“You’d better have this handy, Doc.” O’Keefe paused at the head of the stairway and handed me one of the automatics he had taken from Marakinoff.
“Shall I not have one also?” rather anxiously asked the latter.
“When you need it you’ll get it,” answered O’Keefe. “I’ll tell you frankly, though, Professor, that you’ll have to show me before I trust you with a gun. You shoot too straight — from cover.”
The flash of anger in the Russian’s eyes turned to a cold consideration.
“You say always just what is in your mind, Lieutenant O’Keefe,” he mused. “Da — that I shall remember!” Later I was to recall this odd observation — and Marakinoff was to remember indeed.
In single file, O’Keefe at the head and Olaf bringing up the rear, we passed through the portal. Before us dropped a circular shaft, into which the light from the chamber of the oval streamed liquidly; set in its sides the steps spiralled, and down them we went, cautiously. The stairway ended in a circular well; silent — with no trace of exit! The rounded stones joined each other evenly — hermetically. Carved on one of the slabs was one of the five flowered vines. I pressed my fingers upon the calyxes, even as Larry had within the Moon Chamber.
A crack — horizontal, four feet wide — appeared on the wall; widened, and as the sinking slab that made it dropped to the level of our eyes, we looked through a hundred-feet-long rift in the living rock! The stone fell steadily — and we saw that it was a Cyclopean wedge set within the slit of the passageway. It reached the level of our feet and stopped. At the far end of this tunnel, whose floor was the polished rock that had, a moment before, fitted hermetically into its roof, was a low, narrow triangular opening through which light streamed.
“Nowhere to go but out!” grinned Larry. “And I’ll bet Golden Eyes is waiting for us with a taxi!” He stepped forward. We followed, slipping, sliding along the glassy surface; and I, for one, had a lively apprehension of what our fate would be should that enormous mass rise before we had emerged! We reached the end; crept out of the narrow triangle that was its exit.
We stood upon a wide ledge carpeted with a thick yellow moss. I looked behind — and clutched O’Keefe’s arm. The door through which we had come had vanished! There was only a precipice of pale rock, on whose surfaces great patches of the amber moss hung; around whose base our ledge ran, and whose summits, if summits it had, were hidden, like the luminous cliffs, in the radiance above us.
“Nowhere to go but ahead — and Golden Eyes hasn’t kept her date!” laughed O’Keefe — but somewhat grimly.
We walked a few yards along the ledge and, rounding a corner, faced the end of one of the slender bridges. From this vantage point the oddly shaped vehicles were plain, and we could see they were, indeed, like the shell of the Nautilus and elfinly beautiful. Their drivers sat high upon the forward whorl. Their bodies were piled high with cushions, upon which lay women half-swathed in gay silken webs. From the pavilioned gardens smaller channels of glistening green ran into the broad way, much as automobile runways do on earth; and in and out of them flashed the fairy shells.
There came a shout from one. Its occupants had glimpsed us. They pointed; others stopped and stared; one shell turned and sped up a runway — and quickly over the other side of the bridge came a score of men. They were dwarfed — none of them more than five feet high, prodigiously broad of shoulder, clearly enormously powerful.
“Trolde!” muttered Olaf, stepping beside O’Keefe, pistol swinging free in his hand.
But at the middle of the bridge the leader stopped, waved back his men, and came toward us alone, palms outstretched in the immemorial, universal gesture of truce. He paused, scanning us with manifest wonder; we returned the scrutiny with interest. The dwarf’s face was as white as Olaf’s — far whiter than those of the other three of us; the features clean-cut and noble, almost classical; the wide set eyes of a curious greenish grey and the black hair curling over his head like that on some old Greek statue.
Dwarfed though he was, there was no suggestion of deformity about him. The gigantic shoulders were covered with a loose green tunic that looked like fine linen. It was caught in at the waist by a broad girdle studded with what seemed to be amazonites. In it was thrust a long curved poniard resembling the Malaysian kris. His legs were swathed in the same green cloth as the upper garment. His feet were sandalled.
My gaze returned to his face, and in it I found something subtly disturbing; an expression of half-malicious gaiety that underlay the wholly prepossessing features like a vague threat; a mocking deviltry that hinted at entire callousness to suffering or sorrow; something of the spirit that was vaguely alien and disquieting.
He spoke — and, to my surprise, enough of the words were familiar to enable me clearly to catch the meaning of the whole. They were Polynesian, the Polynesian of the Samoans which is its most ancient form, but in some indefinable way — archaic. Later I was to know that the tongue bore the same relation to the Polynesian of today as does NOT that of Chaucer, but of the Venerable Bede, to modern English. Nor was this to be so astonishing, when with the knowledge came the certainty that it was from it the language we call Polynesian sprang.
“From whence do you come, strangers — and how found you your way here?” said the green dwarf.
I waved my hand toward the cliff behind us. His eyes narrowed incredulously; he glanced at its drop, upon which even a mountain goat could not have made its way, and laughed.
“We came through the rock,” I answered his thought. “And we come in peace,” I added.
“And may peace walk with you,” he said half-derisively —“if the Shining One wills it!”
He considered us again.
