Catherine L. Moore – Black thirst

Northwest Smith leant his head back against the warehouse wall and stared up into the black night-sky of Venus. The waterfront street was very quiet tonight, very dangerous. He could hear no sound save the eternal slap-slap of water against the piles, but he knew how much of danger and sudden death dwelt here voiceless in the breathing dark, and he may have been a little homesick as he stared up into the clouds that masked a green star hanging lovely on the horizon–Earth and home. And if he thought of that he must have grinned wryly to him-self in the dark, for Northwest Smith had no home, and Earth would not have welcomed him very kindly just then.

     He sat quietly in the dark. Above him in the warehouse wall a faintly lighted window threw a square of pallor upon the wet street. Smith drew back into his angle of darkness under the slanting shaft, hugging one knee. And presently he heard footsteps softly on the street.
     He may have been expecting footsteps, for he turned his head alertly and listened, but it was not a man’s feet that came so lightly over the wooden quay, and Smith’s brow furrowed. A woman, here, on this black waterfront by night? Not even the lowest class of Venusian street-walker dared come along the waterfronts of Ednes on the nights when the space-liners were not in. Yet across the pavement came clearly now the light tapping of a woman’s feet.
     Smith drew farther back into the shadows and waited. And presently she came, a darkness in the dark save for the triangular patch of pallor that was her face. As she passed under the light falling dimly from the window overhead he understood suddenly how she dared walk here and who she was. A long black cloak hid her, but the lightfell upon her face, heart-shaped under the little three-cornered velvet cap that Venusian women wear, fell on ripples of half-hidden bronze hair; and by that sweet triangular face and shining hair he knew her for one of the Minga maids–those beauties that from the beginning of history have been bred in the Minga stronghold for loveliness and grace, as racehorses are bred on Earth, and reared from ear-liest infancy in the art of charming men. Scarcely a court on the three planets lacks at least one of these exquisite creatures, long-limbed, milk-white, with their bronze hair and lovely brazen faces–if the lord of that court has the wealth to buy them. Kings from many nations and races have poured their riches into the Minga gateway, and girls like pure gold and ivory have gone forth to grace a thousand palaces, and this has been so since Ednes first rose on the shore of the Greater Sea.

 

     This girl walked here unafraid and unharmed because she wore the beauty that marked her for what she was. The heavy hand of the Minga stretched out protectingly over her bronze head, and not a man along the wharf-fronts but knew what dreadful penalties wbuld overtake him if he dared so much as to lay a finger on the milkwhiteness of a Minga maid–terrible penalties, such as men whisper of fearfully over segir-whisky mugs in the waterfront dives of many nations–mysterious, unnamable penalties more dreadful than any
knife or gun-flash could inflict.
     And these dangers, too, guarded the gates of the Minga castle. The chastity of the Minga girls was proverbial, a trade boast. This girl walked in peace and safety more sure than that attending the steps of a nun through slum streets by night on Earth.
     But even so, the girls went forth very rarely from the gates of the castle, never unattended. Smith had never seen one before, save at a distance. He shifted a little now, to catch a better glimpse as shewent by, to look for the escort that must surely walk a pace or two behind, though he heard no footsteps save her own. The slight motion caught her eye. She stopped. She peered closer into the dark, and said in a voice as sweet and smooth as cream.
     “How would you like to earn a goldpiece, my man?” A flash of perversity twisted Smith’s reply out of its usual slovenly dialect, and he said in his most cultured voice, in his most perfect High Venusian, “Thank you, no.” For a moment the woman stood quite still, peering through the darkness in a vain effort to reach his face.
     He could see her own, a pale oval in the window light, intent, surprised. Then she flung back her cloak and the dim light glinted on the case of a pocket flash as she flicked the catch. A beam of white radiance fell blindingly upon his face.
     For an instant the light held him–lounging against the wall in his spaceman’s leather, the burns upon it, the tatters, ray-gun in itsholster low on his thigh, and the brown scarred face turned to hers, eyes the colorless color of pale steel narrowed to the glare. It was a typical face. It belonged here, on the waterfront, in these dark and dangerous streets. It belonged to the type that frequents such places, those lawless men who ride the spaceways and live by the rule of the ray-gun, recklessly, warily outside the Patrol’s jurisdiction. But there was more than that in the scarred brown face turned to the light. She must have seen it as she held the flash unwavering, some deepburied trace of breeding and birth that made the cultured accents of the High Venusian not incongruous. And the colorless eyes derided her.
