Authors: Henry Kuttner
Tags: #Science Fiction
The Pikht turned. Swaying, the squat figure raced forward, past Elak, toward the Shadow that loomed in black horror in the distance. A soft hand was thrust in Elak’s, and he looked down to see a white girl-face peering anxiously up at him.
He felt himself being tugged along and yielded, smiling a little wryly. After all, into what worse hell could he be guided? The patterns flickered all around them as they moved, and presently Elak heard a low voice say, “We should be safe now.”
“You speak Atlantean?” he asked involuntarily, and quiet laughter mocked him.
“I speak my own tongue. All languages are one here. Just as the Shadow appears differently to everyone and yet is the same to everyone after being—taken—so do all tongues seem alike here. The world from which I came is far from yours. How are you named?”
“It has faded. See?”
Elak glanced over his shoulder but could make out nothing but the dancing patterns of alien color. The invisible girl went on. “I put life into the dead being and sent him to the Shadow so that we could escape while the Shadow fed. We are safe for a little while, Elak.”
She paused as the air lighted; they stood before a cave that opened into the side of a rampart which towered up until it was lost in the dimness. A misshapen, flat-topped boulder guarded the entrance of the tunnel mouth, and behind this Elak’s companion stepped swiftly.
“Come,” she urged. “We can hide here—for a time at least.”
But Elak had reached
her side—had gripped her slim arms with fingers rendered cruel by his amazement. He stared at the girl in wonder, knowing that she sprang from no earthly race.
A satyr-girl! A faun-maiden, slender and white and virginal as cool marble, round-breasted, with red-golden hair that hung in velvet coils about the smooth shoulders. To her waist she was human. Below that all semblance of humanity ended, and sheer fantasy began.
Her legs were golden-furred and crooked like those of a beast—not ungainly goat legs, but rather the limbs of some graceful deer, ending in tiny hoofs that glinted golden in the dim light. Her face was as unearthly as her nether limbs, for all its classic beauty. No earth-girl had ever possessed
—eyes like flaky pools of pure gold, without white or pupil, that stared at Elak as unwinkingly as those of a cat. Her face was curiously feline in contour as she smiled at Elak, looking up at him fearlessly.
“I am strange to you?” she asked. “But
are strange, too. There are many worlds besides your own, Elak.”
“So it seems,” the Atlantean gasped. “By Bel! This must be some mad dream I’m having!”
The girl urged him further into the cave. A dim light irradiated its further recesses, which were draped with violet samite that hid the rough rock walls. Cushions carpeted and hid the ground.
“I am Solonala,” the faun-girl told Elak, relaxing gracefully in a little nest of soft pillows. “Has Elf’s magic sent you here, too?”
Elak did not answer; his eyes watched the eerie golden-furred legs in fascinated wonder. Solonala glanced down, smiling, and clicked her hoofs gently together.
“We are made in different patterns, you and I.”
Elak nodded. “Yes. Though—Elf, you say? D’you know him?”
“I know him, and I fought him. The land where I once ruled is far from here, and far from your own earth. But Elf’s powers enable him to go from world to world, and when he came to mine, I saw that he was evil and tried to destroy him. He was the stronger.”
She shrugged slender
shoulders. “So I came here, or rather Elf exiled me here. He couldn’t kill me, for I’m not human, as you are—decay cannot touch my flesh, as it will touch yours in time. But he imprisoned me in this land, where in time I’ll be taken by the Shadow.…”
“What is this Shadow?’
Golden eyes watched Elak, luminous in the glow. “You saw it as a man’s shadow—eh? A man such as yourself? But I saw it as Solonala’s shadow. Every being sees the Shadow as his own. For it is his own. It is the ultimate death. It is destruction. This land is its home, but it can come to other worlds when gateways have been opened.”
Gateways—such as the pool in the Pikhts’ underground den!
“And it is here that the gods come when they die, Elak.” Her voice was hushed. “You heard them pass, I think. Darkness always comes when the dead gods go by, for they wander this lost land alone in eternal night.…”
Faint, infinitely far away, there sounded a thin murmur—the hum of a plucked harpstring. Dim and drowsy, it stole into Elak’s mind until, scarcely aware he heard it, he realized that he was nodding sleepily. Solonala watched him alertly out of great golden eyes.
“I hear magic,” she said.
