For a small eternity — to me at least — we waited. Then as silent as ever the green dwarf returned. “It is well,” he said, some of the strain gone from his voice. “Grip hands again, and follow.”
“Wait a bit, Rador,” this was Larry. “Does Lugur know this side entrance? If he does, why not let Olaf and me go back to the opening and pick them off as they come in? We could hold the lot — and in the meantime you and Goodwin could go after Lakla for help.”
“Lugur knows the secret of the Portal — if he dare use it,” answered the captain, with a curious indirection. “And now that they have challenged the Silent Ones I think he WILL dare. Also, he will find our tracks — and it may be that he knows this hidden way.”
“Well, for God’s sake!” O’Keefe’s appalled bewilderment was almost ludicrous. “If HE knows all that, and YOU knew all that, why didn’t you let me click him when I had the chance?”
“Larree,” the green dwarf was oddly humble. “It seemed good to me, too — at first. And then I heard a command, heard it clearly, to stop you — that Lugur die not now, lest a greater vengeance fail!”
“Command? From whom?” The Irishman’s voice distilled out of the blackness the very essence of bewilderment.
“I thought,” Rador was whispering —“I thought it came from the Silent Ones!”
“Superstition!” groaned O’Keefe in utter exasperation. “Always superstition! What can you do against it!
“Never mind, Rador.” His sense of humour came to his aid. “It’s too late now, anyway. Where do we go from here, old dear?” he laughed.
“We tread the path of one I am not fain to meet,” answered Rador. “But if meet we must, point the death tubes at the pale shield he bears upon his throat and send the flame into the flower of cold fire that is its centre — nor look into his eyes!”
Again Larry gasped, and I with him.
“It’s getting too deep for me, Doc,” he muttered dejectedly. “Can you make head or tail of it?”
“No,” I answered, shortly enough, “but Rador fears something and that’s his description of it.”
“Sure,” he replied, “only it’s a code I don’t understand.” I could feel his grin. “All right for the flower of cold fire, Rador, and I won’t look into his eyes,” he went on cheerfully. “But hadn’t we better be moving?”
“Come!” said the soldier; again hand in hand we went blindly on.
O’Keefe was muttering to himself.
“Flower of cold fire! Don’t look into his eyes! Some joint! Damned superstition.” Then he chuckled and carolled, softly:
“Oh, mama, pin a cold rose on me;
Two young frog-men are in love with me;
Shut my eyes so I can’t see.”
“Sh!” Rador was warning; he began whispering. “For half a va we go along a way of death. From its peril we pass into another against whose dangers I can guard you. But in part this is in view of the roadway and it may be that Lugur will see us. If so, we must fight as best we can. If we pass these two roads safely, then is the way to the Crimson Sea clear, nor need we fear Lugur nor any. And there is another thing — that Lugur does not know — when he opens the Portal the Silent Ones will hear and Lakla and the Akka will be swift to greet its opener.”
“Rador,” I asked, “how know YOU all this?”
“The handmaiden is my own sister’s child,” he answered quietly.
O’Keefe drew a long breath.
“Uncle,” he remarked casually in English, “meet the man who’s going to be your nephew!”
And thereafter he never addressed the green dwarf except by the avuncular title, which Rador, humorously enough, apparently conceived to be one of respectful endearment.
For me a light broke. Plain now was the reason for his foreknowledge of Lakla’s appearance at the feast where Larry had so narrowly escaped Yolara’s spells; plain the determining factor that had cast his lot with ours, and my confidence, despite his discourse of mysterious perils, experienced a remarkable quickening.
Speculation as to the marked differences in pigmentation and appearance of niece and uncle was dissipated by my consciousness that we were now moving in a dim half-light. We were in a fairly wide tunnel. Not far ahead the gleam filtered, pale yellow like sunlight sifting through the leaves of autumn poplars. And as we drove closer to its source I saw that it did indeed pass through a leafy screen hanging over the passage end. This Rador drew aside cautiously, beckoned us and we stepped through.
It appeared to be a tunnel cut through soft green mould. Its base was a flat strip of pathway a yard wide from which the walls curved out in perfect cylindrical form, smoothed and evened with utmost nicety. Thirty feet wide they were at their widest, then drew toward each other with no break in their symmetry; they did not close. Above was, roughly, a ten-foot rift, ragged edged, through which poured light like that in the heart of pale amber, a buttercup light shot through with curiously evanescent bronze shadows.