     “No,” she said, flicking off the light. “Not one goldpiece, but ahundred. And for another task that Imeant.”
“Thank you,” said Smith, not rising. “You must excuse me.”
     “Five hundred,” she said without a flicker of emotion in her creamy voice. In the dark Smith’s brows knit. There was something fantastic in the situation. Why–? She must have sensed his reaction almost as he realized it himself, for she said, “Yes, I know. It sounds insane. You see–I knew you in the light just now. Will you?–can you?–1 can’t explain here on the street….”
    Smith held the silence unbroken for thirty seconds, while a light-ning debate flashed through the recesses of his wary mind. Then he grinned to himself in the dark and said, “I’ll come.” Belatedly he got to his feet. “Where?”
     “The Palace Road on the edge of the Minga. Third door from the central gate, to the left. Say to the door-warden–‘Vaudir.'”
     “That is–?”
     “Yes, my name. You will come, in half an hour?”
     An instant longer Smith’s mind hovered on the verge of refusal. Then he shrugged.
     “Yes.”
     “At the third bell, then.” She made the little Venusian gesture of parting and wrapped her cloak about her. The blackness of it, and the softness of her footfalls, made her seem to melt into the darknesswithout a sound, but Smith’s trained ears heard her footsteps very softly on the pavement as she went on into the dark.
     He sat there until he could no longer detect any faintest sound of feet on the wharf. He waited patiently, but his mind was a little dizzy with surprise. Was the traditional inviolability of the Minga a fraud? Were
the close-guarded girls actually allowed sometimes to walk unattended by night, making assignations as they pleased? Or was it some elaborate hoax? Tradition for countless centuries had declared the gates in the Minga wall to be guarded so relentlessly by strange dangers that not even a mouse could slip through without the knowledge of the Alendar, the Minga’s lord. Was it then by order of the Alendar that the door would open to him when he whispered “Vaudir” to the warden? Or would it open? Was the girl perhaps the property of some Ednes lord, deceiving him for obscure purposes of her own?
     He shook his head a little and grinned to himself. After all, time would tell.
     He waited a while longer in the dark. Little waves lapped the piles with sucking sounds, and once the sky lit up with the long, blinding roar of a spaceship splitting the dark. At last he rose and stretched his long body as if he had been sitting there for a good while. Then he settled the gun on his leg and set off down the black street. He walked very lightly in his spaceman’s boots.
     A twenty-minute walk through dark byways, still and deserted, brought him to the outskirts of that vast city-within-a-city called the Minga. The dark, rough walls of it towered over him, green with the lichenlike growths of the Hot Planet. On the Palace Road one deeply-sunk central gateway opened upon the mysteries within. A tiny blue light burned over the arch. Smith went softly through the dimness to the leftof it, counting two tiny doors half hidden in deep recesses. At the third he paused. It was painted a rusty green, and a green vine spilling down the wall half veiled it, so that if he had not been searching he would have passed it by.
     Smith stood for a long minute, motionless, staring at the green panels deep-sunk in rock. He listened. He even sniffed the heavy air. Warily as a wild beast he hesitated in the dark. But at last he lifted his hand and tapped very lightly with his fingertips on the green door. It swung open without a sound. Pitch-blackness confronted him, an archway of blank dark in the dimly seen stone wall. And a voice queried softly, “Qu’a to’ vat?”
     “Vaudir,” murmured Smith, and grinned to himself involuntarily. How many romantic youths must have stood at these doors in nights gone by, breathing hopefully the names of bronze beauties to door-men in dark archways! But unless tradition lied, no man before had ever passed. He must be the first in many years to stand here invited at a little doorway in the Minga wall and hear the watchman mur-mur, “Come.”
