The Conquest of the Moon Pool/Chapter 12
THE COUNCIL'S DECISION
I FELT the blood drive out of my heart. But Larry's was the fighting face—of the O'Keefe's of a thousand years. Rador glanced at him, arose, stepped through the curtains; returned swiftly with the Irishman's uniform.
"Put it on," he said, brusquely; again fell back into his silence and whatever O'Keefe had been about to say was submerged in his wild and joyful whoop. He ripped from him glittering tunic and leg swathings.
"Richard is himself again!" he shouted; and each garment, as he donned it, fanned his old devil-may-care confidence to a higher flame. The last scrap of it on, he drew himself up before us.
"Bow down, ye divils!" he cried. "Bang your heads on the floor and do homage to Larry the First, Emperor of Great Britain, Autocrat of all Ireland, Scotland, England, and Wales, and adjacent waters and islands! Kneel, ye scuts, kneel."
"Larry," I cried, "are you going crazy!"
"Not a bit of it," he said. "I'm that and more if Herr Von Hetzdorp keeps his promise. Whoop! Bring forth the royal jewels an' put a whole new bunch of golden strings in Tara's harp an' down with the Sassenach forever! Whoop!"
He did a wild jig.
"Lord how good the old togs feel," he grinned. "The touch of 'em has gone to my head. But it's straight stuff I'm telling you about my empire."
He laughed again; then sobered.
"Not that it's not serious enough at that. A lot that Olaf's told us I've surmised from hints dropped by Yolara. But I got the full key to it from the von himself when he stopped me just before—before"—he reddened—"well, before I acquired that brand- new brand of souse. Do you remember, Goodwin, away back in the Moon Pool Chamber that the German, made a very curious remark about being certain that I always spoke what was in my mind, and that he'd remember it?
"Funny, funny psychology—the German. He made a picture of me in his mind. A somewhat innocent, frank, truthful, and impulsive Larry O'Keefe; always saying right out just what I thought and with no subterfuge or guile, about me. That's the picture he carried in his neat German mind—and by the shade of Genseric the Vandal, let me be any different from it, if I dared!
"Maybe he had a hint—maybe he just surmised—that I knew a lot more than I did. And he thought Yolara and I were going to be loving little turtle doves. Also he figured that Yolara had a lot more influence with the Unholy Fireworks than Lugur. Also she could be more easily handled. All this being so, what was the logical thing for him to do? Sure, you get me, fella! Throw down Lugur and make an alliance with me! So he calmly offered to ditch the red dwarf if I would deliver Yolara. My reward was to be said emperorship! Can you beat it? Good Lord!"
He went off into a perfect storm of laughter. But not to me did this thing seem at all absurd; rather in it I sensed the dawn of catastrophe colossal.
"But how would they get to Germany—how carry the Shining One—"
"Oh, that's all worked out," answered Larry, airily. "There's a German warship hiding down there in the Carolines somewhere. The von knows where it is. Also he has a nice little wireless rigged up on one of the Nan-Matal islets. With that boat equipped with the Keth— He confided to me that they had apparatus that could sweep it over a fifty-mile range, and a few of those gravity-destroying bombs Olaf described—"
"Gravity-destroying bombs!" I gasped.
"Sure! The little fairy that sent the trees and stones kiting up—Von Hetzdorp licked his lips over them. What they do is to cut off gravity, just about as the shadow screens cut off light. And consequently whatever's in their range just naturally goes shooting up toward the moon." He sobered. "I admit I'm a bit scared about them, Doc! Anyway with those two things and—oh, yes, gentle, invisible soldiers walking around assassinating all the leaders of the rest of the world—well, bingo for all the rest of our world, Goodwin!
"And take it from me old chap, it's not a dream. We've got to beat Von Hetzdorp and all the rest of 'em to it, Goodwin," he ended, solemnly enough.
"But the Shining One?" I began.
"Yolara's to nurse the sweet little thing," he said. "It'll follow her like a lamb. Von Hetzdorp says. And there's something about that I don't understand."
"Something? I don't understand a bit of it," I interrupted, almost testily.
"No," he grinned. "I don't mean what it is. I mean how it's controlled. Oh, well. I'll bet Lakla knows all about it. And I'll bet we'll soon be hearing her tell us."
FOR once Larry's courage, his unquenchable confidence, found no echo within me. Not lightly, as he, did I hold that dread mystery the Dweller. And a vision passed before me, a vision of an Apocalypse undreamed by the Evangelist.
