Now we were racing down toward that last span whose ancientness had set it apart from all the other soaring arches. The shell’s speed slackened; we approached warily.
“We pass there?” asked O’Keefe.
The green dwarf nodded, pointing to the right where the bridge ended in a broad platform held high upon two gigantic piers, between which ran a spur from the glistening road. Platform and bridge were swarming with men-at-arms; they crowded the parapets, looking down upon us curiously but with no evidence of hostility. Rador drew a deep breath of relief.
“We don’t have to break our way through, then?” There was disappointment in the Irishman’s voice.
“No use, Larree!” Smiling, Rador stopped the corial just beneath the arch and beside one of the piers. “Now, listen well. They have had no warning, hence does Yolara still think us on the way to the temple. This is the gateway of the Portal — and the gateway is closed by the Shadow. Once I commanded here and I know its laws. This must I do — by craft persuade Serku, the keeper of the gateway, to lift the Shadow; or raise it myself. And that will be hard and it may well be that in the struggle life will be stripped of us all. Yet is it better to die fighting than to dance with the Shining One!”
He swept the shell around the pier. Opened a wide plaza paved with the volcanic glass, but black as that down which we had sped from the chamber of the Moon Pool. It shone like a mirrored lakelet of jet; on each side of it arose what at first glance seemed towering bulwarks of the same ebon obsidian; at second, revealed themselves as structures hewn and set in place by men; polished faces pierced by dozens of high, narrow windows.
Down each facade a stairway fell, broken by small landings on which a door opened; they dropped to a broad ledge of greyish stone edging the lip of this midnight pool and upon it also fell two wide flights from either side of the bridge platform. Along all four stairways the guards were ranged; and here and there against the ledge stood the shells — in a curiously comforting resemblance to parked motors in our own world.
The sombre walls bulked high; curved and ended in two obelisked pillars from which, like a tremendous curtain, stretched a barrier of that tenebrous gloom which, though weightless as shadow itself, I now knew to be as impenetrable as the veil between life and death. In this murk, unlike all others I had seen, I sensed movement, a quivering, a tremor constant and rhythmic; not to be seen, yet caught by some subtle sense; as though through it beat a swift pulse of — black light.
The green dwarf turned the corial slowly to the edge at the right; crept cautiously on toward where, not more than a hundred feet from the barrier, a low, wide entrance opened in the fort. Guarding its threshold stood two guards, armed with broadswords, double-handed, terminating in a wide lunette mouthed with murderous fangs. These they raised in salute and through the portal strode a dwarf huge as Rador, dressed as he and carrying only the poniard that was the badge of office of Muria’s captainry.
The green dwarf swept the shell expertly against the ledge; leaped out.
“Greeting, Serku!” he answered. “I was but looking for the coria of Lakla.”
“Lakla!” exclaimed Serku. “Why, the handmaiden passed with her Akka nigh a va ago!”
“Passed!” The astonishment of the green dwarf was so real that half was I myself deceived. “You let her PASS?”
“Certainly I let her pass —” But under the green dwarf’s stern gaze the truculence of the guardian faded. “Why should I not?” he asked, apprehensively.
“Because Yolara commanded otherwise,” answered Rador, coldly.
“There came no command to me.” Little beads of sweat stood out on Serku’s forehead.
“Serku,” interrupted the green dwarf swiftly, “truly is my heart wrung for you. This is a matter of Yolara and of Lugur and the Council; yes, even of the Shining One! And the message was sent — and the fate, mayhap, of all Muria rested upon your obedience and the return of Lakla with these strangers to the Council. Now truly is my heart wrung, for there are few I would less like to see dance with the Shining One than you, Serku,” he ended, softly.
Livid now was the gateway’s guardian, his great frame shaking.
“Come with me and speak to Yolara,” he pleaded. “There came no message — tell her —”
“Wait, Serku!” There was a thrill as of inspiration in Rador’s voice. “This corial is of the swiftest — Lakla’s are of the slowest. With Lakla scarce a va ahead we can reach her before she enters the Portal. Lift you the Shadow — we will bring her back, and this will I do for you, Serku.”
Doubt tempered Serku’s panic.
“Why not go alone, Rador, leaving the strangers here with me?” he asked — and I thought not unreasonably.
“Nay, then.” The green dwarf was brusk. “Lakla will not return unless I carry to her these men as evidence of our good faith. Come — we will speak to Yolara and she shall judge you —” He started away — but Serku caught his arm.
“No, Rador, no!” he whispered, again panic-stricken. “Go you — as you will. But bring her back! Speed, Rador!” He sprang toward the entrance. “I lift the Shadow —”
Into the green dwarf’s poise crept a curious, almost a listening, alertness. He leaped to Serku’s side.
“I go with you,” I heard. “Some little I can tell you —” They were gone.
“Fine work!” muttered Larry. “Nominated for a citizen of Ireland when we get out of this, one Rador of —”
The Shadow trembled — shuddered into nothingness; the obelisked outposts that had held it framed a ribbon of roadway, high banked with verdure, vanishing in green distances.
