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He struck it a sharp rap, then recoiled in surprise at the effect of his blow, for the entire egg instantly shattered with a tinkling crash like the bursting of a huge gla.s.s bubble. So complete was the disintegration of the egg and the skeleton within it that all that remained of either was a heap of diamond and amber dust. The only things left intact were the Silver Belt and the metal collar.
Powell s.n.a.t.c.hed up the Belt and extracted the small piece of paper that had been firmly tucked into its coils. Hurriedly written in pencil upon the paper was a message in a handwriting familiar to both Powell and Marlowe: Help! I am held prisoner in the Cave of Blue Flames! –Joan.
“Larry, Joan must still be alive over there in Arret!” There was new hope in Benjamin Marlowe’s voice.
“Yes, alive and held captive by whatever monstrosities may inhabit that unknown plane,” Powell agreed grimly. “There’s only one way in which we can possibly rescue her now. That is for you to send me into Arret with a reserve Belt for Joan. I’ll be ready to start as soon as I get a couple of automatic pistols that I have up in my room. It’s a sure thing that I’ll need them over there in Arret.”
Five minutes later Powell stood ready and waiting upon the floor-plate in the focus of the big atomic projector, with the central lens of the apparatus levelled down upon him like a huge searchlight. Around Powell’s waist were strapped two Silver Belts, and a cartridge belt with a holstered .45-calibre automatic on either side. His wrist-watch was synchronized to the second with Benjamin Marlowe’s watch.
“Joan’s twelve-hour time limit in Arret will expire at one o’clock tomorrow morning.” Powell reminded Marlowe. “That gives me nearly six hours in which to find her and equip her with a Silver Belt. You will broadcast the recall wave at exactly one o’clock. If I haven’t succeeded in finding Joan by then, I’ll discard my own Belt and stay on over there in Arret with her…. I’m ready to start now, whenever you are.”
Benjamin Marlowe raised his hand to the switch in the projector’s control panel. “Good-by, Larry,”–the old man’s voice shook a trifle in spite of himself–“and may G.o.d be with you!” He closed the switch.
A great burst of roseate flame leaped toward Powell from the projector. The laboratory was instantly blotted out in a swirling chaos of ruddy radiance that swept him up and away like a chip upon a tidal wave. There was a long moment during which he seemed to hurtle helplessly through a universe of swirling tinted mists, while great electric waves tingled with exquisite poignancy through every atom of his body.
Then the mists suddenly cleared like the tearing away of a mighty curtain, and with startling abruptness Powell found himself again in a solid world of material things. For a moment as he gazed dazedly about him he thought that the roseate glow of the projector must still be playing tricks with his eyesight, for the landscape around him was completely and incredibly red!
He soon realized that the monochrome of scarlet was a natural aspect of things in Arret. The weird vegetation all around him was of a uniform glossy red. The sandy soil under his feet was dull brick-red. High in the reddish-saffron sky overhead there blazed a lurid orb of blood-red hue, the intense heat of its ruddy radiance giving the still dry air a nearly tropical temperature. From this…o…b..s position in the sky and its size, Powell was forced to conclude that it must be the Arretian equivalent of Earth’s moon.
For a moment he stood motionless as he peered cautiously around him, trying to decide what should be his first step in this scarlet world that was so utterly alien in every way to his own. On every side the landscape stretched monotonously away from him in low rolling dunes like the frozen ground swell of a crimson sea–dunes covered with vegetation of a kind never seen upon Earth.
Not a leaf existed in all that weird flora. Instead of leaves or twigs the const.i.tuent units of bushes and gra.s.ses consisted of globules, glossy spheres of scarlet that ranged in size from pinheads to the bulk of large pumpkins. The branches of the vegetation were formed from strings of the globules set edge to edge and tapering in size like graduated beads strung upon wire, dwindling in bulk until the tips of the branches were as fragile as the fronds of maidenhair fern. The bulk of the shrubbery was head-high, and so dense that Powell could see for only a couple of yards into the thicket in any direction.
The stillness around Powell was complete. Not even a globular twig stirred in the hot dry air. Powell decided to head for the crest of one of the low dunes some fifty feet away. From its top he might be able to sight something that would give a clue to the location of the “Cave of Blue Flames” of which Joan had written.
He arrived at the foot of the dune’s slope without incident. But there he came to an abrupt halt as the silence was suddenly shattered by a strange sound from the shrubbery-covered crest just above him. It was a musical, tinkling crash, oddly suggestive of a handful of thin gla.s.s plates shattering upon a stone floor. A second later there came the agonized scream of some creature in its death throes.