     Smith loosened the gun at his side and bent his tall head under the arch. He stepped into blackness that closed about him like water as the door swung shut. He stood there with quickened heartbeats, hand on his gun, listening. A blue light, dim and ghostly, flooded the place without warning and he saw that the doorman had crossed to a switch at the far side of the tiny chamber wherein he stood. The man was one of the Minga eunuchs, a flabby creature, splendid in crimson velvet. He carried a cloak of purple over his arm, and made a splash of royal colors in the dimness. His sidelong eyes regarded Smith from under lifted brows, with a look that the Earthman could not fathom. There was amusement in it, and a touch of terror and a certain reluc-tant admiration.Smith looked about him in frank curiosity. The little entry apparently hollowed out of the enormously thick wall itself. The only thing that broke its bareness was the ornate bronze door set in the far wall. His eyes sought the eunuch’s in mute inquiry.
     The creature came forward obsequiously, murmuring, “Permit me–” and flung the purple cloak he carried over Smith’s shoulders. Its luxurious folds, faintly fragrant, swept about him like a caress. It covered him, tall as he was, to the very boot-soles. He drew back in faint distaste as the eunuch lifted his hands to fasten the jeweled clasp at his throat. “Please to draw up the hood also,” murmured the creature without apparent resentment, as Smith snapped the fastening himself. The hood covered his sun-bleached hair and fell in thick folds about his face, casting it into deep shadow.
     The eunuch opened the bronze inner door and Smith stared down a long hallway curving almost imperceptibly to the right. The paradox of elaborately decorated simplicity was illustrated in every broad polished panel of the wall, so intricately and exquisitely carved that it gave at first the impression of a strange, rich plainness.
     His booted feet sank sensuously into the deep pile of the carpet at every step as he followed the eunuch down the hail. Twice he heard voices murmuring behind lighted doors, and his hand lay on the butt of the ray-gun under the folds of his robe, but no door opened and the hail lay empty and dim before them. So far it had been amazingly easy. Either tradition lied about the impregnability of the Minga, or the girl Vaudir had bribed with incredible lavishness or–that thought again, uneasily–it was with the Alendar’s consent that he walked here unchallenged. But why?
     They came to a door of silver grille at the end of the curved corri-dor, and passed through it into another hallway slanting up, as exquisitelyvoluptuous as the first. A flight of stairs wrought from dully gleaming bronze curved at the end of it. Then came another hail lighted with rosy lanterns that swung from the arched ceiling, and beyond another stairway, this time of silvery metal fretwork, spi-raling down again. And in all that distance they met no living creature. Voices hummed behind closed doors, and once or twice strains of music drifted faintly to Smith’s ears, but either the corridors had been cleared by a special order, or incredible luck was attending them. And he had the uncomfortable sensation of eyes upon his back more than once. They passed dark hallways and open, unlighted doors, and sometimes the hair on his neck bristled with the feeling of human nearness, inimical, watching.
     For all of twenty minutes they walked through curved corridors and up and down spiral stairs until even Smith’s keen senses were confused and he could not have said at what height above the ground he was, or in what direction the corridor led into which they at last emerged. At the end of that time his nerves were tense as steel wire and he restrained himself only by force from nervous, over-theshoulder glances each time they passed an open door. An air of languorous menace brooded almost visibly over the place, he thought. The sound of soft voices behind doors, the feel of eyes, of whispers in the air, the memory of tales half heard in waterfront dives about the secrets of the Minga, the nameless dangers of the Minga. Smith gripped his gun as he walked through the splendor and the dimness, every sense assailed by voluptuous appeals, but his nerves strained to wire and his flesh crawled as he passed unlighted doors.
     This was too easy. For so many centuries the tradition of the Minga had been upheld, a byword of impregnability, a stronghold guarded by more than swords, by greater dangers than the ray-gun–and yet here he walked, unquestioned, into the deepest heart of the place,here he walked, unquestioned, into the deepest heart of the place, his only disguise a velvet cloak, his only weapon a holstered gun, and no one challenged him, no guards, no slaves, not even a passer-by to note that a man taller than any dweller here should be strode unquestioned through the innermost corridors of the inviolable Minga.
     He loos-ened the ray-gun in its sheath.
