“Never was there such a girl!” Thus Larry, dreamily, leaning head in hand on one of the wide divans of the chamber where Lakla had left us, pleading service to the Silent Ones.
“An’, by the faith and the honour of the O’Keefes, an’ by my dead mother’s soul may God do with me as I do by her!” he whispered fervently.
He relapsed into open-eyed dreaming.
I walked about the room, examining it — the first opportunity I had gained to inspect carefully any of the rooms in the abode of the Three. It was octagonal, carpeted with the thick rugs that seemed almost as though woven of soft mineral wool, faintly shimmering, palest blue. I paced its diagonal; it was fifty yards; the ceiling was arched, and either of pale rose metal or metallic covering; it collected the light from the high, slitted windows, and shed it, diffused, through the room.
Around the octagon ran a low gallery not two feet from the floor, balustraded with slender pillars, close set; broken at opposite curtained entrances over which hung thick, dull-gold curtainings giving the same suggestion of metallic or mineral substance as the rugs. Set within each of the eight sides, above the balcony, were colossal slabs of lapis lazuli, inset with graceful but unplaceable designs in scarlet and sapphire blue.
There was the great divan on which mused Larry; two smaller ones, half a dozen low seats and chairs carved apparently of ivory and of dull soft gold.
Most curious were tripods, strong, pikelike legs of golden metal four feet high, holding small circles of the lapis with intaglios of one curious symbol somewhat resembling the ideographs of the Chinese.
There was no dust — nowhere in these caverned spaces had I found this constant companion of ours in the world overhead. My eyes caught a sparkle from a corner. Pursuing it I found upon one of the low seats a flat, clear crystal oval, remarkably like a lens. I took it and stepped up on the balcony. Standing on tiptoe I found I commanded from the bottom of a window slit a view of the bridge approach. Scanning it I could see no trace of the garrison there, nor of the green spear flashes. I placed the crystal to my eyes — and with a disconcerting abruptness the cavern mouth leaped before me, apparently not a hundred feet away; decidedly the crystal was a very excellent lens — but where were the guards?
I peered closely. Nothing! But now against the aperture I saw a score or more of tiny, dancing sparks. An optical illusion, I thought, and turned the crystal in another direction. There were no sparklings there. I turned it back again — and there they were. And what were they like? Realization came to me — they were like the little, dancing, radiant atoms that had played for a time about the emptiness where had stood Sorgar of the Lower Waters before he bad been shaken into the nothingness! And that green light I had noticed — the Keth!
A cry on my lips, I turned to Larry — and the cry died as the heavy curtainings at the entrance on my right undulated, parted as though a body had slipped through, shook and parted again and again — with the dreadful passing of unseen things!
“Larry!” I cried. “Here! Quick!”
He leaped to his feet, gazed about wildly — and disappeared! Yes — vanished from my sight like the snuffed flame of a candle or as though something moving with the speed of light itself had snatched him away!
Then from the divan came the sounds of struggle, the hissing of straining breaths, the noise of Larry cursing. I leaped over the balustrade, drawing my own pistol — was caught in a pair of mighty arms, my elbows crushed to my sides, drawn down until my face pressed close to a broad, hairy breast — and through that obstacle — formless, shadowless, transparent as air itself — I could still see the battle on the divan!
Now there were two sharp reports; the struggle abruptly ceased. From a point not a foot over the great couch, as though oozing from the air itself, blood began to drop, faster and ever faster, pouring out of nothingness.
And out of that same air, now a dozen feet away, leaped the face of Larry — bodyless, poised six feet above the floor, blazing with rage — floating weirdly, uncannily to a hideous degree, in vacancy.
His hands flashed out — armless; they wavered, appearing, disappearing — swiftly tearing something from him. Then there, feet hidden, stiff on legs that vanished at the ankles, striking out into vision with all the dizzy abruptness with which he had been stricken from sight was the O’Keefe, a smoking pistol in hand.