The tinkling, crashing sound promptly swelled to a steady pulsing song like that of a brittle river of crystalline gla.s.s surging and breaking over granite boulders. There was an eery beauty in that tinkling burst of melody, yet with the beauty there was an intangible suggestion of horror that made Powell’s flesh creep.
The crystalline song swelled to a crescendo climax. Then there came another sound, a single resonant note like that given when a string of a ba.s.s viol is violently plucked–and the tinkling melody abruptly died. Immediately following the resonant tw.a.n.g some object was ejected from the midst of the thicket on the dune’s crest, and came rolling and bounding down the gentle slope toward Powell.
It finally came to rest against the base of a bush almost at his feet. He whistled softly in surprise as he saw the nature of the thing. It was another of the yard-long egg-shaped crystals of translucent amber like the one that had been materialized in Benjamin Marlowe’s laboratory. Imprisoned in the clear depths of this amber egg was the sparkling, diamond-encrusted skeleton of what had apparently been a small quadruped about the size of a fox.
Powell’s eyes narrowed in speculation as he realized that he had before him the first slight clue as to what might have happened to Joan. Her Silver Belt had been enclosed in one of those amber, crystalline eggs. Apparently her capture had been in some way connected with that sinister, unseen Tinkling Death.
Powell began cautiously working his way up the slope of the dune, with an automatic pistol ready for use in his right hand. Silence reigned unbroken now in the thicket on the crest, but with each upward step that he took there came with constantly increasing force a feeling of some vast, alien intelligence lurking up there, watching and waiting.
Nearer and nearer the crest he worked his wary way, until he was so close that he fancied he could see the vague outline of some monstrous silvery bulk looming there in the heart of the red thicket. He took another cautious step forward–and then his careful stalking was sharply interrupted.
Without a second’s warning there came the roaring rush of great wings beating the air just above him. Powell tried to dive for cover, but he was too late. A slender snaky tentacle came lashing down and struck his shoulder with a force that sent him sprawling forward upon his face. Before he could rise, two of the tentacles twined around him, and he was jerked up into the air like a wood-grub captured by a husky robin.
Again the great wings above him threshed the air in tremendous power, as the unseen monster started away with its prey. Then the tentacles from which he was dangling shifted their grip slightly, turning Powell’s body in the air so that he could look up and get his first glimpse of the thing that had captured him. He shuddered at what he saw. The creature was a hideous combination of octopus and giant bat.
Naked wings of membrane spanned twenty feet from tip to tip. There was a pursy sac-like body, ending in a head with staring, lidless eyes and a great black beak that looked strong enough to shear sheet steel. From the body descended half a dozen long writhing tentacles.
Powell’s one hundred and eighty pounds made a weight that was apparently a burden for even this flying monster. It flew jerkily along, scarcely a dozen feet from the ground, and there was laborious effort obvious in every movement of its flapping wings. Powell decided to make a prompt break for escape before the octopus-bat succeeded in fighting its way any higher. His left arm was still pinioned to his body by one of the constricting tentacles, but his right hand, with the automatic in it, was free.
He swung the weapon’s muzzle into line with the hideous face above him, then sent a stream of lead crashing upward into the creature’s head. The bullet struck squarely home. The tentacles tightened convulsively with a force that almost cracked Powell’s ribs. Then in another paroxysm of agony the tentacles flung him free.
The impetus of his fall sent him rolling for a dozen feet. Unhurt, save for minor scratches and bruises, he scrambled to his feet just in time to see the mortally wounded octopus-bat come crashing down in the red vegetation some thirty yards away. For a few minutes there was audible a convulsive threshing; and then there was silence.
Powell refilled the automatic’s clip, then looked about, trying to regain his bearings. He wanted to return to the thicket of the Tinkling Death, but the octopus-bat had carried him hundreds of yards from there and he was now uncertain even of the direction in which the thicket was.
As he paused in indecision, there came to Powell’s ears a new sound that promptly drove all thought of the Tinkling Death from his mind.
The sound of his gun against the octopus-bat had apparently attracted new and unseen a.s.sailants–and their number was legion. Swiftly closing in upon him from every side there came the rustle and whisper of countless thousands of unseen foes advancing through the dense red thickets.
Completely hemmed in as he was, flight was out of the question. He sought the center of a small clearing, some ten feet in diameter, in order to gain at least a moment’s sight of his adversaries before they swarmed in upon him. With an automatic in each hand, he waited tense and ready.
