The Conquest of the Moon Pool/Chapter 13
DRAGON WORM AND MOSS DEATH
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. "If Lugur's going to follow us in here, 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 dares 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 Heaven'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 grave and 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, "that it came from the Silent Ones!"
"Superstition!" groaned O'Keefe in utter exasperation. "Always superstition! What can you do against it!
"Sh!" Rador was warning; he began whispering. "Lugur for a little time will be perplexed. He will not open the Portal until he must. They will find the corial and search. They will follow our tracks. Beyond the moving stone is naught but bare rock; there will be no tracks there but neither will there be hiding place. They will seek the entrance and they will find it. Then Lugur will send after us there a force of his men and with his others will pass through the Portal to beat for us.
"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 parts 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, except in grave moments 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 indeed 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 drew 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.
At first thought it appeared as a tunnel cut through soft green mold. 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.
Under the feet the path gave with a resiliency like hard rubber or well-rolled turf.
It was ridged—rippled—these ripples a foot apart and flanked by deep, sharp indentations, clean cut as though drilled. Just such a tunnel, it came to me, as would be made by a huge metal ball belted with a long, toothed strip and sent rolling with terrific force through some compressible material such as, for instance, some types of moss.
"Quick!" commanded Rador, uneasily, and set off at a sharp pace.
MOSS. Why had that image come to me? Ah, so that was why! For now, my eyes becoming more accustomed to the strange light, I saw that the tunnel's walls were of moss.
"Hurry!" It was Rador calling. I had lagged behind and reluctantly I turned my mind from those tempting walls, luring me to stop and study them; whose spell, indeed, already had slowed my pace. Hurriedly I rejoined the others; resolutely I kept my eyes at my feet, maintaining my place in the file.
And down the corridor swept ever tiny gusts, overladen with unfamiliar, oddly fragrant odors; some so pronounced as to produce a trifle of light-headedness. Almost as though surcharged with oxygen.
Rador quickened the pace to a half-run; we were climbing; panting. The tunnel was no longer straight; it was—sinuous. Dispossessing the picture of the rolling ball came another of a long, flexible cylinder being forced through the luxuriant growth. 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 Ancient 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, froze with sheer wonder.
My outlook commanded a vista of miles—and that vista! A Fata Morgana of plantdom! A Scheherazade's garden of enchantment!' A land of flowered sorcery!
Forests of tree-high mosses spangled over with blooms of every conceivable shape and color. 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 arch-angels of Mara, king of illusion, which are shaped from the bows of splendors 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; oriflamines of elfland!
Springing up through that polychromatic flood of 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 fantasie of spore cases in shapes of minaret and turret, domes and spires and cones, caps of Phrygia and bishops' miters, shapes grotesque and unnameable. Shapes that were delicate and lovely!
As I gazed, breath strangled with awe; a sound began to come 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, it died away in far distances.
"The Portal!" said Rador. "Lugur has entered!"
He, too, parted the fronds and peered back, along our path.
"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. It lifted higher, and from a monstrous scarlet head beneath them blazed two enormous opaque eyes, their depths wells of purplish phosphorescence. Higher still—noiseless, 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. More and more it drew into sight as the head of horror mounted. And in the shield's center, full ten feet across, glowing, flickering, pulsating, 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"
"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.
The scene in front of us was oddly weird and depressing; in some indefinable way—dreadful.
The curious mossy fringes were 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 miters and much resembling them in shape, protruded from the heaps. My repulsion grew.
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."
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 the devil are we up against?" muttered 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 pile of the moss shapes. They fringed it, their miters having a grotesque appearance of watching what lay below. And now I saw that the glistening road lay below—and from it came a shout! A dozen of the coria were there, 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 O'Keefe—and took swift aim at Lugur. The automatic spat, Olaf's echoed. Both bullets went wide, 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 came a series of muffled explosions. Under the pistols' concussions the mitered 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 an agony I could not fathom.
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 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."
Lugur and his companions 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.
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 deliberately 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.
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 tendriled heads of ruby bloom, five flames of misty incandescence, leaped into the face 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 great green spring endowed with consciousness, volition and hatred. And those it struck stood rigid 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 onrush 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.
A horny arm lifted me; two enormous, oddly gentle saucer eyes were staring into mine; my head rolled; I caught a glimpse of Lakla 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.