Mutely we faced each other, white and wan in the ghostly light.
The valley was very still; as silent as though sound had been withdrawn from it. The shimmering radiance suffusing it had thickened perceptibly; hovered over the valley floor faintly sparkling mists; hid it.
Like a shroud was that silence. Beneath it my mind struggled, its unease, its forebodings growing ever stronger. Silently we repacked the saddlebags; girthed the pony; silently we waited for Norhala’s return.
Idly I had noted that the place on which we stood must be raised above the level of the vale. Up toward us the gathering mists had been steadily rising; still was their wavering crest a half score feet below us.
Abruptly out of their dim nebulosity a faintly phosphorescent square broke. It lifted, slowly; then swept, a dully lustrous six-foot cube, up the slope and came to rest almost at our feet. It dwelt there; contemplated us from its myriads of deep-set, sparkling striations.
In its wake swam, one by one, six others — their tops raising from the vapors like the first, watchfully; like shimmering backs of sea monsters; like turrets of fantastic angled submarines from phosphorescent seas. One by one they skimmed swiftly over the ledge; and one by one they nestled, edge to edge and alternately, against the cube which had gone before.
In a crescent, they stretched before us. Back from them, a pace, ten paces, twenty, we retreated.
They lay immobile — staring at us.
Cleaving the mists, silk of copper hair streaming wide, unearthly eyes lambent, floated up behind them — Norhala. For an instant she was hidden behind their bulk; suddenly was upon them; drifted over them like some spirit of light; stood before us.
Her veils were again about her; golden girdle, sandals of gold and turquoise in their places. Pearl white her body gleamed; no mark of lightning marred it.
She walked toward us, turned and faced the watching cubes. She uttered no sound, but as at a signal the central cube slid forward, halted before her. She rested a hand upon its edge.
“Ride with me,” she said to Ruth.
“Norhala.” Ventnor took a step forward. “Norhala, we must go with her. And this”— he pointed to the pony — “must go with us.”
“I meant — you — to come,” the faraway voice chimed, “but I had not thought of — that.”
A moment she considered; then turned to the six waiting cubes. Again as at a command four of the things moved, swirled in toward each other with a weird precision, with a monstrous martial mimicry; joined; stood before us, a platform twelve feet square, six high.
“Mount,” sighed Norhala.
Ventnor looked helplessly at the sheer front facing him.
“Mount.” There was half-wondering impatience in her command. “See!”
She caught Ruth by the waist and with the same bewildering swiftness with which she had vanished from us when the aurora beckoned she stood, holding the girl, upon the top of the single cube. It was as though the two had been lifted, had been levitated with an incredible rapidity.
“Mount,” she murmured again, looking down upon us.
Slowly Ventnor began to bandage the pony’s eyes. I placed my hand upon the edge of the quadruple; sprang. A myriad unseen hands caught me, raised me, set me instantaneously on the upward surface.
“Lift the pony to me,” I called to Ventnor.
“Lift it?” he echoed, incredulously.
Drake’s grin cut like a sunray through the nightmare dread that shrouded my mind.
“Catch,” he called; placed one hand beneath the beast’s belly, the other under its throat; his shoulders heaved — and up shot the pony, laden as it was, landed softly upon four wide-stretched legs beside me. The faces of the two gaped up, ludicrous in their amazement.
“Follow,” cried Norhala.
Ventnor leaped wildly for the top, Drake beside him; in the flash of a humming-bird’s wing they were gripping me, swearing feebly. The unseen hold angled; struck upward; clutched from ankle to thigh; held us fast — men and beast.
Away swept the block that bore Ruth and Norhala; I saw Ruth crouching, head bent, her arms around the knees of the woman. They slipped into the mists; vanished.
And after them, like a log in a racing current, we, too, dipped beneath the faintly luminous vapors.
The cubes moved with an entire absence of vibration; so smoothly and skimmingly, indeed, that had it not been for the sudden wind that had risen when first we had stirred, and that now beat steadily upon our faces, and the cloudy walls streaming by, I would have thought ourselves at rest.
I saw the blurred form of Ventnor drift toward the forward edge. He walked as though wading. I essayed to follow him; my feet I could not lift; I could advance only by gliding them as though skating.
Also the force, whatever it was, that held me seemed to pass me on from unseen clutch to clutch; it was as though up to my hips I moved through a closely woven yet fluid mass of cobwebs. I had the fantastic idea that if I so willed I could slip over the edge of the blocks, crawl about their sides without falling — like a fly on the vertical faces of a huge sugar loaf.
I drew beside Ventnor. He was staring ahead, striving, I knew, to pierce the mists for some glimpse of Ruth.
He turned to me, his face drawn with anxiety, his eyes feverish.
“Can you see them, Walter?” His voice shook. “God — why did I ever let her go like that? Why did I let her go alone?”
“They’ll be close ahead, Martin.” I spoke out of a conviction I could not explain. “Whatever it is we’re bound for, wherever it is the woman’s taking us, she means to keep us together — for a time at least. I’m sure of it.”
“She said — follow.” It was Drake beside us. “How the hell can we do anything else? We haven’t any control over this bird we’re on. But she has. What she meant, Ventnor, is that it would follow her.”
“That’s true”— new hope softened the haggard face — “that’s true — but is it? We’re reckoning with creatures that man’s imagination never conceived — nor could conceive. And with this — woman — human in shape, yes, but human in thought — never. How then can we tell —”
He turned once more, all his consciousness concentrated in his searching eyes.
Drake’s rifle slipped from his hand.
He stooped to pick it up; then tugged with both hands. The rifle lay immovable.
I bent and strove to aid him. For all the pair of us could do, the rifle might have been a part of the gleaming surface on which it rested. The tiny, deepset star points winked up —
“They’re — laughing at us!” grunted Drake.
“Nonsense,” I answered, and tried to check the involuntary shuddering that shook me, as I saw it shake him. “Nonsense. These blocks are great magnets — that’s what holds the rifle; what holds us, too.”
“I don’t mean the rifle,” he said; “I mean those points of lights — the eyes —”
There came from Ventnor a cry of almost anguished relief. We straightened. Our head shot above the mists like those of swimmers from water. Unnoticed, we had been climbing out of them.
And a hundred yards ahead of us, cleaving them, veiled in them almost to the shoulders, was Norhala, red-gold tresses steaming; and close beside her were the brown curls of Ruth. At her brother’s cry she turned and her arm flashed out of the veils with reassuring gesture.
A mile away was an opening in the valley’s mountainous wall; toward it we were speeding. It was no ragged crevice, no nature split fissure; it gave the impression of a gigantic doorway.
“Look,” whispered Drake.
Between us and the vast gateway, gleaming triangles began to break through the vapors, like the cutting fins of sharks, glints of round bodies like gigantic porpoises — the vapors seethed with them. Quickly the fins and rolling curves were all about us. They centered upon the portal, streamed through — a horde of the metal things, leading us, guarding us, playing about us.
And weird, unutterably weird was that spectacle — the vast and silent vale with its still, smooth vapors like a coverlet of cloud; the regal head of Norhala sweeping over them; the dull glint and gleam of the metal paradoxes flowing, in ordered motion, all about us; the titanic gateway, glowing before us.
We were at its threshold; over it.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:53