The encircling rush came swiftly nearer, until Powell was suddenly aware that the unseen horde had arrived. The thicket bordering his tiny clearing was literally alive with yard-high furry bodies of creatures that dodged about too swiftly in the cover of the red bushes for him to get a clear view of any of them. There was a constant babel of snarling, chattering sound as the things called back and forth to each other.
Then the chattering stopped abruptly, as though at the command of some unseen leader. The next moment one of the creatures stepped boldly out into full view in the clearing. Powell’s scalp crinkled in disgust as he realized the nature of the thing confronting him.
It was literally a rat-man. Its upright posture upon two powerful, bowed hind legs was that of a man, but its human-like points were overshadowed by a dozen indelible marks of the beast. A coat of short, dirty gray fur covered the creature from head to foot. Its hands and feet were claw-like travesties of human members. Its pointed, chinless face with its projecting teeth and glittering little beady eyes was that of a giant rodent.
The beast in the clearing was apparently a leader of some sort, for around his throat was a wide collar of gray metal, with its flat surface marked in rudely scratched hieroglyphics. Powell’s heart leaped as he noted the collar. In this creature before him he had his second clue to the whereabouts of Joan Marlowe.
Not only was the collar practically identical to the one worn by the skeleton that had been materialized in the egg back in the laboratory, but the skeleton itself was obviously that of one of the rat-men. Could it be this grotesque horde of human-like rodents that was holding Joan captive in the Cave of Blue Flames?
Powell tried desperately to think of some way of communicating with the gray-collared leader. Then the beast shrilled a command that brought hundreds of the beasts swarming into the clearing from every side, and in the face of the menace of their countless glittering eyes and bared fangs Powell abandoned all thought of attempting to parley with the beasts.
There was another shrill command from the leader, and the horde closed in. Both of Powell’s guns flamed in a crashing leaden hail that swept the close-packed ranks of furry bodies with murderous effect. But he was doomed by sheer weight of numbers.
The rat-men directly in front of the blazing pistols wavered momentarily, but the press of the hundreds behind them swept them inexorably forward. Powell emptied both guns in a last vain effort. Then he was swept from his feet, and the horde surged over him.
Blinded and smothered by the dozens of furry bodies that swarmed over him, he had hardly a chance to even try to fight back. His cartridge-belt and guns, his Silver Belts and his wrist-watch were stripped from him by the dozens of claw-like hands that searched his body. Other claw-hands jerked his arms behind his back and lashed them firmly together with rope.
A blanketing sheet of some heavy fabric was crammed over his head and tied in place so tightly that he was completely blindfolded and half-suffocated. A noose was knotted around his neck. A suggestive jerk of this noose brought Powell lurching to his feet; there was another commanding jerk, and he obediently started walking.
The march that followed soon became torture for the captive. Blindfolded as he was, and having only the occasional jerks of rope to guide his footsteps, he stumbled and fell repeatedly, until his aching body seemed one solid ma.s.s of bruises.
As nearly as he could judge, the horde had conducted him nearly two miles when the path abruptly sloped downward. A moment later the sudden coolness of the air and the echoes about him told him that they had entered an underground pa.s.sage of some kind. After traversing this pa.s.sage for several yards they emerged into what was apparently a large open area, for he could hear the excited chattering and squealing of countless thousands of rat-men on every side of him.
He was dragged forward a dozen steps more, then brought to a halt. The blindfolding fabric was roughly stripped from his head. For a moment he blinked dazedly, half-blinded by a glare of blue light that flooded the place.
He was standing in a vast cavern. From dozens of fissures high in the rock walls streamed flickering sheets of blue flame which both warmed and lighted the place. There was a weird tingling glow in the air that suggested that the strange blue fires might be electrical in their origin.
Powell looked eagerly around for Joan, but he could see no trace of her. The only other living beings in the big cavern were the swarming thousands of the rat-people. The brutes were apparently too low in the evolutionary scale to have any but the most primitive form of tribal organization.
Sitting on a rude rock throne just in front of Powell was a grotesquely fat, mangy-furred old rat-man who was obviously the king of the horde. Some thirty or forty rat-men, larger and stronger than their fellows, wore the gray-metal collars that apparently marked them as minor leaders.
The great bulk of the horde, numbering far into the thousands, swarmed in the cavern in one vast animal pack, sleeping, feeding, snarling, fighting. As Powell was halted before the king’s throne, most of them abandoned their other pursuits to come surging around the captive in a jostling, curious mob.