The eunuch in his scarlet velvet went on confidently ahead. Only once did he falter. They had reached a dark passageway, and just as they came opposite its mouth the sound of a soft, slithering scrape, as of something over stones, draggingly, reached their ears. He saw the eunuch start and half glance back, and then hurry on at a quicker pace, nor did he slacken until they had put two gates and a length of lighted corridor between them and that dark passage.
     So they went or’, through halls half lighted, through scented air and
empty dimness where the doorways closed upon murmurous mysteries within or opened to dark and the feel of watching eyes.
     And they came at last, after endless, winding progress, into a hallway low-ceiled and paneled in mother-of-pearl, pierced and filigreed with carving, and all the doors were of silver grille. And as the eunuch pushed open the silver gate that led into this corridor the thing happened that his taut nerves had been expecting ever since the start of the fantastic journey. One of the doors opened and a figure stepped out and faced them.
     Under the robe Smith’s gun slid soundlessly from its holster. He thought he saw the eunuch’s back stiffen a little, and his step falter, but only for an instant. It was a girl who had come out, a slave-girl in a single white garment, and at the first glimpse of the tall, purple-robed figure with hooded face, towering over her, she gave a little gasp and slumped to her knees as if under a blow. It was obeisance, but so shocked and terrified that it might have been a faint. She laid her face to the very carpet, and Smith, looking down in amazement onthe prostrate figure, saw that she was trembling violently.
     The gun slid back into its sheath and he paused for a moment over her shuddering homage. The eunuch twisted round to beckon with soundless violence, and Smith caught a glimpse of his face for the first time since their journey began. It was glistening with sweat, and the sidelong eyes were bright and shifting, like a hunted animal’s. Smith was oddly reassured by the sight of the eunuch’s obvious panic. There was danger then–danger of discovery, the sort of peril he knew and could fight. It was that creeping sensation of eyes
watching, of unseen things slithering down dark passages, that had strained his nerves so painfully. And yet, even so, it had been too easy.
     The eunuch had paused at a silver door half-way down the hail and was murmuring something very softly, his mouth against the grille. A panel of green brocade was stretched across the silver door on the inside, so they could see nothing within the room, but after a moment a voice said, “Good!” in a breathing whisper, and the door quivered a little and swung open six inches. The eunuch genuflected in a swirl of scarlet robes, and Smith caught his eye swiftly, the look of terror not yet faded, but amusement there too, and a certain respect. And then the door opened wider and he stepped inside.
     He stepped into a room green as a sea-cave. The walls were paneled in green brocade, low green couches circled the room, and, in the center, the blazing bronze beauty of the girl Vaudir. She wore a robe of green velvet cut in the startling Venusian fashion to loop over one shoulder and swathe her body in tight, molten folds, and the skirt of it was slit up one side so that at every other motion the long white leg flashed bare.
    He saw her for the first time in a full light, and she was lovely beyond belief with her bronze hair cloudy on her shoulders and the pale, lazyface smiling. Under deep lashes the sidelong black eyes of her race met his.
    He jerked impatiently at the hampering hood of the cloak. “May I take this off?” he said. “Are we safe here?”
     She laughed with a short, metallic sound. “Safe!” she said ironically. “But take it off if you must. I’ve gone too far now to stop at trifles.” And as the rich folds parted and slid away from his leather brownness she in turn stared in quickened interest at what she had seen only in a half-light before. He was almost laughably incongruous in this jewel-box room, all leather and sunburn and his scarred face keen and wary in the light of the lantern swinging from its silver chain. She looked a second time at that face, its lean, leathery keenness and the scars that ray-guns had left, and the mark of knife and talon, and the tracks of wild years along the spaceways. Wariness and resolution were instinct in that face, there was ruthlessness in every line of it, and when she met his eyes a little shock went over her. Pale, pale as bare steel, colorless in the sunburnt face.~ Steady and clear and no-colored, expressionless as water. Killer’s eyes. And she knew that this was the man she needed. The name and fame of Northwest Smith had penetrated even into these mother-ofpearl Minga halls. In its way it had spread into stranger places than this, by strange and devious paths and for strange, devious reasons. But even had she never heard the name (nor the deed she connected it with, which does not matter here), she would have known from this scarred face, these cold and steady eyes, that here stood the man she wanted, the man who could help her if any man alive could. And with that thought, others akin to it flashed through her mind like blades crossing, and she dropped her milk-white lids over the swordplay to hide its deadliness, and said, “Northwest… Smith,” in amusing murmur.
