The Conquest of the Moon Pool/Chapter 18
"THE Keth HAS POWER"
LONG had been her tale In the telling, and too long, perhaps, have I been in the repeating. But not every day are the mists rolled away to reveal undreamed secrets of earth-youth.
Rising, I found I was painfully stiff—as muscle-bound as though I had actually trudged many miles. Larry, imitating me, gave an involuntary groan.
"Oh, but I'm sorry!" mourned Lakla, leaning over us. "I have forgotten—for those new to it the way is a weary one." She ran to the doorway, whistled a clear high note down the passage.
"Go you, Larry and Goodwin, with Kra and Gulk," the handmaiden said, "and let them minister to you. After, sleep a little—for not soon will Rador and Olaf return. And let me feel your lips before you go, Larry darlin'!" she added naĩvely.
With enthusiasm he responded. She covered his eyes caressingly with her soft little palms; pushed him away.
"Now go," said Lakla, "and rest!"
How long I slumbered I do not know. A low and thunderous booming coming through the deep window slip, reverberated through the room and awakened me. Larry yawned; arose briskly; called over.
"I feel simply great!" he announced.
He had described my own sensations accurately, and I told him so.
"Sounds as though the bass drums of every jazz band in New York were serenading us!" he observed. Simultaneously we sprang to the window; raised ourselves; peered through.
We were just above the level of the bridge, and its full length was plain before us. Thousands upon thousands of the Akka were crowding upon it, and far away other hordes filled like a glittering thicket both sides of the cavern ledge's crescent strand. On black scale and orange scale the crimson light fell, picking them off in little flickering points. Yes, and upon scarlet and green and blue scale, too; for now I saw that, like the leopard frogs so familiar to us, the Akka possessed an extensive range of coloring.
And while all those who guarded the castle of the Three were uniformed in their Princeton armoring, these newcomers flaunted a bewildering variety of hues. At first I thought that Lakla had perhaps yielded to some feminine penchant for livery, but watching those nearest I saw that they were formed in squads and detachments, each under the command of one of the black and yellow batrachians. These latter, then, I presumed, had some special talent for leadership.
Within ordered lines of the Akka upon the platform from which sprang the smaller span over the abyss were Lakla, Olaf, and Rador; the handmaiden clearly acting as interpreter between them and the giant she had called Nak, the Frog King.
"Come on!" shouted Larry.
The passages were deserted, as we raced along.
Out of the open portal we ran; over the World Heart Bridge and straight into the group.
"Oh!" cried Lakla, "I didn't want you to wake up so soon, Larry darlin'!"
"Well, pulse of my! heart, considering my delicate health and general fragility, would it hurt me, do you think, to be told what's going on?" he asked.
"Not at all, Larry!" answered the handmaiden serenely. "Yolara went through the Portal. She was very, very angry."
"She was all the devil's woman that she is!" rumbled Olaf.
"No word did she speak all the journey," said Rador, "until the Portal opened. Then said she to tell you, Larree, that both Lakla and you would pray her each to destroy either before she finished with both. If—" he hesitated—"if matters should go wrong, slay the handmaiden and yourself before Yolara can grip you!" he whispered.
"Rador met the messenger," went on the Golden Girl calmly. "The ladala are ready to rise when Lugur and Yolara lead their hosts against us. They will strike at those left behind. And in the meantime we shall have disposed my Akka to meet Yolara's men. And on that disposal we must all take council, you, Larry, and Rador, Olaf and Goodwin and Nak, the ruler of the Akka."
"Did the messenger give any idea when Yolara expects to make her little call?" asked Larry.
"Yes," she answered. "They prepare, and we may expect them in—" She gave the equivalent of about thirty-six hours of our time.
"But, Lakla," I said; the doubt that I had long been holding finding voice, "should the Shining One come, with its slaves, are the Three strong enough to cope with it?"
There was troubled doubt in her own eyes.
"I do not know," she said at last.
"Now," said Larry, "two things I want to know. First—how many can Yolara muster against us; second, how many of these Akka have we to meet them? Never mind the ladala," he added. "This war's going to be won or lost on the western front."