“Quick!” commanded Rador, uneasily, and set off at a sharp pace.
Now, my eyes accustomed to the strange light, I saw that the tunnel’s walls were of moss. In them I could trace fringe leaf and curly leaf, pressings of enormous bladder caps (Physcomitrium), immense splashes of what seemed to be the scarlet-crested Cladonia, traceries of huge moss veils, crushings of teeth (peristome) gigantic; spore cases brown and white, saffron and ivory, hot vermilions and cerulean blues, pressed into an astounding mosaic by some titanic force.
“Hurry!” It was Rador calling. I had lagged behind.
He quickened the pace to a half-run; we were climbing; panting. The amber light grew stronger; the rift above us wider. The tunnel curved; on the left a narrow cleft appeared. The green dwarf leaped toward it, thrust us within, pushed us ahead of him up a steep rocky fissure — well-nigh, indeed, a chimney. Up and up this we scrambled until my lungs were bursting and I thought I could climb no more. The crevice ended; we crawled out and sank, even Rador, upon a little leaf-carpeted clearing circled by lacy tree ferns.
Gasping, legs aching, we lay prone, relaxed, drawing back strength and breath. Rador was first to rise. Thrice he bent low as in homage, then —
“Give thanks to the Silent Ones — for their power has been over us!” he exclaimed.
Dimly I wondered what he meant. Something about the fern leaf at which I had been staring aroused me. I leaped to my feet and ran to its base. This was no fern, no! It was fern MOSS! The largest of its species I had ever found in tropic jungles had not been more than two inches high, and this was — twenty feet! The scientific fire I had experienced in the tunnel returned uncontrollable. I parted the fronds, gazed out —
My outlook commanded a vista of miles — and that vista! A Fata Morgana of plantdom! A land of flowered sorcery!
Forests of tree-high mosses spangled over with blooms of every conceivable shape and colour; cataracts and clusters, avalanches and nets of blossoms in pastels, in dulled metallics, in gorgeous flamboyant hues; some of them phosphorescent and shining like living jewels; some sparkling as though with dust of opals, of sapphires, of rubies and topazes and emeralds; thickets of convolvuli like the trumpets of the seven archangels of Mara, king of illusion, which are shaped from the bows of splendours arching his highest heaven!
And moss veils like banners of a marching host of Titans; pennons and bannerets of the sunset; gonfalons of the Jinn; webs of faery; oriflammes of elfland!
Springing up through that polychromatic flood myriads of pedicles — slender and straight as spears, or soaring in spirals, or curving with undulations gracile as the white serpents of Tanit in ancient Carthaginian groves — and all surmounted by a fantasy of spore cases in shapes of minaret and turret, domes and spires and cones, caps of Phrygia and bishops’ mitres, shapes grotesque and unnameable — shapes delicate and lovely!
They hung high poised, nodding and swaying — like goblins hovering over Titania’s court; cacophony of Cathay accenting the Flower Maiden music of “Parsifal”; bizarrerie of the angled, fantastic beings that people the Javan pantheon watching a bacchanal of houris in Mohammed’s paradise!
Down upon it all poured the amber light; dimmed in the distances by huge, drifting darkenings lurid as the flying mantles of the hurricane.
And through the light, like showers of jewels, myriads of birds, darting, dipping, soaring, and still other myriads of gigantic, shimmering butterflies.
A sound came to us, reaching out like the first faint susurrus of the incoming tide; sighing, sighing, growing stronger — now its mournful whispering quivered all about us, shook us — then passing like a Presence, died away in far distances.
“The Portal!” said Rador. “Lugur has entered!”
He, too, parted the fronds and peered back along our path. Peering with him we saw the barrier through which we had come stretching verdure-covered walls for miles three or more away. Like a mole burrow in a garden stretched the trail of the tunnel; here and there we could look down within the rift at its top; far off in it I thought I saw the glint of spears.
“They come!” whispered Rador. “Quick! We must not meet them here!”
And then —
“Holy St. Brigid!” gasped Larry.