     “To be commanded,” said Smith in the idiom of her own tongue, but a spark of derision burned behind the courtly words. Still she said nothing, but looked him up and down with slow eyes. He
said at last, “Your desire–?” and shifted impatiently.
“I had need of a wharfman’s services,” she said, still in that breath-ing
whisper. “I had not seen you, then.
… There are many wharf-men along the seafront, but only one of you,
oh man of Earth–” and she lifted her arms and swayed toward him
exactly as a reed sways to a lake breeze, and her arms lay lightly on
his shoulders and her mouth was very near.
Smith looked down into the veiled eyes. He knew enough of the
breed of Venus to guess the deadly sword-flash of motive behind
any-thing a Venusian does, and he had caught a glimpse of that
particular sword-flash before she lowered her lids.And if her thoughts
were sword-play, his burnt like heat-beams straight to their purpose.
In the winking of an eye he knew a part of her motive–the most
obvious part.
And he stood there unanswering in the circle of her arms.
She looked up at him, half incredulous not to feel a leather embrace
tighten about her.
“Qu’a lo’val?” she murmured whimsically. “So cold, then, Earth-man?
Am I not desirable?”
Wordlessly he looked down at her, and despite himself the blood
quickened in him. Minga girls for too many centuries had been bornand bred to the art of charming men for Northwest Smith to stand
here in the warm arms of one and feel no answer to the invitation in
her eyes. A subtle fragrance rose from her brazen hair, and the velvet molded a body whose whiteness he could guess from the flash of the
long bare thigh her slashed skirt showed. He grinned a little
crookedly and stepped away, breaking the clasp of her hands behind
his neck.
“No,” he said. “You know your art well, my dear, but your motive does
not flatter me.”
She stood back and regarded him with a wry, half-appreciative smile.
“What do you mean?”
“I’ll have to know much more about all this before I commit myself as
far as–that.”
“You fool,” she smiled. “You’re in over your head now, as deeply as
you could ever be. You were the moment you crossed the door-sill at
the outer wall. There is no drawing back.”
“Yet it was so easy–so very easy, to come in,” murmured Smith.
She came forward a step and looked up at him with narrowed eyes,
the pretense of seduction dropped like a cloak.
“You saw that, too?” she queried in a half-whisper. “It seemed so– to
you? Great Shar, if I could be sure….” And there was terror in her
face.
“Suppose we sit down and you tell me about it,” suggested Smith
practically.
She laid a hand–white as cream, soft as satin–on his arm and drewShe laid a hand–white as cream, soft as satin–on his arm and drew
him to the low divan that circled the room. There was inbred, generations-old coquetry in the touch, but the white hand shook a little.
“What is it you fear so?” queried Smith curiously as they sank to the
green velvet. “Death comes only once, you know.”
She shook her bronze head contemptuously.
“Not that,” she said. “At least–no, Iwish I knew just what it is I do fear-
-and that is the most dreadful part of it. But I wish–I wish it had not
been so easy to get you here.” – “The place was deserted,” he said
thoughtfully. “Not a soul along the halls. Not a guard anywhere. Only
once did we see any other crea-ture, and that was a slave-girl in the
hail just outside your door.”
“What did she–do?” Vaudir’s voice was breathless.
“Dropped to her knees as if she’d been shot. You might have thought me the devil himself by the way she acted.”
The girl’s breath escaped in a sigh.
“Safe, then,” she said thankfully. “She must have thought you the –the
Alendar.” Her voice faltered a little over the name, as if she half
feared to pronounce it. “He wears a cloak like that you wore when he
comes through the halls. But he comes so very seldom…”
“I’ve never seen him,” said Smith, “but, good Lord, is he such a monster? The girl dropped as if she’d been hamstrung.”
“Oh, hush, hush!” Vaudir agonized. “You mustn’t speak of him so.
He’s–he’s-of course she knelt and hid her face. I wish to heaven I
had….”Smith faced her squarely and searched the veiled dark eyes with a
gaze as bleak as empty seas. And he saw very clearly behind the
veils the stark, nameless terror at their depths.