“Show me, strangers, where you came through the rock,” he commanded. We led the way to where we had emerged from the well of the stairway.
“It was here,” I said, tapping the cliff.
“But I see no opening,” he said suavely.
“It closed behind us,” I answered; and then, for the first time, realized how incredible the explanation sounded. The derisive gleam passed through his eyes again. But he drew his poniard and gravely sounded the rock.
“You give a strange turn to our speech,” he said. “It sounds strangely, indeed — as strange as your answers.” He looked at us quizzically. “I wonder where you learned it! Well, all that you can explain to the Afyo Maie.” His head bowed and his arms swept out in a wide salaam. “Be pleased to come with me!” he ended abruptly.
“In peace?” I asked.
“In peace,” he replied — then slowly —“with me at least.”
“Oh, come on, Doc!” cried Larry. “As long as we’re here let’s see the sights. Allons mon vieux!” he called gaily to the green dwarf. The latter, understanding the spirit, if not the words, looked at O’Keefe with a twinkle of approval; turned then to the great Norseman and scanned him with admiration; reached out and squeezed one of the immense biceps.
“Lugur will welcome you, at least,” he murmured as though to himself. He stood aside and waved a hand courteously, inviting us to pass. We crossed. At the base of the span one of the elfin shells was waiting.
Beyond, scores had gathered, their occupants evidently discussing us in much excitement. The green dwarf waved us to the piles of cushions and then threw himself beside us. The vehicle started off smoothly, the now silent throng making way, and swept down the green roadway at a terrific pace and wholly without vibration, toward the seven-terraced tower.
As we flew along I tried to discover the source of the power, but I could not — then. There was no sign of mechanism, but that the shell responded to some form of energy was certain — the driver grasping a small lever which seemed to control not only our speed, but our direction.
We turned abruptly and swept up a runway through one of the gardens, and stopped softly before a pillared pavilion. I saw now that these were much larger than I had thought. The structure to which we had been carried covered, I estimated, fully an acre. Oblong, with its slender, vari-coloured columns spaced regularly, its walls were like the sliding screens of the Japanese — shoji.
The green dwarf hurried us up a flight of broad steps flanked by great carved serpents, winged and scaled. He stamped twice upon mosaicked stones between two of the pillars, and a screen rolled aside, revealing an immense hall scattered about with low divans on which lolled a dozen or more of the dwarfish men, dressed identically as he.
They sauntered up to us leisurely; the surprised interest in their faces tempered by the same inhumanly gay malice that seemed to be characteristic of all these people we had as yet seen.
“The Afyo Maie awaits them, Rador,” said one.
The green dwarf nodded, beckoned us, and led the way through the great hall and into a smaller chamber whose far side was covered with the opacity I had noted from the aerie of the cliff. I examined the — blackness — with lively interest.
It had neither substance nor texture; it was not matter — and yet it suggested solidity; an entire cessation, a complete absorption of light; an ebon veil at once immaterial and palpable. I stretched, involuntarily, my hand out toward it, and felt it quickly drawn back.
“Do you seek your end so soon?” whispered Rador. “But I forget — you do not know,” he added. “On your life touch not the blackness, ever. It —”
He stopped, for abruptly in the density a portal appeared; swinging out of the shadow like a picture thrown by a lantern upon a screen. Through it was revealed a chamber filled with a soft rosy glow. Rising from cushioned couches, a woman and a man regarded us, half leaning over a long, low table of what seemed polished jet, laden with flowers and unfamiliar fruits.
About the room — that part of it, at least, that I could see — were a few oddly shaped chairs of the same substance. On high, silvery tripods three immense globes stood, and it was from them that the rose glow emanated. At the side of the woman was a smaller globe whose roseate gleam was tempered by quivering waves of blue.
“Enter Rador with the strangers!” a clear, sweet voice called.
Rador bowed deeply and stood aside, motioning us to pass. We entered, the green dwarf behind us, and out of the corner of my eye I saw the doorway fade as abruptly as it had appeared and again the dense shadow fill its place.
“Come closer, strangers. Be not afraid!” commanded the bell-toned voice.
The woman, sober scientist that I am, made the breath catch in my throat. Never had I seen a woman so beautiful as was Yolara of the Dweller’s city — and none of so perilous a beauty. Her hair was of the colour of the young tassels of the corn and coiled in a regal crown above her broad, white brows; her wide eyes were of grey that could change to a cornflower blue and in anger deepen to purple; grey or blue, they had little laughing devils within them, but when the storm of anger darkened them — they were not laughing, no! The silken webs that half covered, half revealed her did not hide the ivory whiteness of her flesh nor the sweet curve of shoulders and breasts. But for all her amazing beauty, she was — sinister! There was cruelty about the curving mouth, and in the music of her voice — not conscious cruelty, but the more terrifying, careless cruelty of nature itself.
The girl of the rose wall had been beautiful, yes! But her beauty was human, understandable. You could imagine her with a babe in her arms — but you could not so imagine this woman. About her loveliness hovered something unearthly. A sweet feminine echo of the Dweller was Yolara, the Dweller’s priestess — and as gloriously, terrifyingly evil!
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:11