From the rift in the tunnel’s continuation, nigh a mile beyond the cleft through which we had fled, lifted a crown of horns — of tentacles — erect, alert, of mottled gold and crimson; lifted higher — and from a monstrous scarlet head beneath them blazed two enormous, obloid eyes, their depths wells of purplish phosphorescence; higher still — noseless, earless, chinless; a livid, worm mouth from which a slender scarlet tongue leaped like playing flames! Slowly it rose — its mighty neck cuirassed with gold and scarlet scales from whose polished surfaces the amber light glinted like flakes of fire; and under this neck shimmered something like a palely luminous silvery shield, guarding it. The head of horror mounted — and in the shield’s centre, full ten feet across, glowing, flickering, shining out — coldly, was a rose of white flame, a “flower of cold fire” even as Rador had said.
Now swiftly the Thing upreared, standing like a scaled tower a hundred feet above the rift, its eyes scanning that movement I had seen along the course of its lair. There was a hissing; the crown of horns fell, whipped and writhed like the tentacles of an octopus; the towering length dropped back.
“Quick!” gasped Rador and through the fern moss, along the path and down the other side of the steep we raced.
Behind us for an instant there was a rushing as of a torrent; a far-away, faint, agonized screaming — silence!
“No fear NOW from those who followed,” whispered the green dwarf, pausing.
“Sainted St. Patrick!” O’Keefe gazed ruminatively at his automatic. “An’ he expected me to kill THAT with this. Well, as Fergus O’Connor said when they sent him out to slaughter a wild bull with a potato knife: ‘Ye’ll niver rayilize how I appreciate the confidence ye show in me!’
“What was it, Doc?” he asked.
“The dragon worm!” Rador said.
“It was Helvede Orm — the hell worm!” groaned Olaf.
“There you go again —” blazed Larry; but the green dwarf was hurrying down the path and swiftly we followed, Larry muttering, Olaf mumbling, behind me.
The green dwarf was signalling us for caution. He pointed through a break in a grove of fifty-foot cedar mosses — we were skirting the glassy road! Scanning it we found no trace of Lugur and wondered whether he too had seen the worm and had fled. Quickly we passed on; drew away from the coria path. The mosses began to thin; less and less they grew, giving way to low clumps that barely offered us shelter. Unexpectedly another screen of fern moss stretched before us. Slowly Rador made his way through it and stood hesitating.
The scene in front of us was oddly weird and depressing; in some indefinable way — dreadful. Why, I could not tell, but the impression was plain; I shrank from it. Then, self-analyzing, I wondered whether it could be the uncanny resemblance the heaps of curious mossy fungi scattered about had to beast and bird — yes, and to man — that was the cause of it. Our path ran between a few of them. To the left they were thick. They were viridescent, almost metallic hued — verd-antique. Curiously indeed were they like distorted images of dog and deerlike forms, of birds — of DWARFS and here and there the simulacra of the giant frogs! Spore cases, yellowish green, as large as mitres and much resembling them in shape protruded from the heaps. My repulsion grew into a distinct nausea.
Rador turned to us a face whiter far than that with which he had looked upon the dragon worm.
“Now for your lives,” he whispered, “tread softly here as I do — and speak not at all!”
He stepped forward on tiptoe, slowly with utmost caution. We crept after him; passed the heaps beside the path — and as I passed my skin crept and I shrank and saw the others shrink too with that unnameable loathing; nor did the green dwarf pause until he had reached the brow of a small hillock a hundred yards beyond. And he was trembling.
“Now what are we up against?” grumbled O’Keefe.
The green dwarf stretched a hand; stiffened; gazed over to the left of us beyond a lower hillock upon whose broad crest lay a file of the moss shapes. They fringed it, their mitres having a grotesque appearance of watching what lay below. The glistening road lay there — and from it came a shout. A dozen of the coria clustered, filled with Lugur’s men and in one of them Lugur himself, laughing wickedly!
There was a rush of soldiers and up the low hillock raced a score of them toward us.
“Run!” shouted Rador.
“Not much!” grunted Larry — and took swift aim at Lugur. The automatic spat: Olaf’s echoed. Both bullets went wild, for Lugur, still laughing, threw himself into the protection of the body of his shell. But following the shots, from the file of moss heaps on the crest, came a series of muffled explosions. Under the pistol’s concussions the mitred caps had burst and instantly all about the running soldiers grew a cloud of tiny, glistening white spores — like a little cloud of puff-ball dust many times magnified. Through this cloud I glimpsed their faces, stricken with agony.