The metal-collared leader of the pack that had captured Powell presented the rat-king with the captive’s gun-belt and two Silver Belts, accompanying the gifts with a squealing oration that was apparently a recital of the capture. The old monarch took the trophies with delight.
The two Silver Belts were promptly draped over his own furry shoulders by the king–seemingly following the same primitive love for adornment that inspires an African savage to ornament his person with any new and glittering object he happens to acquire. The rat-king then graciously draped the cartridge-belt and holstered automatics around the shoulders of the metal-collared leader who had captured Powell.
The king turned his attention back to his prisoner. He studied the captive curiously for a moment or two, then squealed a brief command. A score of the rat-men promptly closed in upon Powell, and began herding him toward a far back corner of the big cavern.
Stopping a few yards away from the edge of what seemed to be a wide deep pit in the rock floor, the guard stripped Powell’s bonds from him. Powell made no move to take advantage of his freedom, realizing that the swarming thousands of rodents in the cave made escape out of the question for the moment. He allowed himself to be docilely herded on to the edge of the pit.
And the next moment he exclaimed aloud in delighted surprise as he gazed down at the floor of the pit ten feet beneath him. There, sitting on a low heap of stones on the pit’s sandy floor, white-faced and weary but apparently unhurt, was Joan Marlowe.
The girl’s face brightened in relief as she looked up and recognized him.
“Larry! Oh, thank G.o.d you’ve come!”
The leader of the guards motioned for Powell to jump down into the pit. He needed no urging. A moment later he landed lightly on the sandy floor of the pit, and Joan was in his arms.
The rat-men left a dozen of their number scattered as sentries around the edge of the pit. The rest of them returned to the main horde, leaving the prisoners to their own devices.
“I knew that you’d come, Larry, as soon as you got my note,” Joan exclaimed happily. “But how did you ever succeed in finding this Cave of Blue Flame?”
“I didn’t find it myself,” Powell admitted. “I was captured like a b.o.o.b and dragged here.” He told Joan of his mishaps since arriving in Arret.
The girl nodded when he had finished. “Much the same happened to me, Larry, only the red moon wasn’t shining then. The only light was from what looked like the dim ghost of a big yellow sun. I materialized in Arret almost in the middle of a scouting group of rat-men. They took me captive immediately. When several minutes pa.s.sed without you and Uncle Benjamin broadcasting the recall wave for me, I knew that something terrible must have happened back in the laboratory, and that I might be marooned in Arret for hours.
“I tried to hang onto my Silver Belt, of course,” the girl continued, “but when I was brought to the cavern here I saw that the king was going to take it. There was a notebook and a pencil in my laboratory smock. I managed to write the note and twine it into the belt just before it was taken from me. The king seemed to think the note enhanced the Belt’s value as an ornament. He was wearing it when I last saw it. Was he materialized in the laboratory with the Belt?”
Powell told her of the amber egg and the skeleton.
“The same sort of crystalline amber egg that accompanied the work of the mysterious Tinkling Death, wasn’t it?” Joan mused. “One of the king’s lieutenants must have stolen the Belt, and reaped prompt retribution when he tried to flee. I wonder what that weird Tinkling Death is?”
“Possibly some strange weapon of the rat-men,” Powell hazarded.
“No, they are as afraid of it as we are. While I was being brought here to this cave the Tinkling Death was heard several times in the distance, and the rat-men were obviously terrified at the sound.”
The prisoners’ conversation was abruptly interrupted by a rhythmic, snarling chant from the vast horde of rat-men in the cavern above. The chant rose and fell in a rude cadence that was suggestively ritual in nature.
“They’ve been doing that at intervals ever since I was first brought here,” Joan commented. “It sounds almost like the beginning of some primitive religious ceremony, doesn’t it?”
Powell nodded, without telling Joan the depressing thought in his mind. The rat-men were so low in the evolutionary scale as to be little more than beasts, and a prominent feature of nearly all primitive religious rites is the sacrifice of living beings. Powell could not help but wonder whether the chanting might not mark the beginning of rites which would end with the sacrifice of himself and Joan to some monstrous deity of theirs.
The snarling chant continued with monotonous regularity for hours, while the prisoners huddled helplessly together there on the floor of the pit, awaiting the next move of the rat-men. Any thought of escape was out of the question. The sheer walls of the pit were always guarded by alert sentries who had only to call to bring the entire horde to their help.