And ever that red stream trickled out of vacancy and spread over the couch, dripping to the floor.
I made a mighty movement to escape; was held more firmly — and then close to the face of Larry, flashing out with that terrifying instantaneousness even as had his, was the head of Yolara, as devilishly mocking as I had ever seen it, the cruelty shining through it like delicate white flames from hell — and beautiful!
“Stir not! Strike not — until I command!” She flung the words beyond her, addressed to the invisible ones who had accompanied her; whose presences I sensed filling the chamber. The floating, beautiful head, crowned high with corn-silk hair, darted toward the Irishman. He took a swift step backward. The eyes of the priestess deepened toward purple; sparkled with malice.
“So,” she said. “So, Larree — you thought you could go from me so easily!” She laughed softly. “In my hidden hand I hold the Keth cone,” she murmured. “Before you can raise the death tube I can smite you — and will. And consider, Larree, if the handmaiden, the choya comes, I can vanish — so”— the mocking head disappeared, burst forth again —“and slay her with the Keth — or bid my people seize her and bear her to the Shining One!”
Tiny beads of sweat stood out on O’Keefe’s forehead, and I knew he was thinking not of himself, but of Lakla.
“What do you want with me, Yolara?” he asked hoarsely.
“Nay,” came the mocking voice. “Not Yolara to you, Larree — call me by those sweet names you taught me — Honey of the Wild Bee-e-s, Net of Hearts —” Again her laughter tinkled.
“What do you want with me?” his voice was strained, the lips rigid.
“Ah, you are afraid, Larree.” There was diabolic jubilation in the words. “What should I want but that you return with me? Why else did I creep through the lair of the dragon worm and pass the path of perils but to ask you that? And the choya guards you not well.” Again she laughed. “We came to the cavern’s end and, there were her Akka. And the Akka can see us — as shadows. But it was my desire to surprise you with my coming, Larree,” the voice was silken. “And I feared that they would hasten to be first to bring you that message to delight in your joy. And so, Larree, I loosed the Keth upon them — and gave them peace and rest within the nothingness. And the portal below was open — almost in welcome!”
Once more the malignant, silver pealing of her laughter.
“What do you want with me?” There was wrath in his eyes, and plainly he strove for control.
“Want!” the silver voice hissed, grew calm. “Do not Siya and Siyana grieve that the rite I pledged them is but half done — and do they not desire it finished? And am I not beautiful? More beautiful than your choya?”
The fiendishness died from the eyes; they grew blue, wondrous; the veil of invisibility slipped down from the neck, the shoulders, half revealing the gleaming breasts. And weird, weird beyond all telling was that exquisite head and bust floating there in air — and beautiful, sinisterly beautiful beyond all telling, too. So even might Lilith, the serpent woman, have shown herself tempting Adam!
“And perhaps,” she said, “perhaps I want you because I hate you; perhaps because I love you — or perhaps for Lugur or perhaps for the Shining One.”
“And if I go with you?” He said it quietly.
“Then shall I spare the handmaiden — and — who knows? — take back my armies that even now gather at the portal and let the Silent Ones rot in peace in their abode — from which they had no power to keep me,” she added venomously.
“You will swear that, Yolara; swear to go without harming the handmaiden?” he asked eagerly. The little devils danced in her eyes. I wrenched my face from the smothering contact.
“Don’t trust her, Larry!” I cried — and again the grip choked me.
“Is that devil in front of you or behind you, old man?” he asked quietly, eyes never leaving the priestess. “If he’s in front I’ll take a chance and wing him — and then you scoot and warn Lakla.”
But I could not answer; nor, remembering Yolara’s threat, would I, had I been able.
“Decide quickly!” There was cold threat in her voice.
The curtains toward which O’Keefe had slowly, step by step, drawn close, opened. They framed the handmaiden! The face of Yolara changed to that gorgon mask that had transformed it once before at sight of the Golden Girl. In her blind rage she forgot to cast the occulting veil. Her hand darted like a snake out of the folds; poising itself with the little silver cone aimed at Lakla.