Some turned to fly, but before they could take a second step stood rigid.
The spore cloud drifted and eddied about them; rained down on their heads and half bare breasts, covered their garments — and swiftly they began to change! Their features grew indistinct — merged! The glistening white spores that covered them turned to a pale yellow, grew greenish, spread and swelled, darkened. The eyes of one of the soldiers glinted for a moment — and then were covered by the swift growth!
Where but a few moments before had been men were only grotesque heaps, swiftly melting, swiftly rounding into the the semblance of the mounds that lay behind us — and already beginning to take on their gleam of ancient viridescence!
The Irishman was gripping my arm fiercely; the pain brought me back to my senses.
“Olaf’s right,” he gasped. “This IS hell! I’m sick.” And he was, frankly and without restraint. Lugur and his others awakened from their nightmare; piled into the coria, wheeled, raced away.
“On!” said Rador thickly. “Two perils have we passed — the Silent Ones watch over us!”
Soon we were again among the familiar and so unfamiliar moss giants. I knew what I had seen and this time Larry could not call me — superstitious. In the jungles of Borneo I had examined that other swiftly developing fungus which wreaks the vengeance of some of the hill tribes upon those who steal their women; gripping with its microscopic hooks into the flesh; sending quick, tiny rootlets through the skin down into the capillaries, sucking life and thriving and never to be torn away until the living thing it clings to has been sapped dry. Here was but another of the species in which the development’s rate was incredibly accelerated. Some of this I tried to explain to O’Keefe as we sped along, reassuring him.
“But they turned to moss before our eyes!” he said.
Again I explained, patiently. But he seemed to derive no comfort at all from my assurances that the phenomena were entirely natural and, aside from their more terrifying aspect, of peculiar interest to the botanist.
“I know,” was all he would say. “But suppose one of those things had burst while we were going through — God!”
I was wondering how I could with comparative safety study the fungus when Rador stopped; in front of us was again the road ribbon.
“Now is all danger passed,” he said. “The way lies open and Lugur has fled —”
There was a flash from the road. It passed me like a little lariat of light. It struck Larry squarely between the eyes, spread over his face and drew itself within!
“Down!” cried Rador, and hurled me to the ground. My head struck sharply; I felt myself grow faint; Olaf fell beside me; I saw the green dwarf draw down the O’Keefe; he collapsed limply, face still, eyes staring. A shout — and from the roadway poured a host of Lugur’s men; I could hear Lugur bellowing.
There came a rush of little feet; soft, fragrant draperies brushed my face; dimly I watched Lakla bend over the Irishman.
She straightened — her arms swept out and the writhing vine, with its tendrilled heads of ruby bloom, five flames of misty incandescence, leaped into the faces of the soldiers now close upon us. It darted at their throats, striking, coiling, and striking again; coiling and uncoiling with incredible rapidity and flying from leverage points of throats, of faces, of breasts like a spring endowed with consciousness, volition and hatred — and those it struck stood rigid as stone with faces masks of inhuman fear and anguish; and those still unstricken fled.
Another rush of feet — and down upon Lugur’s forces poured the frog-men, their booming giant leading, thrusting with their lances, tearing and rending with talons and fangs and spurs.
Against that onslaught the dwarfs could not stand. They raced for the shells; I heard Lugur shouting, menacingly — and then Lakla’s voice, pealing like a golden bugle of wrath.
“Go, Lugur!” she cried. “Go — that you and Yolara and your Shining One may die together! Death for you, Lugur — death for you all! Remember Lugur — death!”
There was a great noise within my head — no matter, Lakla was here — Lakla here — but too late — Lugur had outplayed us; moss death nor dragon worm had frightened him away — he had crept back to trap us — Lakla had come too late — Larry was dead — Larry! But I had heard no banshee wailing — and Larry had said he could not die without that warning — no, Larry was not dead. So ran the turbulent current of my mind.
A horny arm lifted me; two enormous, oddly gentle saucer eyes were staring into mine; my head rolled; I caught a glimpse of the Golden Girl kneeling beside the O’Keefe.
The noise in my head grew thunderous — was carrying me away on its thunder — swept me into soft, blind darkness.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58