Without Powell’s wrist-watch, the captives had no way of accurately following the lapse of time, but they both realized that the twelve-hour time limit upon Joan’s rescue from Arret must be coming perilously near its end. They waited in momentary fear lest a sudden turmoil in the cavern above them should indicate that Benjamin Marlowe had broadcast the recall wave, whisking the two Belts back to Earth, together with the old rat-king who presumably still wore them.
The chanting above rose slowly to a snarling climax, then swiftly died away into silence. A moment later there came the sound of thousands of claw-like feet scratching over the rocky floor as the main horde apparently began marching out of the cavern. A detachment of fifty rat-men appeared at the pit’s edge.
A rude metal ladder was shoved down to the captives, and a metal-collared leader motioned for them to climb up. Seeing nothing to be gained by refusal, they obeyed. They were seized as they reached the top, and their hands again bound behind them. The overwhelming numbers of the rat-men made any attempt at resistance futile.
There was no sign of the main horde as Joan and Powell were herded out through the empty cavern and out into the open air again. With their prisoners in the center of their group, the rat-men started along a well-worn path that wound through the red vegetation. Overhead the blood-red moon still blazed down in lurid splendor.
From somewhere ahead of them the captives began to again hear the distant squealing chant of the main horde. They steadily approached the sound, until abruptly they emerged into a huge clearing that had apparently been a ceremonial a.s.sembly place for generations, for its smooth sandy floor was packed down nearly to the hardness of rock.
The main horde of rat-men was there now, countless thousands of them, packed in a roughly crescent-shaped mob, with the open side of their formation facing what seemed to be a large deep pit, some seventy yards in circ.u.mference. In the clear s.p.a.ce left between the horde and the edge of the pit was a smaller group, among them the old king himself.
Powell’s heart leaped as he noted that the Silver Belts were still draped over the mangy old monarch’s shoulders. If only he and Joan could get their hands on those precious Belts before Benjamin Marlowe broadcast the recall wave that would forever s.n.a.t.c.h them out of their reach!
The captives were hurried through the main horde and taken in charge by a score of picked guards who herded them on to join a small group of four rat-men near the pit’s edge. These four rodents were apparently also prisoners, for their arms were firmly bound behind them.
The rat-king, accompanied only by the metal-collared leader, around whose shoulders the gun-belt was still draped, stood near the pit’s edge some ten yards distant from the guards and captives. Between the prisoners and the rodent monarch the edge of the pit jutted out in a narrow tongue of rock that extended outward for about twenty feet over the pit.
Joan and Powell had barely taken their place with the other captives when an abrupt and familiar sound drew their attention to the floor of the pit some thirty feet beneath them. Its smooth sandy bottom was clearly visible from where they stood. And there on that sandy floor were six great gleaming shapes of menace which brought involuntary gasps of horrified amazement to the captives’ lips.
The faint musical tinkling sound as the things moved in occasional ponderous restlessness was unmistakable. Joan and Powell realized that the amazing organisms responsible for the mysterious Tinkling Death were at last before them.
The things were giant living crystals–great silvery semi-transparent shapes nearly ten feet in height, their faceted sides pulsing in sinister and incredible life as they gleamed in unearthly beauty beneath the blazing rays of the red moon!
Near the center of each of the giant crystals there was visible through the semi-transparent wall a large inner nucleus of sullen opalescence that ceaselessly swirled and eddied.
Their powers of movement were apparently limited to a slow, ponderous, half-rocking, half-rolling progress on their heavy rounded bases. They were now grouped in a rough semicircle just under the edge of the rocky projection that extended out over the pit. The opalescent nucleus in every silvery faceted form seemed to be “watching” with frightening intensity the figures on the pit’s edge above them.
There was no mistaking the meaning of the scene. The giant carnivorous crystals had obviously been lured from their normal habitat in Arret’s red vegetation, and established there in the big pit by the rat-men to act as princ.i.p.als in their primitive religious ceremonies.
Those Devil Crystals waiting down there on the pit’s floor were waiting to be fed–and the small group of captives, rat-men and human beings, were to be the feast!
Utterly sick at heart, Powell wondered if they would at least be given the boon of a merciful death before being hurled over the brink to those lurking shapes. He was not left long in doubt.
At a shrill command from the rat-king the guards closed in upon the captives and herded two of the bound rat-men from among them. A guard placed to the lips of each of the captive brutes a small cup containing a faintly cloudy white liquid. Apparently resigned to their fate, the creatures docilely drained the cups.
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