Upon that threshold the mists foamed like breaking billows, then ceased abruptly to be. Keeping exactly the distance I had noted when our gaze had risen above the fog, glided the block that bore Ruth and Norhala. In the strange light of the place into which we had emerged — and whether that place was canyon, corridor, or tunnel I could not then determine — it stood out sharply.
One arm of Norhala held Ruth — and in her attitude I sensed a shielding intent, guardianship — the first really human impulse this shape of mystery and beauty had revealed.
In front of them swept score upon score of her familiars — no longer dully lustrous, but shining as though cut from blue and polished steel. They — marched — in ordered rows, globes and cubes and pyramids; moving sedately now as units.
I looked behind me; out of the spume boiling at the portal, were pouring forth other scores of the Metal Things, darting through like divers through a wave. And as they drew into our wake and swam into the light, their dim lustre vanished like a film; their surfaces grew almost radiant.
Whence came the light that set them gleaming? Our pace had slackened — I looked about me. The walls of the cleft or tunnel were perpendicular, smooth and shining with a cold, metallic, greenish glow.
Between the walls, like rhythmic flashing of fire-flies, pulsed soft and fugitive glimmerings that carried a sense of the infinitely minute — of electrons, it came to me, rather than atoms. Their irradiance was greenish, like the walls; but I was certain that these corpuscles did not come from them.
They blinked and faded like motes within a shifting sunbeam; or, to use a more scientific comparison, like colloids within the illuminated field of the ultramicroscope; and like these latter it was as though the eyes took in not the minute particles themselves but their movement only.
Save for these gleamings the light of the place, although crepuscular, was crystalline clear. High above us — five hundred, a thousand feet — the walls merged into a haze of clouded beryl.
Rock certainly the cliffs were — but rock cut and planed, smoothed and polished and PLATED!
Yes, that was it — plated. Plated with some metallic substance that was itself a reservoir of luminosity and from which, it came to me, pulsed the force that lighted the winking ions. But who could have done such a thing? For what purpose? How?
And the meticulousness, the perfection of these smoothed cliffs struck over my nerves as no rasp could, stirring a vague resentment, an irritated desire for human inharmonies, human disorder.
Absorbed in my examination I had forgotten those who must share with me my doubts and dangers. I felt a grip on my arm.
“If we get close enough and I can get my feet loose from this damned thing I’ll jump,” Drake said.
“What?” I gasped, blankly, startled out of my preoccupation. “Jump where?”
I followed his pointing finger. We were rapidly closing upon the other cube; it was now a scant twenty paces ahead; it seemed to be stopping. Ventnor was leaning forward, quivering with eagerness.
“Ruth!” he called. “Ruth — are you all right?”
Slowly she turned to us — my heart gave a great leap, then seemed to stop. For her sweet face was touched with that same unearthly tranquillity which was Norhala’s; in her brown eyes was a shadow of that passionless spirit brooding in Norhala’s own; her voice as she answered held within it more than echo of Norhala’s faint, far-off golden chiming.
“Yes,” she sighed; “yes, Martin — have no fear for me —”
And turned from us, gazing forward once more with the woman and as silent as she.
I glanced covertly at Ventnor, at Drake — had I imagined, or had they too seen? Then I knew they had seen, for Ventnor’s face was white to the lips, and Drake’s jaw was set, his teeth clenched, his eyes blazing with anger.
“What’s she doing to Ruth — you saw her face,” he gritted, half inarticulately.
“Ruth!” There was anguish in Ventnor’s cry.
She did not turn again. It was as though she had not heard him.
The cubes were now not five yards apart. Drake gathered himself; strained to loosen his feet from the shining surface, making ready to leap when they should draw close enough. His great chest swelled with his effort, the muscles of his neck knotted, sweat steamed down his face.
“No use,” he gasped, “no use, Goodwin. It’s like trying to lift yourself by your boot-straps — like a fly stuck in molasses.”
“Ruth,” cried Ventnor once more.
As though it had been a signal the block darted forward, resuming the distance it had formerly maintained between us.
The vanguard of the Metal Things began to race. With an incredible speed they fled into, were lost in an instant within, the luminous distances.
The cube that bore the woman and girl accelerated; flew faster and faster onward. And as swiftly our own followed it. The lustrous walls flowed by, dizzily.