The harpstring throbbed on, blanketing Elak in drowsiness. As he went down into slumber he was conscious of Solonala leaning toward him, cat-face puzzled… and then darkness.…
He dreamed. He dreamed of the black galley’s cabin and of Dalan, crouching over his crystal globe. Within the sphere a flame rose up like a blossoming flower. It grew and lifted till it towered above the Druid’s glistening bald head.
Its scarlet tip bent down, expanded into a lambent rose of fire. It swayed and trembled in midair. Dalan prayed.
“Mider, hear me. God of the Druids, Lord of Flame, let your hand draw back this man from the Shadow—”
The vision faded. The dim murmur of a harpstring put a period to it. Vaguely Elak saw Solonala’s face swimming in silver mistiness, her lips parted.
Again the harp sent its
sorcerous whispering into Elak’s sleeping mind—Elf’s harp, fraught with deadly magic!
The harpstring twanged angrily. Above its noise came a harsh cry.
“Elak! Mider aid me—Elak! Hear me!”
The tall adventurer sprang to full wakefulness, his hand racing to the dagger at his belt. A low murmuring sounded from without the cave. Elak got quietly to his feet and moved toward the portal.
There he paused, his eyes wide. On the flat rock before the cave mouth crouched Solonala, her white body gleaming in the shifting shadow-patterns, and all about her, genuflecting and abjecting themselves in ghastly worship, was a horde of tiny, hideous white things that moved so swiftly Elak could not clearly define their outlines. Indeed, he had no chance, for as he appeared Solonala lifted her head, saw him, and flung out a slim arm commandingly. The white beings streamed away and were lost in the distance.
Now Elak saw what had previously escaped him. Towering to the sky beyond Solonala, menacing and terrible, loomed—the Shadow!
The girl let her arm drop to her side. Without moving she watched Elak.
“Elf’s magic brought the Shadow here while you slept,” she said. “I could not waken you, though I tried. Those little ones—I made them. Living things, to appease the Shadow’s hunger while we flee. Perhaps we can escape.” She paused doubtfully.
From empty air roared the voice of Dalan.
“Courage, Elak! I come—and with aid!”
And the voice of Elf, disembodied, gentle—mocking.
“What can Mider do against the Shadow, Druid? Your god lives—and there is no life in Ragnarok.”
The immense Shadow on the horizon grew darker. The flickering patterns in the air seemed to weave faster, troubled.
Without warning Elak saw the Shadow fold down tremendously and swoop upon him. He felt Solonala’s soft body shuddering against his, and his arms went instinctively about her. The faun-girl cried out—and her voice was clipped off into utter silence. Blackness abysmal and unearthly smothered them.
They were one with the
Shadow. They were
annihilation, complete and final emptiness. And yet Elak was dreadfully conscious of a feeling of power—cosmic power, terrible in its illimitable vastness. Aside from this, nothing existed for him. Solonala’s body no longer pressed against his. He felt the fortress of his soul, his mind, crumbling under the assault of the Shadow.
And, suddenly, hope came. How it first manifested itself Elak did not understand, but he realized that no longer was he being absorbed into the Shadow. Something was pulling him back—lifting him from the sucking void that was annihilation.
He heard the Druid’s voice, strained, triumphant. “Mider! Save him, Mider—god of oak and fire—”
Light flashed out all around—warm, rose-tinted, luminous flame. In its fierce glow was revealed the figure of Solonala, unearthly in her beauty—and also the incredible thing on which the two stood. It was a hand.
Eight-fingered, colossal, it was no earthly hand. The hand of Mider himself, reaching down into the hell of the Shadow at the Druid’s prayer. The Titan hand swept upward, carrying Elak and Solonala.…
It checked itself. Blackness crept back, dimming the rosy flame-walls. A sea of shadow rose like a tide, and the hand began to sink down, slowly at first, and then with ever-increasing speed.
Dalan’s cry came, despairing, inarticulate. And Elf’s soft laughter.
Solonala knelt beside Elak. She put her arms around his neck; tender lips brushed his. Then, before he could move, she sprang away and flung herself into the void. For an intolerable age-long second her white and gold figure loomed against blackness—and was gone. A cry, gull-plaintive, drifted to Elak’s ears as he started forward.
He was too late. The hand of the god swept up. Elak fell to his knees, struggling to drag himself to where Solonala had vanished… and then there was only darkness around him, and the howling and shrieking of great winds.…
8. THEY COME TO CYRENA
“Elak.” It was Lycon’s voice.
