Silently we looked at each other, and silently we passed out of the courtyard. The dread was heavy upon me. The twilight was stealing upon the close-clustered peaks. Another hour, and their amethyst-and-purple mantles would drop upon them; snowfields and glaciers sparkle out in irised beauty; nightfall.
As I gazed upon them I wondered to what secret place within their brooding immensities the little metal mysteries had fled. And to what myriads, it might be, of their kind? And these hidden hordes — of what shapes were they? Of what powers? Small like these, or — or —
Quick on the screen of my mind flashed two pictures, side by side — the little four-rayed print in the great dust of the crumbling ruin and its colossal twin on the breast of the poppied valley.
I turned aside, crept through the shattered portal and looked over the haunted hollow.
Unbelieving, I rubbed my eyes; then leaped to the very brim of the bowl.
A lark had risen from the roof of one of the shattered heaps and had flown caroling up into the shadowy sky.
A flock of the little willow warblers flung themselves across the valley, scolding and gossiping; a hare sat upright in the middle of the ancient roadway.
The valley itself lay serenely under the ambering light, smiling, peaceful — emptied of horror!
I dropped over the side, walked cautiously down the road up which but an hour or so before we had struggled so desperately; paced farther and farther with an increasing confidence and a growing wonder.
Gone was that soul of loneliness; vanished the whirlpool of despair that had striven to drag us down to death.
The bowl was nothing but a quiet, smiling lovely little hollow in the hills. I looked back. Even the ruins had lost their sinister shape; were time-worn, crumbling piles — nothing more.
I saw Ruth and Drake run out upon the ledge and beckon me; made my way back to them, running.
“It’s all right,” I shouted. “The place is all right.”
I stumbled up the side; joined them.
“It’s empty,” I cried. “Get Martin and Chiu–Ming quick! While the way’s open —”
A rifle-shot rang out above us; another and another. From the portal scampered Chiu–Ming, his robe tucked up about his knees.
“They come!” he gasped. “They come!”
There was a flashing of spears high up the winding mountain path. Down it was pouring an avalanche of men. I caught the glint of helmets and corselets. Those in the van were mounted, galloping two abreast upon sure-footed mountain ponies. Their short swords, lifted high, flickered.
After the horsemen swarmed foot soldiers, a forest of shining points and dully gleaming pikes above them. Clearly to us came their battlecries.
Again Ventnor’s rifle cracked. One of the foremost riders went down; another stumbled over him, fell. The rush was checked for an instant, milling upon the road.
“Dick,” I cried, “rush Ruth over to the tunnel mouth. We’ll follow. We can hold them there. I’ll get Martin. Chiu–Ming, after the pony, quick.”
I pushed the two over the rim of the hollow. Side by side the Chinaman and I ran back through the gateway. I pointed to the animal and rushed back into the fortress.
“Quick, Mart!” I shouted up the shattered stairway. “We can get through the hollow. Ruth and Drake are on their way to the break we came through. Hurry!”
“All right. Just a minute,” he called.
I heard him empty his magazine with almost machine-gun quickness. There was a short pause, and down the broken steps he leaped, gray eyes blazing.
“The pony?” He ran beside me toward the portal. “All my ammunition is on him.”
“Chiu–Ming’s taking care of that,” I gasped.
We darted out of the gateway. A good five hundred yards away were Ruth and Drake, running straight to the green tunnel’s mouth. Between them and us was Chiu–Ming urging on the pony.
As we sped after him I looked back. The horsemen had recovered, were now a scant half-mile from where the road swept past the fortress. I saw that with their swords the horsemen bore great bows. A little cloud of arrows sparkled from them; fell far short.
“Don’t look back,” grunted Ventnor. “Stretch yourself, Walter. There’s a surprise coming. Hope to God I judged the time right.”
We turned off the ruined way; raced over the sward.
“If it looks as though — we can’t make it,” he panted, “YOU beat it after the rest. I’ll try to hold ’em until you get into the tunnel. Never do for ’em to get Ruth.”
“Right.” My own breathing was growing labored, “WE’LL hold them. Drake can take care of Ruth.”