And then from the portal sped a shriek, a death cry! It cut through the silence of the ebon pit like a whimpering arrow. Before it had died, down the stairways came pouring the guards. Those at the threshold raised their swords and peered within. Abruptly Rador was between them. One dropped his hilt and gripped him — the green dwarf’s poniard flashed and was buried in his throat. Down upon Rador’s head swept the second blade. A flame leaped from O’Keefe’s hand and the sword seemed to fling itself from its wielder’s grasp — another flash and the soldier crumpled. Rador threw himself into the shell, darted to the high seat — and straight between the pillars of the Shadow we flew!
There came a crackling, a darkness of vast wings flinging down upon us. The corial’s flight was checked as by a giant’s hand. The shell swerved sickeningly; there was an oddly metallic splintering; it quivered; shot ahead. Dizzily I picked myself up and looked behind.
The Shadow had fallen — but too late, a bare instant too late. And shrinking as we fled from it, still it seemed to strain like some fettered Afrit from Eblis, throbbing with wrath, seeking with every malign power it possessed to break its bonds and pursue. Not until long after were we to know that it had been the dying hand of Serku, groping out of oblivion, that had cast it after us as a fowler upon an escaping bird.
“Snappy work, Rador!” It was Larry speaking. “But they cut the end off your bus all right!”
A full quarter of the hindward whorl was gone, sliced off cleanly. Rador noted it with anxious eyes.
“That is bad,” he said, “but not too bad perhaps. All depends upon how closely Lugur and his men can follow us.”
He raised a hand to O’Keefe in salute.
“But to you, Larree, I owe my life — not even the Keth could have been as swift to save me as that death flame of yours — friend!”
The Irishman waved an airy hand.
“Serku”— the green dwarf drew from his girdle the bloodstained poniard —“Serku I was forced to slay. Even as he raised the Shadow the globe gave the alarm. Lugur follows with twice ten times ten of his best —” He hesitated. “Though we have escaped the Shadow it has taken toll of our swiftness. May we reach the Portal before it closes upon Lakla — but if we do not —” He paused again. “Well — I know a way — but it is not one I am gay to follow — no!”
He snapped open the aperture that held the ball flaming within the dark crystal; peered at it anxiously. I crept to the torn end of the corial. The edges were crumbling, disintegrated. They powdered in my fingers like dust. Mystified still, I crept back where Larry, sheer happiness pouring from him, was whistling softly and polishing up his automatic. His gaze fell upon Olaf’s grim, sad face and softened.
“Buck up, Olaf!” he said. “We’ve got a good fighting chance. Once we link up with Lakla and her crowd I’m betting that we get your wife — never doubt it! The baby —” he hesitated awkwardly. The Norseman’s eyes filled; he stretched a hand to the O’Keefe.
“The Yndling — she is of the de Dode,” he half whispered, “of the blessed dead. For her I have no fear and for her vengeance will be given me. Ja! But my Helma — she is of the dead-alive — like those we saw whirling like leaves in the light of the Shining Devil — and I would that she too were of de Dode — and at rest. I do not know how to fight the Shining Devil — no!”
His bitter despair welled up in his voice.
“Olaf,” Larry’s voice was gentle. “We’ll come out on top — I know it. Remember one thing. All this stuff that seems so strange and — and, well, sort of supernatural, is just a lot of tricks we’re not hep to as yet. Why, Olaf, suppose you took a Fijian when the war was on and set him suddenly down in London with autos rushing past, sirens blowing, Archies popping, a dozen enemy planes dropping bombs, and the searchlights shooting all over the sky — wouldn’t he think he was among thirty-third degree devils in some exclusive circle of hell? Sure he would! And yet everything he saw would be natural — just as natural as all this is, once we get the answer to it. Not that we’re Fijians, of course, but the principle is the same.”
The Norseman considered this; nodded gravely.
“Ja!” he answered at last. “And at least we can fight. That is why I have turned to Thor of the battles, Ja! And ONE have I hope in for mine Helma — the white maiden. Since I have turned to the old gods it has been made clear to me that I shall slay Lugur and that the Heks, the evil witch Yolara, shall also die. But I would talk with the white maiden.”
“All right,” said Larry, “but just don’t be afraid of what you don’t understand. There’s another thing”— he hesitated, nervously —“there’s another thing that may startle you a bit when we meet up with Lakla — her — er — frogs!”
“Like the frog-woman we saw on the wall?” asked Olaf.
“Yes,” went on Larry, rapidly. “It’s this way — I figure that the frogs grow rather large where she lives, and they’re a bit different too. Well, Lakla’s got a lot of ’em trained. Carry spears and clubs and all that junk — just like trained seals or monkeys or so on in the circus. Probably a custom of the place. Nothing queer about that, Olaf. Why people have all kinds of pets — armadillos and snakes and rabbits, kangaroos and elephants and tigers.”