Elak opened his eyes.
Gray light bathed him.
He was in the corridor of the pool, in the underground Pikht temple. Above him hovered the small fat figure of Lycon, round face alight with anxiety.
“Are you alive, Elak? Did those damned dwarfs—”
Elak drew a deep breath, got painfully to his feet, water cascading from his hair and garments. He looked down to where, beside him, the surface of the sunken basin lay blue and calm, untroubled by the Shadow that had once darkened it.
“I’ve just dragged you from there,” Lycon said, following his gaze. “You shot up from the water like a cork.”
“There was no other?” Elak asked. “You saw no one else in the pool?”
Lycon was silent for a time, watching his friend’s eyes. Presently he shook his head.
“No,” he said softly. “There was no other.”
And then there was no more talk for a while, because Velia led in the blood-smeared oarsmen, who had just slain the last of the Pikhts; and Lycon was noisy about the number of dwarfs he had cut down and was, he said, almost thirsty enough to drink water.
“But not quite,” he added. “Let’s get back to the galley. It wasn’t damaged much by the storm, Elak, and we can launch it in two days.…”
So again the black galley drove northward through the Inland Sea, skirting the western shores of Crenos Isle, on through the swirling waters until white cliffs loomed on the horizon. And there, when it was least expected, Duke Granicor’s ship came down on them as the galley was beached.
him!” the Druid growled, climbing ponderously over the rail, his brown, sea-stained garment flapping in the wind. “There’s no time to fight him now, Elak. We’ve got to get the chiefs together, lead them against the Northmen.”
“My brother,” Elak said. “Don’t forget him.”
“I know. But that must come later. You can’t help Orander till the Vikings are driven from Elf’s fortress, where they have their headquarters and where your brother’s a prisoner.”
Lycon swaggered up, a flagon swinging against his side. “By the Nine Hells and a dozen more,” he observed, “are we afraid of Granicor? Go on ahead, Elak, and take Dalan with you. Give me two oarsmen and I’ll stay here and—”
“You’re drunk,” Elak said without rancor. “Go away.” He turned to stare at the long galley that was rapidly growing larger as it swept shoreward. Elak’s spirits had been dampened since his adventure with the Pikhts, and the image of Solonala could not be dimmed even by Velia’s caresses. Her self-sacrifice had shaken him more than he knew. And within him had crystallized a burning desire to cross blades with Elf, to slay the warlock minstrel—and swiftly!
So he agreed with Dalan. “We’ll head inland, eh?”
“To Sharn Forest. The chiefs will gather there, with their men. I’ve sent a messenger, and the word will go through Cyrena. When the armies have gathered at Sharn, we’ll move north on Elf’s fortress.”
“Good! I wish I had my rapier, though—this sword’s too heavy.” Elak made the tempered blade hiss through the air, and Dalan chuckled.
“You can spill blood with it, though. Come. Granicor is almost within bowshot.”
Dalan in the lead, the band set out to climb the white cliffs, reaching the summit as the Duke of Poseidonia beached his galley. Granicor wasted no time in threats; grimly silent, he led his crew in pursuit.
But the duke was soon left behind. This was familiar country to Dalan, and swiftly the party marched through a tangled forest wilderness, even Velia touched by eagerness that enabled her to keep pace easily. That night they camped in a little valley by a stream that chuckled pleasantly as it wound among furze and bracken.
Elak, sitting by the fire,
idly plaited Velia’s bronze hair. “It’s good to be in Cyrena again,” he told her. “I never thought I’d walk this land again. Do you like it, Velia?”
She nodded, the firelight bronze on her face. “It’s rough and wild and—and honest, somehow. Strong men must live here, Elak.”
“The Northmen are stronger,” Dalan growled. “At least, until Cyrena has a leader.” He reached out a huge hand and retrieved Lycon, who was reeling dangerously close to the fire. “Bah, this drunken dog! But he’s a faithful one, at least.”
“Only the gods know my true worth,” Lycon said surprisingly and collapsed in an inert heap, muttering faintly. Suddenly he sat up, his eyes bright. “Listen, Elak!”
As he spoke feet came trampling through the underbrush. Granicor’s voice bellowed a raucous command. Yelling men charged down the slope.
“Gods!” Elak snapped. “He’s trailed us, somehow. To arms!” His sharp cry cut icily through the night; swords gleamed redly; and the next moment Granicor and his crew were within the circle of firelight.