“Good boy,” he said. “I wouldn’t have asked you. It probably means death.”
“Very well,” I gasped, irritated. “But why borrow trouble?”
He reached out, touched me.
“You’re right, Walter,” he grinned. “It does — seem — like carrying coals — to Newcastle.”
There was a thunderous booming behind us; a shattering crash. A cloud of smoke and dust hung over the northern end of the ruined fortress.
It lifted swiftly, and I saw that the whole side of the structure had fallen, littering the road with its fragments. Scattered prone among these were men and horses; others staggered, screaming. On the farther side of this stony dike our pursuers were held like rushing waters behind a sudden fallen tree.
“Timed to a second!” cried Ventnor. “Hold ’em for a while. Fuses and dynamite. Blew out the whole side, right on ’em, by the Lord!”
On we fled. Chiu–Ming was now well in advance; Ruth and Dick less than half a mile from the opening of the green tunnel. I saw Drake stop, raise his rifle, empty it before him, and, holding Ruth by the hand, race back toward us.
Even as he turned, the vine-screened entrance through which we had come, through which we had thought lay safety, streamed other armored men. We were outflanked.
“To the fissure!” shouted Ventnor. Drake heard, for he changed his course to the crevice at whose mouth Ruth had said the — Little Things — had lain.
After him streaked Chiu–Ming, urging on the pony. Shouting out of the tunnel, down over the lip of the bowl, leaped the soldiers. We dropped upon our knees, sent shot after shot into them. They fell back, hesitated. We sprang up, sped on.
All too short was the check, but once more we held them — and again.
Now Ruth and Dick were a scant fifty yards from the crevice. I saw him stop, push her from him toward it. She shook her head.
Now Chiu–Ming was with them. Ruth sprang to the pony, lifted from its back a rifle. Then into the mass of their pursuers Drake and she poured a fusillade. They huddled, wavered, broke for cover.
“A chance!” gasped Ventnor.
Behind us was a wolflike yelping. The first pack had re-formed; had crossed the barricade the dynamite had made; was rushing upon us.
I ran as I had never known I could. Over us whined the bullets from the covering guns. Close were we now to the mouth of the fissure. If we could but reach it. Close, close were our pursuers, too — the arrows closer.
“No use!” said Ventnor. “We can’t make it. Meet ’em from the front. Drop — and shoot.”
We threw ourselves down, facing them. There came a triumphant shouting. And in that strange sharpening of the senses that always goes hand in hand with deadly peril, that is indeed nature’s summoning of every reserve to meet that peril, my eyes took them in with photographic nicety — the linked mail, lacquered blue and scarlet, of the horsemen; brown, padded armor of the footmen; their bows and javelins and short bronze swords, their pikes and shields; and under their round helmets their cruel, bearded faces — white as our own where the black beards did not cover them; their fierce and mocking eyes.
The springs of ancient Persia’s long dead power, these. Men of Xerxes’s ruthless, world-conquering hordes; the lustful, ravening wolves of Darius whom Alexander scattered — in this world of ours twenty centuries beyond their time!
Swiftly, accurately, even as I scanned them, we had been drilling into them. They advanced deliberately, heedless of their fallen. Their arrows had ceased to fly. I wondered why, for now we were well within their range. Had they orders to take us alive — at whatever cost to themselves?
“I’ve got only about ten cartridges left, Martin,” I told him.
“We’ve saved Ruth anyway,” he said. “Drake ought to be able to hold that hole in the wall. He’s got lots of ammunition on the pony. But they’ve got us.”
Another wild shouting; down swept the pack.
We leaped to our feet, sent our last bullets into them; stood ready, rifles clubbed to meet the rush. I heard Ruth scream —
What was the matter with the armored men? Why had they halted? What was it at which they were glaring over our heads? And why had the rifle fire of Ruth and Drake ceased so abruptly?
Simultaneously we turned.
Within the black background of the fissure stood a shape, an apparition, a woman — beautiful, awesome, incredible!