But before it was wholly poised, before the priestess could loose its force, the handmaiden was upon her. Swift as the lithe white wolf hound she leaped, and one slender hand gripped Yolara’s throat, the other the wrist that lifted the quivering death; white limbs wrapped about the hidden ones, I saw the golden head bend, the hand that held the Keth swept up with a vicious jerk; saw Lakla’s teeth sink into the wrist — the blood spurt forth and heard the priestess shriek. The cone fell, bounded toward me; with all my strength I wrenched free the hand that held my pistol, thrust it against the pressing breast and fired,
The clasp upon me relaxed; a red rain stained me; at my feet a little pillar of blood jetted; a hand thrust itself from nothingness, clawed — and was still.
Now Yolara was down, Lakla meshed in her writhings and fighting like some wild mother whose babes are serpent menaced. Over the two of them, astride, stood the O’Keefe, a pike from one of the high tripods in his hand — thrusting, parrying, beating on every side as with a broadsword against poniard-clutching hands that thrust themselves out of vacancy striving to strike him; stepping here and there, always covering, protecting Lakla with his own body even as a caveman of old who does battle with his mate for their lives.
The sword-club struck — and on the floor lay the half body of a dwarf, writhing with vanishments and reappearings of legs and arms. Beside him was the shattered tripod from which Larry had wrenched his weapon. I flung myself upon it, dashed it down to break loose one of the remaining supports, struck in midfall one of the unseen even as his dagger darted toward me! The seat splintered, leaving in my clutch a golden bar. I jumped to Larry’s side, guarding his back, whirling it like a staff; felt it crunch once — twice — through unseen bone and muscle.
At the door was a booming. Into the chamber rushed a dozen of the frog-men. While some guarded the entrances, others leaped straight to us, and forming a circle about us began to strike with talons and spurs at unseen things that screamed and sought to escape. Now here and there about the blue rugs great stains of blood appeared; heads of dwarfs, torn arms and gashed bodies, half occulted, half revealed. And at last the priestess lay silent, vanquished, white body gleaming with that uncanny — fragmentariness — from her torn robes. Then O’Keefe reached down, drew Lakla from her. Shakily, Yolara rose to her feet. The handmaiden, face still blazing with wrath, stepped before her; with difficulty she steadied her voice.
“Yolara,” she said, “you have defied the Silent Ones, you have desecrated their abode, you came to slay these men who are the guests of the Silent Ones and me, who am their handmaiden — why did you do these things?”
“I came for him!” gasped the priestess; she pointed to O’Keefe.
“Why?” asked Lakla.
“Because he is pledged to me,” replied Yolara, all the devils that were hers in her face. “Because he wooed me! Because he is mine!”
“That is a lie!” The handmaiden’s voice shook with rage. “It is a lie! But here and now he shall choose, Yolara. And if you he choose, you and he shall go forth from here unmolested — for Yolara, it is his happiness that I most desire, and if you are that happiness — you shall go together. And now, Larry, choose!”
Swiftly she stepped beside the priestess; swiftly wrenched the last shreds of the hiding robes from her.
There they stood — Yolara with but the filmiest net of gauze about her wonderful body; gleaming flesh shining through it; serpent woman —-and wonderful, too, beyond the dreams even of Phidias — and hell-fire glowing from the purple eyes.
And Lakla, like a girl of the Vikings, like one of those warrior maids who stood and fought for dun and babes at the side of those old heroes of Larry’s own green isle; translucent ivory lambent through the rents of her torn draperies, and in the wide, golden eyes flaming wrath, indeed — not the diabolic flames of the priestess but the righteous wrath of some soul that looking out of paradise sees vile wrong in the doing.
“Lakla,” the O’Keefe’s voice was subdued, hurt, “there IS no choice. I love you and only you — and have from the moment I saw you. It’s not easy — this. God, Goodwin, I feel like an utter cad,” he flashed at me. “There is no choice, Lakla,” he ended, eyes steady upon hers.
