The Norseman turned toward us. There was now no madness in his eyes; only a great weariness. And there was peace on the once tortured face.
“Helma,” he whispered, “I go a little before! Soon you will come to me — to me and the Yndling who will await you — Helma, mine liebe!”
Blood gushed from his mouth; he swayed, fell. And thus died Olaf Huldricksson.
We looked down upon him; nor did Lakla, nor Larry, nor I try to hide our tears. And as we stood the Akka brought to us that other mighty fighter, Rador; but in him there was life, and we attended to him there as best we could.
Then Lakla spoke.
“We will bear him into the castle where we may give him greater care,” she said. “For, lo! the hosts of Yolara have been beaten back; and on the bridge comes Nak with tidings.”
We looked over the parapet. It was even as she had said. Neither on ledge nor bridge was there trace of living men of Muria — only heaps of slain that lay everywhere — and thick against the cavern mouth still danced the flashing atoms of those the green ray had destroyed.
“Over!” exclaimed Larry incredulously. “We live then — heart of mine!”
“The Silent Ones recall their veils,” she said, pointing to the dome. Back through the slitted opening the radiance was streaming; withdrawing from sea and island; marching back over the bridge with that same ordered, intelligent motion. Behind it the red light pressed, like skirmishers on the heels of a retreating army.
“And yet —” faltered the handmaiden as we passed into her chamber, and doubtful were the eyes she turned upon the O’Keefe.
“I don’t believe,” he said, “there’s a kick left in them —”
What was that sound beating into the chamber faintly, so faintly? My heart gave a great throb and seemed to stop for an eternity. What was it — coming nearer, ever nearer? Now Lakla and O’Keefe heard it, life ebbing from lips and cheeks.
Nearer, nearer — a music as of myriads of tiny crystal bells, tinkling, tinkling — a storm of pizzicati upon violins of glass! Nearer, nearer — not sweetly now, nor luring; no — raging, wrathful, sinister beyond words; sweeping on; nearer —
The Dweller! The Shining One!
We leaped to the narrow window; peered out, aghast. The bell notes swept through and about us, a hurricane. The crescent strand was once more a ferment. Back, back were the Akka being swept, as though by brooms, tottering on the edge of the ledge, falling into the waters. Swiftly they were finished; and where they had fought was an eddying throng clothed in tatters or naked, swaying, drifting, arms tossing — like marionettes of Satan.
The dead-alive! The slaves of the Dweller!
They swayed and tossed, and then, like water racing through an opened dam, they swept upon the bridge-head. On and on they pushed, like the bore of a mighty tide. The frog-men strove against them, clubbing, spearing, tearing them. But even those worst smitten seemed not to fall. On they pushed, driving forward, irresistible — a battering ram of flesh and bone. They clove the masses of the Akka, pressing them to the sides of the bridge and over. Through the open gates they forced them — for there was no room for the frog-men to stand against that implacable tide.
Then those of the Akka who were left turned their backs and ran. We heard the clang of the golden wings of the portal, and none too soon to keep out the first of the Dweller’s dreadful hordes.
Now upon the cavern ledge and over the whole length of the bridge there were none but the dead-alive, men and women, black-polled ladala, sloe-eyed Malays, slant-eyed Chinese, men of every race that sailed the seas — milling, turning, swaying, like leaves caught in a sluggish current.
The bell notes became sharper, more insistent. At the cavern mouth a radiance began to grow — a gleaming from which the atoms of diamond dust seemed to try to flee. As the radiance grew and the crystal notes rang nearer, every head of that hideous multitude turned stiffly, slowly toward the right, looking toward the far bridge end; their eyes fixed and glaring; every face an inhuman mask of rapture and of horror!
A movement shook them. Those in the centre began to stream back, faster and ever faster, leaving motionless deep ranks on each side. Back they flowed until from golden doors to cavern mouth a wide lane stretched, walled on each side by the dead-alive.
The far radiance became brighter; it gathered itself at the end of the dreadful lane; it was shot with sparklings and with pulsings of polychromatic light. The crystal storm was intolerable, piercing the ears with countless tiny lances; brighter still the radiance.
From the cavern swirled the Shining One!
The Dweller paused, seemed to scan the island of the Silent Ones half doubtfully; then slowly, stately, it drifted out upon the bridge. Closer it drew; behind it glided Yolara at the head of a company of her dwarfs, and at her side was the hag of the Council whose face was the withered, shattered echo of her own.