“What is it?” he demanded.
She drew her shoulders together and shivered a little, and her eyes
were furtive as she glanced around the room.
“Don’t you feel it?” she asked in that half-whisper to which her voice
sank so caressingly. And he smiled to himself to see how instinctively eloquent was the courtezan in her–alluring gestures though her
hands trembled, soft voice huskily seductive even in its terror.
“–always, always!” she was saying. “The soft, hushed, hovering menace! It haunts the whole place.
Didn’t you feel it as you came in?”
“I think I did,” Smith answered slowly. “Yes–that feel of some-thing
just out of sight, hiding in dark doorways… a sort of tensity in the air…”
“Danger,” she whispered, “terrible, nameless danger… oh, I feel it
wherever I go… it’s soaked into me and through me until it’s a part of me, body and soul….”
Smith heard the note of rising hysteria in her voice, and said quickly,
“Why did you come to me?”
“I didn’t, consciously.” She conquered the hysteria with an effort and
took up her tale a little more calmly. “I was really looking for a wharf man, as I said, and for quite another reason than this. It doesn’t matter, now. But when you spoke, when I flashed my light and saw
your face, I knew you. I’d heard of you, you see, and about the–theLakkmanda affair, and I knew in a moment that if anyone alive could
help me, it would be you.”
“But what is it? Help you in what?”
“It’s a long story,” she said, “and too strange, almost, to believe, and
too vague for you to take seriously.
And yet I know…. Have you heard the history of the Minga?”
“A little of it. It goes back very far.”
“Back into the beginning–and farther. I wonder if you can understand. You see, we on Venus are closer to our beginnings than you.
Life here developed faster, of course, and along lines more different
than Earthmen realize. On Earth civilization rose slowly enough for
the–the elementals–to sink back into darkness. On Venus–oh, it’s
bad, bad for men to develop too swiftly! Life rises out of dark and mystery and things too strange and terrible to be looked upon.
Earth’s civilization grew slowly, and by the time men were civilized
enough to look back they were sufficiently far from their origins not to
see, not to know. But we here who look back see too clearly,
sometimes, too nearly and vividly the black beginning…. Great Shar
defend me, what I have seen!”
White hands flashed up to hide sudden terror in her eyes, and hair in
a brazen cloud fell fragrantly over her fingers. And even in that terror
was an inbred allure as natural as breathing.
In the little silence that followed, Smith caught himself glancing
furtively over his shoulder. The room was ominously still…
Vaudir lifted her face from her hands, shaking back her hair. The
hands trembled. She clasped them on her velvet knee and went on.”The Minga,” she said, and her voice was resolutely steady, “began
too long ago for anyone to name the date. It began before dates. When Far-thursa came out of the sea-fog with his men and founded
this city at the mountain’s foot he built it around the walls of a castle
already here. The Minga castle. And the Alendar sold Minga girls to
the sailors and the city began. All that is myth, but the Minga had
always been here.
“The Alendar dwelt in his stronghold and bred his golden girls and
trained them in the arts of charming men, and guarded them with–
with strange weapons–and sold them to kings at royal prices. There
has always been an Alendar. I have seen him, once. .
“He walks the halls on rare occasions, and it is best to kneel and hide
one’s face when he comes by.
Yes, it is best…. But I passed him one day, and–and–he is tall, tall as
you, Earthman, and his eyes are like–the space between the worlds. I
looked into his eyes under the hood he wore–I was not afraid of devil
or man, then. I looked him in the eyes before I made obeisance, and
I–I shall never be free of fear again. I looked into evil as one looks
into a pool. Blackness and blankness and raw evil.
Impersonal, not malevolent. Elemental .
the elemental dreadfulness that life rose from. And I know very surely,
now, that the first Alendar sprang from no mortal seed. There were
races before man…. Life goes back very dread,fully through many
forms and evils, before it reaches the wellspring of its begin-ning.
And the Alendar had not the eyes of a human creature, and I met
them–and I am damned!”
Her voice trailed softly away and she sat quiet for a space, staring
before her with remembering eyes.”I am doomed and damned to a blacker hell than any of Shar’s
priests threaten,” she resumed. “No, wait–this is not hysteria. I
haven’t told you the worst part. You’ll find it hard to believe, but it’s
truth–truth–Great Shar, if I could hope it were not!
