Darkness and Dawn Book I: The Vacant World
Chapter 22: Gods!
Some few minutes later, together they approached Pine Tree Gate, leading directly out into the Horde.
The girl, rosier than ever, held her Krag loosely in the hollow of her bare, warm right arm. One of Stern’s revolvers lay in its holster. The other balanced itself in his right hand. His left held the precious water-pail, so vital now to all their plans and hopes.
Girt in his garb of fur, belted and sandaled, well over six feet tall and broad of shoulder, the man was magnificent. His red beard and mustache, close-cropped, gave him a savage air that now well fitted him. For Stern was mad--mad clear through.
That Beatrice should suffer in any way, even from temporary thirst, raised up a savage resentment in his breast. The thought that perhaps it might not be possible to gain access to the spring at all, that these foul Things might try to blockade them and siege them to death, wrought powerfully on him.
For himself he cared nothing. The girl it was who now preoccupied his every thought. And as they made their way through the litter of the explosion, toward the exit, slowly and cautiously, he spied out every foot of the place for possible danger.
If fight he must, he knew now it would be a brutal, utterly merciless fight--slaughter, extermination without any limit, to the end.
But there was scant time for thought. Already they could see daylight glimmering in through the gate, past me massive column of the conifer. Daylight--and with it came a thin and acrid smoke--and sounds of the uproused Horde in Madison Forest.
“Slow! Slow, now!” whispered Stern. “Don’t let ‘em know a thing until we’ve got ‘em covered! If we surprise ‘em just right, who knows but the whole infernal mob may duck and run? Don’t shoot till you have to; but when you do--!”
“I know!” breathed she.
Then, all at once, there they were at the gate, at the big tree, standing out there in the open, on the thick carpet of pine-spills.
And before them lay the mossy, shaded forest aisles--with what a horror camped all through that peaceful, wondrous place!
“Oh!” gasped Beatrice. The engineer stopped as though frozen. His hand tightened on the revolver-butt till the knuckles whitened. And thus, face to face with the Horde, they stood for a long minute.
Neither of them realized exactly the details of that first impression. The narrow slit of view which they had already got through the crack in the wall had only very imperfectly prepared them for any understanding of what these Things really were, en masse.
But both Beatrice and the engineer understood, even at the first moment of their exit there, that they had entered an adventure whereof the end could not be foreseen; that here before them lay possibilities infinitely more serious than any they had contemplated.
For one thing, they had underestimated the numbers of the Horde. They had thought, perhaps, there might be five hundred in all.
The torches had certainly numbered no more than that. But now they realized that the torch-bearers had been but a very small fraction of the whole; for, as their eyes swept out through the forest, whence the fog had almost wholly risen, they beheld a moving, swarming mass of the creatures on every hand. A mass that seemed to extend on, on to indefinite vistas. A mass that moved, clicked, shifted, grunted, stank, snarled, quarreled. A mass of frightful hideousness, of inconceivable menace.
The girl’s first impulse was to turn, to retreat back into the building once more; but her native courage checked it. For Stern, she saw, had no such purpose.