Answering, Rador gave as the strength of Yolara's following what would be the equivalent of a hundred thousand with us; of the frog-men, roughly, two hundred and fifty thousand.
"Good enough," answered Larry. "Two to one. And they're some fighters."
"But, Larree," this was Rador, "do not forget that the nobles will have the quaking death and other things. Also that the soldiers have fought against the Akka before and will be shielded as far as possible against their spears and clubs. Also that they will smite with their swords, and that their blades can bite through the scales of Nak's warriors."
"What about the Keth?" Larry spoke.
"The Keth has the power to destroy the very rocks," Lakla said grimly.
BUT no more of this. No need to tell of all that passed, before the five of us and Nak walked from the castle in pursuance of plans that had ripened there. We crossed the bridge. We paced the crushed ruby floor until I gazed out, Tantaluslike, upon the elfin land of moss and flower. Ten miles it was between the cavern lip and the first green growth. Larry was for setting regiments of the Akka close behind the Portal to attack when Yolara's hosts came through. But Rador pointed out that the Murians would race over the roadway in their coria, and that as there was no place there for hiding, we would only leave a considerable number of our forces behind, useless.
The coria path ended with the astounding forests and those who would pass on to the Crimson Sea must proceed on foot or in litters to the crescent ledge. And so we decided to raise barricades along this path and behind them to garrison a certain number of the Akka, who, when the hosts of Lugur and Yolara should pass, would arise and smite them with lance and club while still others flanked them.
Across the cavern mouth we planned another barricade. At certain intervals over the span we placed marks and Lakla directed the frog-men to bring stones and set them there as barriers.
Bitterly, as we were pursuing these occupations, I wished for the little pocket camera I had carried with me through the moon door and had left, alas, with my medicine-case and other effects when we fled from our pavilion in the gardens.
"Larry darlin'," said the handmaiden, "the Silent Ones bid me say the time is come for them to ask us the question. They say, too, Goodwin, that they would have you there—because should you return to your own world there are things within your spirit to which they would set flame," she added.
She drew Larry's arm about her, clasped it, began to move slowly with him out of the chamber.
"The Three love me," she murmured. "I know they do—and you, too, Larry. And yet it is as though I felt a door closing behind us. The door that leads to freedom, Larry; nay, even a door that bars the road of life!"
At his exclamation she gathered herself together; gave a shaky little laugh.
"It's because I love you so that fear has the power to plague me," she told him.
Without another word he bent and kissed her; in silence we passed on, his arm still about her girdled waist, golden head and black close together. Soon we stood before the crimson slab that was the door of the sanctuary of the Silent Ones. She poised uncertainly before it.
Dazzled as before, I followed through the lambent cascades pouring from the high, carved walls; paused, and my eyes clearing, looked up—straight into the faces of the Three. They gazed down upon us over the rushing, veined and shadowed mists of curdled moon radiance streaming upward from the rim of their daïs; from the marble-white faces, the jet triangles of eyes filled with the tiny, leaping red flames burned.
"Come closer," she commanded, "close to the feet of the Silent Ones."
We moved, pausing at the very base of the daïs. The sparkling mists thinned; the great head bent slightly over us. Through the veils I caught a glimpse of huge columnar necks, enormous shoulders covered with draperies as of pale-blue fire. It came to me that these beings might be eighteen or twenty feet tall, giants indeed. And what were the hidden shapes beneath the half-revealed necks and shoulders?
I came back to attention with a start, for Lakla was answering a question only heard by her; and, answering it aloud, I perceived for our benefit. For whatever was the mode of communication between those whose handmaiden she was, and her, it was clearly independent of speech.
"He has been told," she said, "even as you commanded."
DID I see a shadow of pain flit across the flickering eyes? Wondering, I glanced at Lakla's face and there was a dawn of foreboding and bewilderment. For a little she held her listening attitude; then the gaze of the Three left her; focused upon the O'Keefe.
"Thus, speak the Silent Ones, through Lakla, their handmaiden." The golden voice was like low trumpet notes. "At the threshold of doom is that world of yours above. Yea, even the doom, Goodwin, that ye dreamed and the shadow of which, looking into your mind they see, say the Three.