The priestess’s face grew deadlier still.
“What will you do with me?” she asked.
“Keep you,” I said, “as hostage.”
O’Keefe was silent; the Golden Girl shook her head.
“Well would I like to,” her face grew dreaming; “but the Silent Ones say — NO; they bid me let you go, Yolara —”
“The Silent Ones,” the priestess laughed. “YOU, Lakla! You fear, perhaps, to let me tarry here too close!”
Storm gathered again in the handmaiden’s eyes; she forced it back.
“No,” she answered, “the Silent Ones so command — and for their own purposes. Yet do I think, Yolara, that you will have little time to feed your wickedness — tell that to Lugur — and to your Shining One!” she added slowly.
Mockery and disbelief rode high in the priestess’s pose. “Am I to return alone — like this?” she asked.
“Nay, Yolara, nay; you shall be accompanied,” said Lakla; “and by those who will guard — and WATCH— you well. They are here even now.”
The hangings parted, and into the chamber came Olaf and Rador.
The priestess met the fierce hatred and contempt in the eyes of the Norseman — and for the first time lost her bravado.
“Let not HIM go with me,” she gasped — her eyes searched the floor frantically.
“He goes with you,” said Lakla, and threw about Yolara a swathing that covered the exquisite, alluring body. “And you shall pass through the Portal, not skulk along the path of the worm!”
She bent to Rador, whispered to him; he nodded; she had told him, I supposed, the secret of its opening.
“Come,” he said, and with the ice-eyed giant behind her, Yolara, head bent, passed out of those hangings through which, but a little before, unseen, triumph in her grasp, she had slipped.
Then Lakla came to the unhappy O’Keefe, rested her hands on his shoulders, looked deep into his eyes.
“DID you woo her, even as she said?” she asked.
The Irishman flushed miserably.
“I did not,” he said. “I was pleasant to her, of course, because I thought it would bring me quicker to you, darlin’.”
She looked at him doubtfully; then —
“I think you must have been VERY— pleasant!” was all she said — and leaning, kissed him forgivingly straight on the lips. An extremely direct maiden was Lakla, with a truly sovereign contempt for anything she might consider non-essentials; and at this moment I decided she was wiser even than I had thought her.
He stumbled, feet vanishing; reached down and picked up something that in the grasping turned his hand to air.
“One of the invisible cloaks,” he said to me. “There must be quite a lot of them about — I guess Yolara brought her full staff of murderers. They’re a bit shopworn, probably — but we’re considerably better off with ’em in our hands than in hers. And they may come in handy — who knows?”
There was a choking rattle at my feet; half the head of a dwarf raised out of vacancy; beat twice upon the floor in death throes; fell back. Lakla shivered; gave a command. The frog-men moved about; peering here and there; lifting unseen folds revealing in stark rigidity torn form after form of the priestess’s men.
Lakla had been right — her Akka were thorough fighters!
She called, and to her came the frog-woman who was her attendant. To her the handmaiden spoke, pointing to the batrachians who stood, paws and forearms melted beneath the robes they had gathered. She took them and passed out — more grotesque than ever, shattering into streaks of vacancies, reappearing with flickers of shining scale and yellow gems as the tattered pennants of invisibility fluttered about her.
The frog-men reached down, swung each a dead dwarf in his arms, and filed, booming triumphantly away.
And then I remembered the cone of the Keth which had slipped from Yolara’s hand; knew it had been that for which her wild eyes searched. But look as closely as we might, search in every nook and corner as we did, we could not find it. Had the dying hand of one of her men clutched it and had it been borne away with them? With the thought Larry and I raced after the scaled warriors, searched every body they carried. It was not there. Perhaps the priestess had found it, retrieved it swiftly without our seeing.
Whatever was true — the cone was gone. And what a weapon that one little holder of the shaking death would have been for us!
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:53