We had swept over toward the right wall of the cleft and were gliding over a broad ledge. This ledge was, I judged, all of a hundred feet in width. From it the floor of the place was dropping rapidly.
The opposite precipices were slowly drawing closer. After us flowed the flanking host.
Steadily our ledge arose and the floor of the canyon dropped. Now we were twenty feet above it, now thirty. And the character of the cliffs was changing. Veins of quartz shone under the metallic plating like cut crystal, like cloudy opals; here was a splash of vermilion, there a patch of amber; bands of pallid ochre stained it.
My gaze was caught by a line of inky blackness in the exact center of the falling floor. So black was it that at first glance I took it for a vein of jetty lignite.
It widened. It was a crack, a fissure. Now it was a yard in width, now three, and blackness seemed to well up from within it, blackness that was the very essence of the depths. Steadily the ebon rift expanded; spread suddenly wide open in two sharp-edged, flying wedges —
Earth had dropped away. At our side a gulf had opened, an abyss, striking down depth upon depth; profound; immeasurable.
We were human atoms, riding upon a steed of sorcery and racing along a split rampart of infinite space.
I looked behind — scores of the cubes were darting from the metal host trailing us; in a long column of twos they flashed by, raced ahead. Far in front of us a gloom began to grow; deepened until we were rushing into blackest night.
Through the murk stabbed a long lance of pale blue phosphorescence. It unrolled like a ribbon of wan flame, flicked like a serpent’s tongue — held steady. I felt the Thing beneath us leap forward; its velocity grew prodigious; the wind beat upon us with hurricane force.
I shielded my eyes with my hands and peered through the chinks of my fingers. Ranged directly in our path was a barricade of the cubes and upon them we were racing like a flying battering-ram. Involuntarily I closed my eyes against the annihilating impact that seemed inevitable.
The Thing on which we rode lifted.
We were soaring at a long angle straight to the top of the barrier; were upon it, and still with that awful speed unchecked were hurtling through the blackness over the shaft of phosphorescence, the ribbon of pale light that I had watched pierce it and knew now was but another span of the cubes that but a little before had fled past us. Beneath the span, on each side of it, I sensed illimitable void.
We were over; rushing along in darkness. There began a mighty tumult, a vast crashing and roaring. The clangor waxed, beat about us with tremendous strokes of sound.
Far away was a dim glowing, as of rising sun through heavy mists of dawn. The mists faded — miles away gleamed what at first glimpse seemed indeed to be the rising sun; a gigantic orb, whose lower limb just touched, was sharply, horizontally cut by the blackness, as though at its base that blackness was frozen.
The sun? Reason returned to me; told me this globe could not be that.
What was it then? Ra–Harmachis, of the Egyptians, stripped of his wings, exiled and growing old in the corridors of the Dead? Or that mocking luminary, the cold phantom of the God of light and warmth which the old Norsemen believed was set in their frozen hell to torment the damned?
I thrust aside the fantasies, impatiently. But sun or no sun, light streamed from this orb, light in multicolored, lanced rays, banishing the blackness through which we had been flying.
Closer we came and closer; lighter it grew about us, and by the growing light I saw that still beside us ran the abyss. And even louder, more thunderous, became the clamor.
At the foot of the radiant disk I glimpsed a luminous pool. Into it, out of the depths, protruded a tremendous rectangular tongue, gleaming like gray steel.
On the tongue an inky shape appeared; it lifted itself from the abyss, rushed upon the disk and took form.
Like a gigantic spider it was, squat and horned. For an instant it was silhouetted against the smiling sphere, poised itself — and vanished through it.
Now, not far ahead, silhouetted as had been the spider shape, blackened into sight a cube and on it Ruth and Norhala. It seemed to hover, to wait.
“It’s a door,” Drake’s shout beat thinly in my ears against the hurricane of sound.
What I thought had been an orb was indeed a gateway, a portal; and it was gigantic.
The light streamed through it, the flaming colors, the lightning glare, the drifting shadows were all beyond it. The suggestion of sphere had been an illusion, born of the darkness in which we were moving and in its own luminescence.
And I saw that the steel tongue was a ramp, a slide, dropping down into the gulf.
Norhala raised her hands high above her head. Up from the darkness flew an incredible shape — like a monstrous, armored flat-backed crab; angled spikes protruded from it; its huge body was spangled with darting, greenish flames.