“The origin of it is lost in legend. But why, in the beginning, did the
first Alendar dwell in the misty sea-edge castle, alone and un-known,
breeding his bronze girls?–not for sale, then. Where did he get the
secret of producing the invariable type? And the castle, legend says,
was age-old when Far-thursa found it. The girls had a perfected,
consistent beauty that could be attained only by generations of effort.
How long had the Minga been built, and by whom? Above all, why? What possible reason could there be for dwelling there absolutely
unknown, breeding civilized beauties in a world half-savage? Sometimes I think I have guessed the reason…
Her voice faded into a resonant silence, and for a while she sat staring blindly at the brocaded wall.
When she spoke again it was with a startling shift of topic.
“Am I beautiful, do you think?”
“More so than any I have ever seen before,” answered Smith without
flattery.
Her mouth twisted.
“There are girls here now, in this building, so much lovelier than I that I
am humbled to think of them. No mortal man has ever seen them,
except the Alendar, and he–is not wholly mortal. No mortal man will
ever see them. They are not for sale. Eventually they will disappear. .”One might think that feminine beauty must reach an apex beyond
which it can not rise, but this is not true. It can increase and intensify
until–I have no words. And I truly believe that there is no limit to the
heights it can reach, in the hands of the Alendar.And for every beauty
we know and hear of, through the slaves that tend them, gos-sip says
there are as many more, too immortally lovely for mortal eyes to see.
Have you ever considered that beauty might be refined and intensified until one could scarcely bear to look upon it? We have tales
here of such beauty, hidden in some of the secret rooms of the Minga.
“But the world never knows of these mysteries. No monarch on any
planet known is rich enough to buy the loveliness hidden in the Minga’s innermost rooms. It is not for sale. For countless centuries
the Alendars of the Minga have been breeding beauty, in higher and
higher degrees, at infinite labor and cost–beauty to be locked in
secret chambers, guarded most terribly, so that not even a whisper of
it passes the outer walls, beauty that vanishes, suddenly, in a breath–
like that! Where? Why? How? No one knows.
“And it is that I fear. I have not a fraction of the beauty I speak of, yet a
fate like that is written for me–somehow I know. I have looked into the
eyes of the Alendar, and–I know. And I am sure that I must look again
into those blank black eyes, more deeply, more dread-fully… –I know-
-and I am sick with terror of what more I shall know, soon.
“Something dreadful is waiting for me, drawing nearer and nearer.
Tomorrow, or the next day, or a little while after, I shall vanish, and the
girls will wonder and whisper a little, and then forget. It has hap-pened
before. Great Shar, what shall I do?”
She wailed it, musically and hopelessly, and sank into a little silence.And then her look changed and she said reluctantly, “And I have
dragged you in with me. I have broken every tradition of the Minga in
bringing you here, and there has been no hindrance–it has been too
easy, too easy. I think I have sealed your death. When you first came I
was minded to trick you into committing yourself so deeply that
perforce you must do as I asked to win free again. But I know now
that through the simple act of asking you her. I have dragged you in
deeper than I dreamed. It is a knowledge that has come to me
somehow, out of the air tonight. I can feel knowledge beating upon me–compelling me. For in my terror to get help I think I have
precipitated damnation upon us both. I know now–I have known in my
soul since you entered so easily, that you will not go out alive–that–it-
-will come for me and drag you down too…. Shar, Shar, what have I
done!”
“But what, what?” Smith struck his knee impatiently. “What is it we
face? Poison? Guards? Traps?
Hypnotism? Can’t you give me even a guess at what will happen.”
He leaned forward to search her face commandingly, and saw her
brows knit in an effort to find words that would cloak the mysteries
she had to tell. Her lips parted irresolutely.
“The Guardians,” she said. “The–Guardians….”