Slower grew the Dweller’s pace as it drew nearer. Did I sense in it a doubt, an uncertainty? The crystal-tongued, unseen choristers that accompanied it subtly seemed to reflect the doubt; their notes were not sure, no longer insistent; rather was there in them an undertone of hesitancy, of warning! Yet on came the Shining One until it stood plain beneath us, searching with those eyes that thrust from and withdrew into unknown spheres, the golden gateway, the cliff face, the castle’s rounded bulk — and more intently than any of these, the dome wherein sat the Three.
Behind it each face of the dead-alive turned toward it, and those beside it throbbed and gleamed with its luminescence.
Yolara crept close, just beyond the reach of its spirals. She murmured — and the Dweller bent toward her, its seven globes steady in their shining mists, as though listening. It drew erect once more, resumed its doubtful scrutiny. Yolara’s face darkened; she turned abruptly, spoke to a captain of her guards. A dwarf raced back between the palisades of dead-alive.
Now the priestess cried out, her voice ringing like a silver clarion.
“Ye are done, ye Three! The Shining One stands at your door, demanding entrance. Your beasts are slain and your power is gone. Who are ye, says the Shining One, to deny it entrance to the place of its birth?”
“Ye do not answer,” she cried again, “yet know we that ye hear! The Shining One offers these terms: Send forth your handmaiden and that lying stranger she stole; send them forth to us — and perhaps ye may live. But if ye send them not forth, then shall ye too die — and soon!”
We waited, silent, even as did Yolara — and again there was no answer from the Three.
The priestess laughed; the blue eyes flashed.
“It is ended!” she cried. “If you will not open, needs must we open for you!”
Over the bridge was marching a long double file of the dwarfs. They bore a smoothed and handled tree-trunk whose head was knobbed with a huge hall of metal. Past the priestess, past the Shining One, they carried it; fifty of them to each side of the ram; and behind them stepped — Marakinoff!
Larry awoke to life.
“Now, thank God,” he rasped, “I can get that devil, anyway!”
He drew his pistol, took careful aim. Even as he pressed the trigger there rang through the abode a tremendous clanging. The ram was battering at the gates. O’Keefe’s bullet went wild. The Russian must have heard the shot; perhaps the missile was closer than we knew. He made a swift leap behind the guards; was lost to sight.
Once more the thunderous clanging rang through the castle.
Lakla drew herself erect; down upon her dropped the listening aloofness. Gravely she bowed her head.
“It is time, O love of mine.” She turned to O’Keefe. “The Silent Ones say that the way of fear is closed, but the way of love is open. They call upon us to redeem our promise!”
For a hundred heart-beats they clung to each other, breast to breast and lip to lip. Below, the clangour was increasing, the great trunk swinging harder and faster upon the metal gates. Now Lakla gently loosed the arms of the O’Keefe, and for another instant those two looked into each other’s souls. The handmaiden smiled tremulously.
“I would it might have been otherwise, Larry darlin’,” she whispered. “But at least — we pass together, dearest of mine!”
She leaped to the window.
“Yolara!” the golden voice rang out sweetly. The clanging ceased. “Draw back your men. We open the Portal and come forth to you and the Shining One — Larry and I.”
The priestess’s silver chimes of laughter rang out, cruel, mocking.
“Come, then, quickly,” she jeered. “For surely both the Shining One and I yearn for you!” Her malice-laden laughter chimed high once more. “Keep us not lonely long!” the priestess mocked.
Larry drew a deep breath, stretched both hands out to me.
“It’s good-by, I guess, Doc.” His voice was strained. “Good-by and good luck, old boy. If you get out, and you WILL, let the old Dolphin know I’m gone. And carry on, pal — and always remember the O’Keefe loved you like a brother.”
I squeezed his hands desperately. Then out of my balanceshaking woe a strange comfort was born.
“Maybe it’s not good-by, Larry!” I cried. “The banshee has not cried!”
A flash of hope passed over his face; the old reckless grin shone forth.
“It’s so!” he said. “By the Lord, it’s so!”
Then Lakla bent toward me, and for the second time — kissed me.
“Come!” she said to Larry. Hand in hand they moved away, into the corridor that led to the door outside of which waited the Shining One and its priestess.
And unseen by them, wrapped as they were within their love and sacrifice, I crept softly behind. For I had determined that if enter the Dweller’s embrace they must, they should not go alone.
They paused before the Golden Portals; the handmaiden pressed its opening lever; the massive leaves rolled back.