It swept beneath us and by. On its back were multitudinous breasts from which issued blinding flashes — sapphire blue, emerald green, sun yellow. It hung poised as had that other nightmare shape, standing out jet black and colossal, rearing upon columnar legs, whose outlines were those of alternate enormous angled arrow-points and lunettes. Swiftly its form shifted; an instant it hovered, half disintegrate.
Now I saw spinning spheres and darting cubes and pyramids click into new positions. The front and side legs lengthened, the back legs shortened, fitting themselves plainly to what must be a varying angle of descent beyond.
And it was no chimera, no kraken of the abyss. It was a car made of the Metal Things. I caught again the flashes and thought that they were jewels or heaps of shining ores carried by the conscious machine.
It vanished. In its place hung poised the cube that bore the enigmatic woman and Ruth. Then they were gone and we stood where but an instant before they had been.
We were high above an ocean of living light — a sea of incandescent splendors that stretched mile upon uncounted mile away and whose incredible waves streamed thousands of feet in air, flew in gigantic banners, in tremendous streamers, in coruscating clouds of varicolored flame — as though torn by the talons of a mighty wind.
My dazzled sight cleared, glare and blaze and searing incandescence took form, became ordered. Within the sea of light I glimpsed shapes cyclopean, unnameable.
They moved slowly, with an awesome deliberateness. They shone darkly within the flame-woven depths. From them came the volleys of the lightnings.
Score upon score of them there were — huge and enigmatic. Their flaming levins threaded the shimmering veils, patterned them, as though they were the flying robes of the very spirit of fire.
And the tumult was as ten thousand Thors, smiting with hammers against the enemies of Odin. As a forge upon whose shouting anvils was being shaped a new world.
A new world? A metal world!
The thought spun through my mazed brain, was gone — and not until long after did I remember it. For suddenly all that clamor died; the lightnings ceased; all the flitting radiances paled and the sea of flaming splendors grew thin as moving mists. The storming shapes dulled with them, seemed to darken into the murk.
Through the fast-waning light and far, far away — miles it seemed on high and many, many miles in length — a broad band of fluorescent amethyst shone. From it dropped curtains, shimmering, nebulous as the marching folds of the aurora; they poured, cascaded, from the amethystine band.
Huge and purple-black against their opalescence bulked what at first I thought a mountain, so like was it to one of those fantastic buttes of our desert Southwest when their castellated tops are silhouetted against the setting sun; knew instantly that this was but subconscious striving to translate into terms of reality the incredible.
It was a City!
A city full five thousand feet high and crowned with countless spires and turrets, titanic arches, stupendous domes! It was as though the man-made cliffs of lower New York were raised scores of times their height, stretched a score of times their length. And weirdly enough it did suggest those same towering masses of masonry when one sees them blacken against the twilight skies.
The pit darkened as though night were filtering down into it; the vast, purple-shadowed walls of the city sparkled out with countless lights. From the crowning arches and turrets leaped broad filaments of flame, flashing, electric.
Was it my straining eyes, the play of the light and shadow — or were those high-flung excrescences shifting, changing shape? An icy hand stretched out of the unknown, stilled my heart. For they were shifting — arches and domes, turrets and spires; were melting, reappearing in ferment; like the lightning-threaded, rolling edges of the thundercloud.
I wrenched my gaze away; saw that our platform had come to rest upon a broad and silvery ledge close to the curving frame of the portal and not a yard from where upon her block stood Norhala, her arm clasped about the rigid form of Ruth. I heard a sigh from Ventnor, an exclamation from Drake.
Before one of us could cry out to Ruth, the cube glided to the edge of the shelf, dipped out of sight.
That upon which we rode trembled and sped after it.
There came a sickening sense of falling; we lurched against each other; for the first time the pony whinnied, fearfully. Then with awful speed we were flying down a wide, a glistening, a steeply angled ramp into the Pit, straight toward the half-hidden, soaring escarpments flashing afar.
Far ahead raced the Thing on which stood woman and maid. Their hair streamed behind them, mingled, silken web of brown and shining veil of red-gold; little clouds of sparkling corpuscles threaded them, like flitting swarms of fire-flies; their bodies were nimbused with tiny, flickering tongues of lavender flame.
About us, above us, began again to rumble the countless drums of the thunder.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:11