until I return. I shall leave these to guard you and obey you.”
She motioned to the five shapes. They ranged themselves about Ruth. Norhala kissed her upon both brown eyes.
“Sleep till I return,” she murmured.
She swept from the chamber — with never a glance for us three. I heard a little wailing chorus without, fast dying into silence.
Spheres and pyramids twinkled at us, guarding the silken pile whereon Ruth lay asleep — like some enchanted princess.
Beat down upon the blue globe like hollow metal worlds, beaten and shrieking.
The drums of Destiny!
The drums of Doom!
Beating taps for the world of men?
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58