"Doom, they say, utter doom and the end of all things; cruelty and wickedness unspeakable; slavery most evil and at the last a dead-alive globe menacing the firmament. For not upon earth and never upon earth can man find means to destroy the Shining One. And free there, enthroned, the Shining One will know the strength it has and that now it does not know it has. Nor, say they, does it need that court which Lugur and Yolara plan to follow it. It does not even need Yolara. Power it has to make its own court on earth as soon as free—and none of these things does the Shining One yet know. But all of them it will know once it spreads its wings beneath sun as well as moon!"
She listened again, and the foreboding deepened to an amazed fear.
"They say, the Silent Ones," she went on, "that they know not whether they have power to destroy that which they made—even now. Energies we know nothing of entered into its shaping and are part of it; and still other energies it has gathered to itself." She paused; a shadow of puzzlement crept into her voice. "And other energies still, forces that ye do know and symbolize by certain names—hatred and pride and many others which are forces real as that hidden in the Keth; and among them—fear, which weakens all those others—" Again she paused.
"But within it is nothing of that greatest of all, that which can make powerless all the evil others, that which we call love," she ended softly.
"I'd like to be the one to put a little more fear in the beast," whispered Larry to me, grimly in our own English. The three weird heads bent, ever so slightly; a gleam as of approval flitted through the eyes. I gasped, and Larry grew a little white as Lakla nodded.
"They say, Larry," she said, "that there you touch one side of the heart of the matter. For it is through the way of fear the Silent Ones hope to strike at the very life at the Shining One!"
The visage Larry turned to me was eloquent of wonder; and mine reflected it, for what really were this Three to whom our minds were but open pages, so easily read? Not long could be conjecture; Lakla broke the little silence.
"This, they say, is what is to happen. First will come upon us Lugur and Yolara with all their host. Because of fear the Shining One will lurk behind within its lair; for despite all, the Dweller does dread the Three, and only them. With this host the Voice and the priestess will strive to conquer. And if they do, then will they be strong enough, too, to destroy us all. Also, if they take the abode they banish from the Dweller all fear and sound the end. of the Three.
"Then will the Shining One be all free indeed; free to go out into the world, free to do there as it wills!
"But if they do not conquer—and the Shining One comes not to their aid, abandoning them events it abandoned its own Taithu—then will the Three be loosed from a part of their doom, and they will go through the Portal, seeking the Shining One beyond the Veil, and piercing it through fear's opening, destroy it."
"That's quite clear," murmured the O'Keefe in my ear. "Weaken the morale—then smash."
Lakla had been listening again. She turned, thrust out hands to Larry, a wild hope in her eyes, land yet a hope half shamed.
"They say," she cried, "that they give us choice. Remembering that your world doom hangs in the balance, we have choice—choice to stay and help fight Yolara's armies—and they say they look not lightly on that help. Or choice to go. And if so be you choose the latter, then will they show another way; that leads into the passage through which you came, and that opens also into the Chamber of the Moon Pool.
"There, carrying; food and drink, shall we stay until the Moon opens the door; and after that bring what means we may to destroy the Pool and seal up that gateway of the Shining One. Yet they bid me say, too, that if they are beaten, the Shining One will surely find other ways to go forth, though perhaps not in our time."
A flush had crept over O'Keefe's face as she was speaking. He took her hands and looked long into the golden eyes; glancing up I saw the Trinity were watching them intently, imperturbably.
"What do you say mavourneen?" asked Larry gently. The handmaiden hung her head; trembled.
"Your words shall be mine, O one love," she whispered. "So going or staying, I am beside you."
"And you, Goodwin?" He turned to me. I shrugged my shoulders. After all, I had no one to care.
"It's up to you, Larry," I remarked.
The O'Keefe straightened, squared his shoulders, gazed straight into the flame-flickering eyes.
"We stick!" he said briefly.
The marble visages of the Three softened, and the little flames died down. Then Lakla started, plainly surprised.
"Wait," she said, "there is one other thing they say we must answer before they will hold us to that promise. Wait!"
She listened, and then her face grew white—white as those of the Three themselves. The glorious eyes widened, stark terror filling them.
The whole lithe body of her shook like a reed in the wind.