Heads high, proudly, serenely, they passed through and out upon the hither span. I followed.
On each side of us stood the Dweller’s slaves, faces turned rigidly toward their master. A hundred feet away the Shining One pulsed and spiralled in its evilly glorious lambency of sparkling plumes.
Unhesitating, always with that same high serenity, Lakla and the O’Keefe, hands clasped like little children, drew closer to that wondrous shape. I could not see their faces, but I saw awe fall upon those of the watching dwarfs, and into the burning eyes of Yolara crept a doubt. Closer they drew to the Dweller, and closer, I following them step by step. The Shining One’s whirling lessened; its tinklings were faint, almost stilled. It seemed to watch them apprehensively. A silence fell upon us all, a thick silence, brooding, ominous, palpable. Now the pair were face to face with the child of the Three — so near that with one of its misty tentacles it could have enfolded them.
And the Shining One drew back!
Yes, drew back — and back with it stepped Yolara, the doubt in her eyes deepening. Onward paced the handmaiden and the O’Keefe — and step by step, as they advanced, the Dweller withdrew; its bell notes chiming out, puzzled questioning — half fearful!
And back it drew, and back until it had reached the very centre of that platform over the abyss in whose depths pulsed the green fires of earth heart. And there Yolara gripped herself; the hell that seethed within her soul leaped out of her eyes, a cry, a shriek of rage, tore from her lips.
As at a signal, the Shining One flamed high; its spirals and eddying mists swirled madly, the pulsing core of it blazed radiance. A score of coruscating tentacles swept straight upon the pair who stood intrepid, unresisting, awaiting its embrace. And upon me, lurking behind them.
Through me swept a mighty exaltation. It was the end then — and I was to meet it with them.
Something drew us back, back with an incredible swiftness, and yet as gently as a summer breeze sweeps a bit of thistle-down! Drew us back from those darting misty arms even as they were a hair-breadth from us! I heard the Dweller’s bell notes burst out ragingly! I heard Yolara scream.
What was that?
Between the three of us and them was a ring of curdled moon flames, swirling about the Shining One and its priestess, pressing in upon them, enfolding them!
And within it I glimpsed the faces of the Three — implacable, sorrowful, filled with a supernal power!
Sparks and flashes of white flame darted from the ring, penetrating the radiant swathings of the Dweller, striking through its pulsing nucleus, piercing its seven crowning orbs.
Now the Shining One’s radiance began to dim, the seven orbs to dull; the tiny sparkling filaments that ran from them down into the Dweller’s body snapped, vanished! Through the battling nebulosities Yolara’s face swam forth — horror-filled, distorted, inhuman!
The ranks of the dead-alive quivered, moved, writhed, as though each felt the torment of the Thing that had enslaved them. The radiance that the Three wielded grew more intense, thicker, seemed to expand. Within it, suddenly, were scores of flaming triangles — scores of eyes like those of the Silent Ones!
And the Shining One’s seven little moons of amber, of silver, of blue and amethyst and green, of rose and white, split, shattered, were gone! Abruptly the tortured crystal chimings ceased.
Dulled, all its soul-shaking beauty dead, blotched and shadowed squalidly, its gleaming plumes tarnished, its dancing spirals stripped from it, that which had been the Shining One wrapped itself about Yolara — wrapped and drew her into itself; writhed, swayed, and hurled itself over the edge of the bridge — down, down into the green fires of the unfathomable abyss — with its priestess still enfolded in its coils!
From the dwarfs who had watched that terror came screams of panic fear. They turned and ran, racing frantically over the bridge toward the cavern mouth.
The serried ranks of the dead-alive trembled, shook. Then from their faces tied the horror of wedded ecstasy and anguish. Peace, utter peace, followed in its wake.
And as fields of wheat are bent and fall beneath the wind, they fell. No longer dead-alive, now all of the blessed dead, freed from their dreadful slavery!
Abruptly from the sparkling mists the cloud of eyes was gone. Faintly revealed in them were only the heads of the Silent Ones. And they drew before us; were before us! No flames now in their ebon eyes — for the flickering fires were quenched in great tears, streaming down the marble white faces. They bent toward us, over us; their radiance enfolded us. My eyes darkened. I could not see. I felt a tender hand upon my head — and panic and frozen dread and nightmare web that held me fled.
Then they, too, were gone.
Upon Larry’s breast the handmaiden was sobbing — sobbing out her heart — but this time with the joy of one who is swept up from the very threshold of hell into paradise.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58