The Metal Monster, by Abraham Merritt

Chapter IX

The Portal of Flame

It was as though we were on a meteor hurtling through space. The split air shrieked and shrilled, a keening barrier against the avalanche of the thunder. The blast bent us far back on thighs held rigid by the magnetic grip.

The pony spread its legs, dropped its head; through the hurricane roaring its screaming pierced thinly, that agonizing, terrible lamentation which is of the horse and the horse alone when the limit of its endurance is reached.

Ventnor crouched lower and lower, eyes shielded behind arms folded over his brows, straining for a glimpse of Ruth; Drake crouched beside him, bracing him, supporting him against the tempest.

Our line of flight became less abrupt, but the speed increased, the wind-pressure became almost insupportable. I twisted, dropped upon my right arm, thrust my head against my shoulder, stared backward. When first I had looked upon the place I had sensed its immensity; now I began to realize how vast it must really be — for already the gateway through which we had come glimmered far away on high, shrunk to a hoop of incandescent brass and dwindling fast.

Nor was it a cavern; I saw the stars, traced with deep relief the familiar Northern constellations. Pit it might be, but whatever terror, whatever ordeals were before us, we would not have to face them buried deep within earth. There was a curious comfort to me in the thought.

Suddenly stars and sky were blotted out.

We had plunged beneath the surface of the radiant sea.

Lying in the position in which I was, I was sensible of a diminution of the cyclonic force; the blast streamed up and over the front of the cube. To me drifted only the wailings of our flight and the whimpering terror of the pony.

I turned my head cautiously. Upon the very edge of the flying blocks squatted Drake and Ventnor, grotesquely frog-like. I crawled toward them — crawled, literally, like a caterpillar; for wherever my body touched the surface of the cubes the attracting force held it, allowed a creeping movement only, surface sliding upon surface — and weirdly enough like a human measuring-worm I looped myself over to them,

As my bare palms clung to the Things I realized with finality that whatever their activation, their life, they WERE metal.

There was no mistaking now the testimony of touch. Metal they were, with a hint upon contact of highly polished platinum, or at the least of a metal as finely grained as it.

Also they had temperature, a curiously pleasant warmth — the surfaces were, I judged, around ninety-five degrees Fahrenheit. I looked deep down into the little sparkling points that were, I knew, organs of sight; they were like the points of contact of innumerable intersecting crystal planes. They held strangest paradoxical suggestion of being close to the surface and still infinite distances away.

And they were like — what was it they were like? — it came to me with a distinct shock.

They were like the galaxies of little aureate and sapphire stars in the clear gray heavens of Norhala’s eyes.

I crept beside Drake, struck him with my head.

“Can’t move,” I shouted. “Can’t lift my hands. Stuck fast — like a fly — just as you said.”

“Drag ’em over your knees,” he cried, bending to me. “It slides ’em out of the attraction.”

Acting as he had suggested I found to my astonishment I could slip my hands free; I caught his belt, tried to lift myself by it.

“No use, Doc.” The old grin lightened for a moment his tense young face. “You’ll have to keep praying till the power’s turned off. Nothing here you can slide your knees on.”

I nodded, waddling close to his side; then sank back on my haunches to relieve the strain upon my aching leg-muscles.

“Can you see them ahead, Walter — Ruth and the woman?” Ventnor turned his anxious eyes toward me.

I peered into the glimmering murk; shook my head. I could see nothing. It was indeed, as though the clustered cubes sped within a bubble of the now wanly glistening vapors; or rather as though in our passage — as a projectile does in air — we piled before us a thick wave of the mists which streaming along each side, closing in behind, obscured all that lay around.

Yet I had, persistently, the feeling that beyond these shroudings was vast and ordered movement; marchings and counter-marchings of hosts greater even than those Golden Hordes of Genghis which ages agone had washed about the outer bases of the very peaks that hid this place. Came, too, flitting shadowings of huge shapes, unnameable, moving swiftly beside our way; gleamings that thrust themselves through the veils like wheeling javelins of flame.

And always, always, everywhere that constant movement, rhythmic, terrifying — like myriads of feet of creatures of an unseen, stranger world marking time just outside the threshold of our own. Preparing, DRILLING there in some wide vestibule of space between the known and the unknown, alert and menacing — poised for the signal which would send them pouring over it.

Once again I seemed to stand upon the brink of an abyss of incredible revelation, striving helplessly, struggling for realization — and so struggling became aware that our speed was swiftly slackening, the roaring blast dying down, the veils before us thinning.

They cleared away. I saw Drake and Ventnor straighten up; raised myself to my own aching knees.

We were at one end of a vortex, a funneling within the radiant vapors; a funnel whose further end a mile ahead broadened out into a huge circle, its mistily outlined edges impinging upon the towering scarp of the — city. It was as though before us lay, upon its side, a cone of crystalline clear air against whose curved sides some radiant medium heavier than air, lighter than water, pressed.