"Not that!" she cried out to the Three. "Oh, not that! Not Larry! Let me go even as you will, but not him!" She threw up frantic hands to the woman-being of the Trinity. "Let me bear it alone," she wailed. "Alone—mother! Mother!"
The Three bent their heads toward her, their faces pitiful, and from the eyes of the woman One rolled tears. Larry leaped to Lakla's side.
"Mavourneen!" he cried. "Sweetheart, what have they said to you?"
He glared up at the Silent Ones, his hand twitching toward the high-hung pistol holster.
THE handmaiden swung to him; threw white arms around his neck; held her head upon his heart until her sobbing ceased.
"This they—say—the—Silent Ones," she gasped; and then all the courage of her came back. "O heart of mine!" she whispered to Larry, gazing deep into his eyes, his anxious face cupped between her white palms. "This they say—that should the Shining One come to succor Yolara and Lugur, should it conquer its fear and do this, then is there but one way left to destroy it and to save your world."
She swayed; he gripped her tightly. "But one way. You and I must walk together into its embrace! Yes, we must pass within it—loving each other, loving the world, realizing to the full all that we sacrifice and sacrificing all, our love, our lives, perhaps even that you call soul, O loved one; must give ourselves all to the Shining One—gladly, freely, our love for each other flaming high within us—that this curse that threatens your earth shall pass away! For if we do this, pledge the Three, then shall that power of love we carry into it weaken and baffle for a time all that evil which the Shining One has become, and in that time the Three can strike and slay!"
The blood rushed from my heart; scientist that I am, essentially, my reason rejected any such solution as this of the activities of the Dweller. Then into the whirling vortex of my mind came steadying reflections—of history changed by the power of hate, of passion, of ambition, and most of all, by love. Was there not actual dynamic energy in these things? Was there not a Son of Man who hung upon a cross on Calvary?
"Dear love o' mine," said the O'Keefe quietly, "is it in your heart to say yes to this?"
"Larry," she spoke low, "what is in your heart is in mine; but I did so want to go with you, to live with you. To—to bear you children, Larry—and to see the sun."
My eyes were wet with tears; dimly through them I saw his gaze on me.
"If the world is at stake," he whispered, "why of course there's only one thing to do."
He turned to the Three—and did I in their poise sense a rigidity, an anxiety that sat upon them as alienly as would divinity upon men?
"Tell me this, Silent Ones," he cried. "If we do this, Lakla and I, is it sure, you are that you can slay the Thing, and save my world?"
For the first and the last time, I heard the voice of the Silent Ones. It was the man-being at the right who spoke.
"We are sure," he said, and the tones rolled out like deepest organ notes, shaking, vibrating, assailing the ears more strangely than their appearance struck the eyes. Another moment the O'Keefe stared at them. Then I saw conviction spread over his face. Once more he squared his shoulders; lifted Lakla's chin and smiled into her eyes.
"We stick!" he said again.
Over the visages of the Trinity fell benignity that was awesome. The tiny flames in the jet orbs vanished, leaving them wells In which brimmed serenity, hope—an extraordinary joyfulness. The woman sat upright, tender gaze fixed upon the man and girl. I saw her great shoulders raise as though she had lifted her arms and had drawn to her those others. The three faces pressed together for a fleeting moment; raised again. The woman bent forward, and as she did so, Lakla and Larry, as though drawn by some miter force, were swept against the daïs.
Out from the sparkling mist stretched two hands, enormously long, six-fingered, thumbless, a faint tracery of golden scales upon their white backs. Utterly unhuman and still in some strange way beautiful, radiating power and—all womanly!
They stretched forth; they touched the bent heads of Lakla and the O'Keefe; caressed them, drew them together, softly stroked them lovingly, with more than a touch of benediction. And withdrew!
The sparkling mists rolled up once more, hiding the Silent Ones. As silently as once before we had gone, we passed out of the place of light, beyond the crimson stone, back to the handmaiden's chamber.
Only once on our way did Larry O'Keefe speak.
"Cheer up, darlin'," he said to her, "it's a long way yet before the finish. An' are you thinking that Lugur and Yolara are going to pull this thing off? Are you?"
The handmaiden only looked at him, eyes love and sorrow filled.
"They are!" said Larry. "They are! Like hell they are!"