A vision of the Shining One swirling into our world, a monstrous, glorious flaming pillar of incarnate, eternal Evil. Of peoples passing through its radiant embrace into that hideous, unearthly life-in-death which I had seen enfold the sacrifices. Of armies trembling into dancing atoms of diamond dust beneath the green ray's rhythmic death. Of cities rushing out into space upon the wings of that other demoniac force which Olaf had watched at work. Of a haunted world through which the assassins of the Dweller's court stole invisible, carrying with them the very passion of hell. Of the rallying to the Thing of every sinister soul and of the weak and the unbalanced, mystics and carnivores of humanity alike; for well I knew that, once loosed, not even Germany could hold this devil-god for long, and that swiftly its blight would begin to spread!
And then a world that was all colossal reek of cruelty and terror; a welter of lusts, of hatreds and of torment; a chaos of horror in which the Dweller waxing ever stronger, the ghastly hordes of those it had consumed growing ever greater, wreaked its inhuman will!
At the last a ruined planet, a cosmic plague, spinning through the shuddering heavens; its verdant plains, its murmuring forests, its meadows and its mountains manned only by a countless crew of soulless, mindless dead-alive, their shells illumined with the Dweller's infernal glory. And flaming over this vampirized world like a flare from some hell far, infinitely far, beyond the reach of man's farthest flung imagining—the Dweller!
Panic gripped my throat, strangled me. My science could not help. What god or gods could? Olaf had turned to ancient Thor and Odin. O'Keefe's faith was in banshees!
Rador jumped to his feet; smiled amiably at us, walked to the whispering globe. He bent over its base; did something with its mechanism; beckoned to us. The globe swam rapidly, faster than ever I had seen it before. A low humming arose, changed into a murmur and then from it I heard Lugur's voice clearly.
"It's to be war, then?"
There was a chorus of assent—from a council I thought.
"I will take the tall one named Larree." It was the priestess's voice. "After the three tal, you may have him, Lugur, to do with as you will."
"No!" It was Lugur's voice again, but with a rasp of anger. "All three must die."
"He shall die," again Yolara. "But I would that first he should see Lakla die, and that she know what is to happen to him."
"No!" I started—for this was Von Hetzdorp. "Now is no time, Yolara, for one's own desires. This is my council. At the end of the three tal Lakla will come for our answer. Your men will be in ambush and they will slay her and her escort quickly with the Keth. But not till that is done must the three be slain, and then quickly. With Lakla dead we shall go forth to the Silent Ones—and I promise you that I will find the way to destroy them!"
"It is well!" It was Lugur.
"It is well, Yolara." It was a woman's voice, and I knew it for that old one of ravaged beauty. "Cast from your mind whatever is in it for this stranger, either of love of hatred. In this the council is with Lugur and the man of wisdom."
There was a silence. Then came the priestess's voice, sullen but—beaten.
"It is well!"
"Let the three be taken now by Rador to the temple and given to the High Priest Sator." Thus Lugur. "Until what we have planned comes to pass."
Rador gripped the base of the globe; abruptly it ceased its spinning. He turned to us as though to speak and even as he did so its bell note sounded peremptorily and on it the color films began to creep at their accustomed pace.
"I hear," the green dwarf whispered. But now we could no longer distinguish the words. He listened.
"They shall be taken there at once," he said, at last, gravely. The globe grew silent.
He stepped toward us. Larry had drawn his automatic; Olaf and I followed his example. We faced the green dwarf defiantly.
"You have heard," he said, smiling faintly.
"Not on your life, Rador," said Larry. "Nothing doing!" And then in the Murian's own tongue, "We follow Lakla, Rador. And you lead the way." He thrust the pistol close to the green dwarf's side.
Rador did not move. But his eyes gleamed their approval as they looked up into the Irishman's determined ones.
"Of what use, Larree?" he said, quietly. "Me you can slay, but in the end you will be taken. Life is not held so dear in Muria that my men out there or those others who can come quickly will let you by, even though you slay many. And in the end they will overpower you."
There was a trace of irresolution in O'Keefe's face.
"And," said Rador, "if I let you go, I dance with the Shining One—or worse!"
O'Keefe's pistol hand dropped.
"You're a good sport Rador, and far be it from me to get you in bad," he said. "Take us to the temple. When we get there—well, your responsibility ends, doesn't it?"
The green dwarf nodded; on his face a curious expression. Was it relief? Or was it profound emotion higher than this?
Whatever it was he turned curtly.
"Follow," he said. We passed out of that gay little pavilion that had come to be home to us even in this alien place. The guards stood at attention.
"You, Sattoya, stand by the globe," he ordered one of them. "Should the Afyo Maie ask, say that I am on my way with the strangers even as she has commanded."