The top arc of its prostrate base reached a thousand feet or more up the precipitous wall; above it all was hidden in sparkling nebulosities that were like still clouds of greenly glimmering fire-flies. Back from the curving sides of this cone, above it and below it, the pressing luminosities stretched into, it seemed, infinite distances.

Through them, suddenly, thousands of bright beams began to dart, to dance, weaving and interweaving, shooting hither and yon — like myriads of great searchlights in a phosphorescent sea fog, like countless lances of the aurora thrusting through its own iridescent veils! And in the play of these beams was something appallingly ordered, appallingly rhythmic.

It was — how can I describe it? — PURPOSEFUL; purposeful as the geometric shiftings of the Little Things of the ruins, of the summoning song of Norhala, of the Protean changes of the Smiting Shape and the Following Thing; and like all of these it was as laden with that baffling certainty of hidden meanings, of messages that the brain recognized as such yet knew it never could read.

The rays seemed to spring upward from the earth. Now they were like countless lances of light borne by marching armies of Titans; now they crossed and angled and flew as though they were clouds of javelins hurled by battling swarms of the Genii of Light. And now they stood upright while through them, thrusting them aside, bending them, passed vast, vague shapes like mountains forming and dissolving; like darkening monsters of some world of light pushing through thick forests of slender, high-reaching trees of cold flame; shifting shadows of monstrous chimerae slipping through jungles of bamboo with trunks of diamond fire; phantasmal leviathans swimming through brakes of giant reeds of radiance rising from the sparking ooze of a sea of star shine.

Whence came the force, the mechanism that produced this cone of clarity, this NOT searchlight, but unlight in the midst of light? Not from behind, that was certain — for turning I saw that behind us the mist was as thick. I turned again — it came to me, why I knew not, yet with an absolute certainty, that the energy, the force emanated from the distant wall itself.

The funnel, the cone, did not expand from where we were standing, now motionless.

It began at the wall and focused upon us.

Within the great circle the surface of the wall was smooth, utterly blank; upon it was no trace of those flitting lights we had seen before we had plunged down toward the radiant sea. It shone with a pale blue phosphorescence. It was featureless, smooth, a blind cliff of polished, blue metal — and that was all.

“Ruth!” groaned Ventnor. “Where is she?”

Aghast at my mental withdrawal from him, angry at myself for my callousness, awkwardly I tried to crawl over to him, to touch him, comfort him as well as I might.

And then, as though his cry had been a signal, the great cone began to move. Slowly the circled base slipped down the shimmering facades; down, steadily down; I realized that we had paused at the edge of some steep declivity, for the bottom of the cone was now at a decided angle while the upper edge of the circle had dropped a full two hundred feet below the place where it had rested — and still it fell.

There came a gasp of relief from Ventnor, a sigh from Drake while, from my own heart, a weight rolled. Not ten yards ahead of us and still deep within the luminosity had appeared the regal head of Norhala, the lovely head of Ruth. The two rose out of the glow like swimmers floating from the depths. Now they were clear before us, and now we could see the surface of the cube on which they rode.

But neither turned to us; each stared straightly, motionless along the axis of the sinking cone, the woman’s left arm holding Ruth close to her side.

Drake’s hand caught my shoulder in a grip that hurt — nor did he need to point toward that which had wrung the exclamation from him. The funnel had broken from its slow falling; it had made one swift, startling drop and had come to rest. Its recumbent side was now flattened into a triangular plane, widening from the narrow tip in which we stood to all of five hundred feet where its base rested against the blue wall, and falling at a full thirty-degree pitch.

The misty-edged circle had become an oval, a flattened ellipse another five hundred feet high and three times that in length. And in its exact center, shining forth as though it opened into a place of pale azure incandescence was another rectangular Cyclopean portal.

On each side of it, in the apparently solid face of the gleaming, metallic cliffs, a slit was opening.

They began as thin lines a hundred yards in height through which the intense light seemed to hiss; quickly they opened — widening like monstrous cat pupils until at last, their widening ceasing, they glared forth, the blue incandescence gushing from them like molten steel from an opened sluice.

Deep within them I sensed a movement. Scores of towering shapes swam within and glided out of them, each reflecting the vivid light as though they themselves were incandescent. Around their crests spun wide and flaming coronets.

They rushed forth, wheeling, whirling, driven like leaves in a whirlwind. Out they swirled from the cat’s eyes of the glimmering wall, these dervish obelisks crowded with spinning fires. They vanished in the mists. Instantly with their going, the eyes contracted; were but slits; were gone. And before us within the oval was only the waiting portal.

The leading block leaped forward. As abruptly, those that bore us followed. Again under that strain of projectile flight we clutched each other; the pony screamed in terror. The metal cliff rushed to meet us like a thunder cloud of steel; the portal raced upon us — a square mouth of cold blue flame.

And into it we swept; were devoured by it.

Light in blinding, intolerable flood beat about us, blackening the sight with agony. We pressed, the three of us, against the side of the pony, burying our faces in its shaggy coat, striving to hide our eyes from the radiance which, strain closely as we might, seemed to pierce through the body of the little beast, through our own heads, searing the sight.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58