Remembering how the frog-woman had stuck in Larry’s mind from the outset, I wondered whether all this was not more to convince himself than Olaf.
“Why, I remember a nice girl in Paris who had four pet pythons —” he went on.
But I listened no more, for now I was sure of my surmise. The road had begun to thrust itself through high-flung, sharply pinnacled masses and rounded outcroppings of rock on which clung patches of the amber moss.
The trees had utterly vanished, and studding the moss-carpeted plains were only clumps of a willowy shrub from which hung, like grapes, clusters of white waxen blooms. The light too had changed; gone were the dancing, sparkling atoms and the silver had faded to a soft, almost ashen greyness. Ahead of us marched a rampart of coppery cliffs rising, like all these mountainous walls we had seen, into the immensities of haze. Something long drifting in my subconsciousness turned to startled realization. The speed of the shell was slackening! The aperture containing the ionizing mechanism was still open; I glanced within, The whirling ball of fire was not dimmed, but its coruscations, instead of pouring down through the cylinder, swirled and eddied and shot back as though trying to re-enter their source. Rador nodded grimly.
“The Shadow takes its toll,” he said.
We topped a rise — Larry gripped my arm.
“Look!” he cried, and pointed. Far, far behind us, so far that the road was but a glistening thread, a score of shining points came speeding.
“Lugur and his men,” said Rador.
“Can’t you step on her?” asked Larry.
“Step on her?” repeated the green dwarf, puzzled.
“Give her more speed; push her,” explained O’Keefe.
Rador looked about him. The coppery ramparts were close, not more than three or four miles distant; in front of us the plain lifted in a long rolling swell, and up this the corial essayed to go — with a terrifying lessening of speed. Faintly behind us came shootings, and we knew that Lugur drew close. Nor anywhere was there sign of Lakla nor her frogmen.
Now we were half-way to the crest; the shell barely crawled and from beneath it came a faint hissing; it quivered, and I knew that its base was no longer held above the glassy surface but rested on it.
“One last chance!” exclaimed Rador. He pressed upon the control lever and wrenched it from its socket. Instantly the sparkling ball expanded, whirling with prodigious rapidity and sending a cascade of coruscations into the cylinder. The shell rose; leaped through the air; the dark crystal split into fragments; the fiery ball dulled; died — but upon the impetus of that last thrust we reached the crest. Poised there for a moment, I caught a glimpse of the road dropping down the side of an enormous moss-covered, bowl-shaped valley whose sharply curved sides ended abruptly at the base of the towering barrier.
Then down the steep, powerless to guide or to check the shell, we plunged in a meteor rush straight for the annihilating adamantine breasts of the cliffs!
Now the quick thinking of Larry’s air training came to our aid. As the rampart reared close he threw himself upon Rador; hurled him and himself against the side of the flying whorl. Under the shock the finely balanced machine swerved from its course. It struck the soft, low bank of the road, shot high in air, bounded on through the thick carpeting, whirled like a dervish and fell upon its side. Shot from it, we rolled for yards, but the moss saved broken bones or serious bruise.
“Quick!” cried the green dwarf. He seized an arm, dragged me to my feet, began running to the cliff base not a hundred feet away. Beside us raced O’Keefe and Olaf. At our left was the black road. It stopped abruptly — was cut off by a slab of polished crimson stone a hundred feet high, and as wide, set within the coppery face of the barrier. On each side of it stood pillars, cut from the living rock and immense, almost, as those which held the rainbow veil of the Dweller. Across its face weaved unnameable carvings — but I had no time for more than a glance. The green dwarf gripped my arm again.
“Quick!” he cried again. “The handmaiden has passed!”
At the right of the Portal ran a low wall of shattered rock. Over this we raced like rabbits. Hidden behind it was a narrow path. Crouching, Rador in the lead, we sped along it; three hundred, four hundred yards we raced — and the path ended in a cul de sac! To our ears was borne a louder shouting.
The first of the pursuing shells had swept over the lip of the great bowl, poised for a moment as we had and then began a cautious descent. Within it, scanning the slopes, I saw Lugur.
“A little closer and I’ll get him!” whispered Larry viciously. He raised his pistol.
His hand was caught in a mighty grip; Rador, eyes blazing, stood beside him.
“No!” rasped the green dwarf. He heaved a shoulder against one of the boulders that formed the pocket. It rocked aside, revealing a slit.
“In!” ordered he, straining against the weight of the stone. O’Keefe slipped through. Olaf at his back, I following. With a lightning leap the dwarf was beside me, the huge rock missing him by a hair breadth as it swung into place!
We were in Cimmerian darkness. I felt for my pocket-flash and recalled with distress that I had left it behind with my medicine kit when we fled from the gardens. But Rador seemed to need no light.
“Grip hands!” he ordered. We crept, single file, holding to each other like children, through the black. At last the green dwarf paused.
“Await me here,” he whispered. “Do not move. And for your lives — be silent!”
And he was gone.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:53