The Moon Pool
Chapter 23: 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. “Does Lugur know this side entrance? If he does, 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 dare 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 God’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 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--”I thought it came from the Silent Ones!”
“Superstition!” groaned O’Keefe in utter exasperation. “Always superstition! What can you do against it!
“Never mind, Rador.” His sense of humour came to his aid. “It’s too late now, anyway. Where do we go from here, old dear?” he laughed.
“We tread the path of one I am not fain to meet,” answered Rador. “But if meet we must, point the death tubes at the pale shield he bears upon his throat and send the flame into the flower of cold fire that is its centre--nor look into his eyes!”
Again Larry gasped, and I with him.
“It’s getting too deep for me, Doc,” he muttered dejectedly. “Can you make head or tail of it?”
“No,” I answered, shortly enough, “but Rador fears something and that’s his description of it.”
“Sure,” he replied, “only it’s a code I don’t understand.” I could feel his grin. “All right for the flower of cold fire, Rador, and I won’t look into his eyes,” he went on cheerfully. “But hadn’t we better be moving?”
“Come!” said the soldier; again hand in hand we went blindly on.
O’Keefe was muttering to himself.
“Flower of cold fire! Don’t look into his eyes! Some joint! Damned superstition.” Then he chuckled and carolled, softly:
“Oh, mama, pin a cold rose on me;
Two young frog-men are in love with me;
Shut my eyes so I can’t see.”
“Sh!” Rador was warning; he began whispering. “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 part 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 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 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 drove 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.
It appeared to be a tunnel cut through soft green mould. 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.
“Quick!” commanded Rador, uneasily, and set off at a sharp pace.
Now, my eyes accustomed to the strange light, I saw that the tunnel’s walls were of moss. In them I could trace fringe leaf and curly leaf, pressings of enormous bladder caps (Physcomitrium), immense splashes of what seemed to be the scarlet-crested Cladonia, traceries of huge moss veils, crushings of teeth (peristome) gigantic; spore cases brown and white, saffron and ivory, hot vermilions and cerulean blues, pressed into an astounding mosaic by some titanic force.
“Hurry!” It was Rador calling. I had lagged behind.
He quickened the pace to a half-run; we were climbing; panting. 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 Silent 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--
My outlook commanded a vista of miles--and that vista! A Fata Morgana of plantdom! A land of flowered sorcery!
Forests of tree-high mosses spangled over with blooms of every conceivable shape and colour; 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 archangels of Mara, king of illusion, which are shaped from the bows of splendours 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; oriflammes of elfland!
Springing up through that polychromatic flood 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 fantasy of spore cases in shapes of minaret and turret, domes and spires and cones, caps of Phrygia and bishops’ mitres, shapes grotesque and unnameable--shapes delicate and lovely!
They hung high poised, nodding and swaying--like goblins hovering over Titania’s court; cacophony of Cathay accenting the Flower Maiden music of “Parsifal”; bizarrerie of the angled, fantastic beings that people the Javan pantheon watching a bacchanal of houris in Mohammed’s paradise!
Down upon it all poured the amber light; dimmed in the distances by huge, drifting darkenings lurid as the flying mantles of the hurricane.
And through the light, like showers of jewels, myriads of birds, darting, dipping, soaring, and still other myriads of gigantic, shimmering butterflies.
A sound came 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, died away in far distances.
“The Portal!” said Rador. “Lugur has entered!”
He, too, parted the fronds and peered back along our path. Peering with him we saw the barrier through which we had come stretching verdure-covered walls for miles three or more away. Like a mole burrow in a garden stretched the trail of the tunnel; here and there we could look down within the rift at its top; far off in it I thought I saw the glint of spears.
“They come!” whispered Rador. “Quick! We must not meet them here!”
“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; lifted higher--and from a monstrous scarlet head beneath them blazed two enormous, obloid eyes, their depths wells of purplish phosphorescence; higher still--noseless, 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. The head of horror mounted--and in the shield’s centre, full ten feet across, glowing, flickering, 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!’
“What was it, Doc?” he asked.
“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, Larry muttering, Olaf mumbling, behind me.