She was tall, standing there swathed from chin to feet in clinging veils of pale amber, she seemed taller even than tall Drake. Yet it was not her height that sent through me the thrill of awe, of half incredulous terror which, relaxing my grip, let my smoking rifle drop to earth; nor was it that about her proud head a cloud of shining tresses swirled and pennoned like a misty banner of woven copper flames — no, nor that through her veils her body gleamed faint radiance.
It was her eyes — her great, wide eyes whose clear depths were like pools of living star fires. They shone from her white face — not phosphorescent, not merely lucent and light reflecting, but as though they themselves were SOURCES of the cold white flames of far stars — and as calm as those stars themselves.
And in that face, although as yet I could distinguish nothing but the eyes, I sensed something unearthly.
“God!” whispered Ventnor. “What IS she?”
The woman stepped from the crevice. Not fifty feet from her were Ruth and Drake and Chiu–Ming, their rigid attitudes revealing the same shock of awe that had momentarily paralyzed me.
She looked at them, beckoned them. I saw the two walk toward her, Chiu–Ming hang back. The great eyes fell upon Ventnor and myself. She raised a hand, motioned us to approach.
I turned. There stood the host that had poured down (he mountain road, horsemen, spearsmen, pikemen — a full thousand of them. At my right were the scattered company that had come from the tunnel entrance, threescore or more.
There seemed a spell upon them. They stood in silence, like automatons, only their fiercely staring eyes showing that they were alive.
“Quick,” breathed Ventnor.
We ran toward her who had checked death even while its jaws were closing upon us.
Before we had gone half-way, as though our flight had broken whatever bonds had bound them, a clamor arose from the host; a wild shouting, a clanging of swords on shields. I shot a glance behind. They were in motion, advancing slowly, hesitatingly as yet — but I knew that soon that hesitation would pass; that they would sweep down upon us, engulf us.
“To the crevice,” I shouted to Drake. He paid no heed to me, nor did Ruth — their gaze fastened upon the swathed woman.
Ventnor’s hand shot out, gripped my shoulder, halted me. She had thrown up her head. The cloudy METALLIC hair billowed as though wind had blown it.
From the lifted throat came a low, a vibrant cry; harmonious, weirdly disquieting, golden and sweet — and laden with the eery, minor wailings of the blue valley’s night, the dragoned chamber.
Before the cry had ceased there poured with incredible swiftness out of the crevice score upon score of the metal things. The fissures vomited them!
Globes and cubes and pyramids — not small like those of the ruins, but shapes all of four feet high, dully lustrous, and deep within that luster the myriads of tiny points of light like unwinking, staring eyes.
They swirled, eddied and formed a barricade between us and the armored men.
Down upon them poured a shower of arrows from the soldiers. I heard the shouts of their captains; they rushed. They had courage — those men — yes!
Again came the woman’s cry — golden, peremptory.
Sphere and block and pyramid ran together, seemed to seethe. I had again that sense of a quicksilver melting. Up from them thrust a thick rectangular column. Eight feet in width and twenty feet high, it shaped itself. Out from its left side, from right side, sprang arms — fearful arms that grew and grew as globe and cube and angle raced up the column’s side and clicked into place each upon, each after, the other. With magical quickness the arms lengthened.
Before us stood a monstrous shape; a geometric prodigy. A shining angled pillar that, though rigid, immobile, seemed to crouch, be instinct with living force striving to be unleashed.
Two great globes surmounted it — like the heads of some two-faced Janus of an alien world.
At the left and right the knobbed arms, now fully fifty feet in length, writhed, twisted, straightened; flexing themselves in grotesque imitation of a boxer. And at the end of each of the six arms the spheres were clustered thick, studded with the pyramids — again in gigantic, awful, parody of the spiked gloves of those ancient gladiators who fought for imperial Nero.
For an instant it stood here, preening, testing itself like an athlete — a chimera, amorphous yet weirdly symmetric — under the darkening sky, in the green of the hollow, the armored hosts frozen before it —
And then — it struck!
Out flashed two of the arms, with a glancing motion, with appalling force. They sliced into the close-packed forward ranks of the armored men; cut out of them two great gaps.