We passed through the lines to the corial standing like a great shell at the end of the runway leading into the green road.
"Wait you here," he said curtly to the driver. The green dwarf ascended to his seat, sought the lever and we swept on—on and out upon the glistening obsidian.
Then Rador turned and laughed.
"Larree," he cried, "I love you for that spirit of yours! And did you think that Rador would carry to the temple prison a man who would take the chances of death upon his own shoulders to save him? Or you, Goodwin, who saved him from the rotting death? For what did I take the corial or lift the veil of silence that I might hear what threatened you—"
Laughing again into our amazed faces he swept the corial to the left, away from the temple approach.
"I am done with Lugur and with Yolara and the Shining One!" cried Rador. "My hand is for you three and for Lakla and those to whom she is handmaiden!"
The shell leaped, forward; seemed to fly.
"Whence go we, Rador?" I gasped in his ear.
"Straight to that bridge that guards the way to the Crimson Sea," he shouted, "and pray whatever gods you worship that we pass it before ever Yolara finds whence our way has led!"
NOW we were flying 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!"
"Ja!" It was Olaf, eyes again ice glinting as he clutched one of Rador's broad shoulders. "Ja! Well, it is to die fighting—but I would slay Lugur before I die!"
"And so you may, strong one," laughed the green dwarf. "For here Lugur will surely come when the alarm is given, and they will try to save us for a slower death. And now, see to those flame tubes of yours. And follow my lead, for too long have we waited here."
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 placed by men. Polished facades pierced by dozens of high, narrow windows each ovaled with exquisite intaglios of feathered serpent and the flower snake that Lakla had called the Yekta and with whose kiss she had threatened Yolara.
Down each facade a stairway fell, broken by small landings on which a door opened. They dropped to a broad ledge of grayish 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 somber walls bulked high; curved and ended in two obelisked pillars. From these, 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.
In the center of the pit of glittering darkness, poised over the depths that were like some frozen spring upwelling from inky Styx itself, we hung for a moment watching.
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 captaincy.
"Ho, Rador!" he hailed, merrily. "Why hover without when within are cheer and welcome?"
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. "Else would I surely have obeyed—"
"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 of the slowest. With Lakla scarce a va ahead we can reach her before she enters the Portal. Lift you the Shadow. We shall 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 brusque. "Lakla will not return unless I carry to her these men as evidence of our good faith. There is strife brewing, Serku, battle between Muria and the Silent Ones. Nor have I time to explain more with Lakla now a va away. 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, vanished 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 shadow as of vast wings flinging down upon us. The corial's flight was checked as by a giant's hand. I was hurled forward into Olaf and O'Keefe, tumbled beneath the front whorl. 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!"
I glanced back, 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. We cannot tell yet. 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 was that death flame of yours, friend!"
The Irishman waved an airy hand, relapsing into his own tongue.
"You're doing your bit yourself, old thing," he remarked; Rador caught the meaning. "Fluke," Larry murmured to me. "Aimed at the beggar's head and went high. Reputation maker—the shot you never meant. What happened?" He turned again to Rador.
"Serku"—the green dwarf drew from his girdle the blood-stained 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. Serku drew his blade upon me, and I killed—" 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. How, I wondered, could the Shadow have first held, when shorn with such unbelievable energy. 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 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 mine Hustru, my Helma—she is of the dead—alive—like those we saw whirling like leaves in the light of the Shining Devil. And 1 would that she, too, were of de Dode, and at rest. I do not know how to fight the Shining Devil—no!"
His heart's bitter despair welled up in his voice.
The road had begun to thrust itself through high flung, sharply pinnacled masses and rounded out-croppings 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 grayness. 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 five of our 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 shoutings, and we knew that Lugur drew close. Nor anywhere was there sign of Lakla nor her frog-men—the Akka.
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, hissing over the obsidian, powerless to guide or to check the shell we plunged in arush 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 to us he threw himself upon Rador; hurled him and himself against the side of the flying whorl. Under the shock the finely balanced machine, almost floating in air through its projectile speed, 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 bruises.
"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. O'Keefe peered over the wall.
"Here they come," he announced.
The first of the pursuing shells had swept over the lip of the great bowl, poised for a moment as we had and then, and not as we had, 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 of an entrance.
"In!" ordered he, straining against the weight of the stone. O'Keefe, weapon in hand, slipped through, Olaf at his back, I following. With a lightning leap the green dwarf was beside me, the huge rock missing him by a hairbreadth 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. A palm shot into mine.
"It's me, professor," laughed O'Keefe. A great paw touched my side, fell into my other hand, and I knew this for Olaf's. 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.