Sickened, I saw fragments of man and horse fly. Another arm javelined from its place like a flying snake, clicked at the end of another, became a hundred-foot chain which swirled like a flail through the huddling mass. Down upon a knot of the soldiers with a straight-forward blow drove a third arm, driving through them like a giant punch.
All that host which had driven us from the ruins threw down sword, spear, and pike; fled shrieking. The horsemen spurred their mounts, riding heedless over the footmen who fled with them.
The Smiting Thing seemed to watch them go with — AMUSEMENT!
Before they could cover a hundred yards it had disintegrated. I heard the little wailing sounds — then behind the fleeing men, close behind them, rose the angled pillar; into place sprang the flexing arms, and again it took its toll of them.
They scattered, running singly, by twos, in little groups, for the sides of the valley. They were like rats scampering in panic over the bottom of a great green bowl. And like a monstrous cat the shape played with them — yes, PLAYED.
It melted once more — took new form. Where had been pillar and flailing arms was now a tripod thirty feet high, its legs alternate globe and cube and upon its apex a wide and spinning ring of sparkling spheres. Out from the middle of this ring stretched a tentacle — writhing, undulating like a serpent of steel, four score yards at least in length.
At its end cube, globe and pyramid had mingled to form a huge trident. With the three long prongs of this trident the thing struck, swiftly, with fearful precision — JOYOUSLY— tining those who fled, forking them, tossing them from its points high in air.
It was, I think, that last touch of sheer horror, the playfulness of the Smiting Thing, that sent my dry tongue to the roof of my terror-parched mouth, and held open with monstrous fascination eyes that struggled to close.
Ever the armored men fled from it, and ever was it swifter than they, teetering at their heels on its tripod legs.
From half its length the darting snake streamed red rain.
I heard a sigh from Ruth; wrested my gaze from the hollow; turned. She lay fainting in Drake’s arms.
Beside the two the swathed woman stood, looking out upon that slaughter, calm and still, shrouded with an unearthly tranquillity — viewing it, it came to me, with eyes impersonal, cold, indifferent as the untroubled stars which look down upon hurricane and earthquake in this world of ours.
There was a rushing of many feet at our left; a wail from Chiu–Ming. Were they maddened by fear, driven by despair, determined to slay before they themselves were slain? I do not know. But those who still lived of the men from the tunnel mouth were charging us.
They clustered close, their shields held before them. They had no bows, these men. They moved swiftly down upon us in silence — swords and pikes gleaming.
The Smiting Thing rocked toward us, the metal tentacle straining out like a rigid, racing serpent, flying to cut between its weird mistress and those who menaced her.
I heard Chiu–Ming scream; saw him throw up his hands, cover his eyes — run straight upon the pikes!
“Chiu–Ming!” I shouted. “Chiu–Ming! This way!”
I ran toward him. Before I had gone five paces Ventnor flashed by me, revolver spitting. I saw a spear thrown. It struck the Chinaman squarely in the breast. He tottered — fell upon his knees.
Even as he dropped, the giant flail swept down upon the soldiers. It swept through them like a scythe through ripe grain. It threw them, broken and torn, far toward the valley’s sloping sides. It left only fragments that bore no semblance to men.
Ventnor was at Chiu–Ming’s head; I dropped beside him. There was a crimson froth upon his lips.
“I thought that Shin–Je was about to slay us,” he whispered. “Fear blinded me.”
His head dropped; his body quivered, lay still.
We arose, looked about us dazedly. At the side of the crevice stood the woman, her gaze resting upon Drake, his arms about Ruth, her head hidden on his breast.
The valley was empty — save for the huddled heaps that dotted it.
High up on the mountain path a score of figures crept, all that were left of those who but a little before had streamed down to take us captive or to slay. High up in the darkening heavens the lammergeiers, the winged scavengers of the Himalayas, were gathering.
The woman lifted her hand, beckoned us once more. Slowly we walked toward her, stood before her. The great clear eyes searched us — but no more intently than our own wondering eyes did her.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:53