And then over her hesitant face swept a look of such horror that his
hand clenched on his knee and he felt the hairs rise along his neck. It
was not horror of any material thing, but an inner dreadfulness, a terrible awareness. The eyes that had met his glazed and escaped his
commanding ~stare without shifting their focus. It was as if they
ceased to be eyes and became dark windows–vacant. The beauty of
her face set like a mask, and behind the blank windows, behind the
lovely set mask, he could sense dimly the dark command flowing in.She put out her hands stiffly and rose. Smith found himself on his feet,
gun in hand, while his hackles lifted shudderingly and something
pulsed in the air as tangibly as the beat of wings. Three times that
nameless shudder stirred the air, and then Vaudir stepped forward
like an automaton and faced the door. She walked in her dream of masked dreadfulness, stiffly, through the portal. As she passed him
he put out a hesitant hand and laid it on her arm, and a little stab of
pain shot through him at the contact, and once more he thought he felt
the pulse of wings in the air. Then she passed by without hesita-tion,
and his hand fell.
He made no further effort to arouse her, but followed after on cat-feet,
delicately as if he walked on eggs.
He was crouching a little, un-consciously, and his gun-hand held a
tense finger on the trigger.
They went down the corridor in a breathing silence, an empty corridor where no lights showed beyond closed doors, where no murmur
of voices broke the live stillness.
But little shudders seemed to shake in the air somehow, and his
heart was pounding suffocatingly.
Vaudir walked like a mechanical doll, tense in a dream of horror. When they reached the end of the hail he saw that the silver grille
stood open, and they passed through without pausing. But Smith
noted with a little qualm that a gateway opening to the right was
closed and locked, and the bars across it were sunk firmly into wallsockets. There was no choice but to follow her.
The corridor slanted downward. They passed others branching to
right and left, but the silver gateways were closed and barred acrosseach. A coil of silver stairs ended the passage, and the girl went
stiffly down without touching the rails. It was a long spiral, past many
floors, and as they descended, the rich, dim light lessened and
darkened and a subtle smell of moisture and salt invaded the
scented air. At each turn where the stairs opened on successive
floors, gates were barred across the outlets; and they passed so many of these that Smith knew, as they went down and down, that
however high the green jewel-box room had been, by now they were
descending deep into the earth. And still the stair wound downward.
The stories that opened beyond the bars like honeycomb layers
became darker and less luxurious, and at last ceased altogether and
the silver steps wound down through a well of rock, lighted so dimly at
wide intervals that he could scarcely see the black polished walls
circling them in. Drops of moisture began to appear on the dark
surface, and the smell was of black salt seas and dank underground.
And just as he was beginning to believe that the stairs went on and
on into the very black, salt heart of the planet, they came abruptly to
the bottom. A flourish of slim, shining rails ended the stairs, at the
head of a hallway, and the girl’s feet turned unhesitatingly to follow its
dark length. Smith’s pale eyes, searching the dimness, found no
trace of other life than themselves; yet eyes were upon him–he knew
it surely.
They came down the black corridor to a gateway of wrought metal set
in bars whose ends sank deep into the stone walls. She went
through, Smith at her heels raking the dark with swift, unresting eyes
like a wild animal’s, wary in a strange jungle. And beyond the great
gates a door hung with sweeping curtains of black ended the hall.
Somehow Smith felt that they had reached their destination. And
nowhere along the whole journey had he had any choice but to follow
Vaudir’s unerring, unseeing footsteps. Grilles had been lockedacross every possible outlet. But he had his gun. .
Her hands were white against the velvet as she pushed aside the
folds. Very bright she stood for an instant–all green and gold and
white–against the blackness. Then she passed through and the folds
swept to behind her–candle-flame extinguished in dark velvet. Smith
hesitated the barest instant before he parted the curtains and peered
within.
He was looking into a room hung in black velvet that absorbed the
light almost hungrily. That light radiated from a single lamp swinging
from the ceiling directly over an ebony table. It shone softly on a man–
a very tall man.
He stood darkly under it, very dark in the room’s darkness, his head
bent, staring up from under level black brows. His eyes in the half –
hid-den face were pits of blackness, and under the lowered brows
two pin-point gleams stabbed straight–not at the girl–but at Smith
hidden behind the curtains. It held his eyes as a magnet holds steel.
He felt the narrow glitter plunging bladelike into his very brain, and
from the keen, burning stab something within him shuddered away
involun-tarily. He thrust his gun through the curtains, stepped through
quietly, and stood meeting the sword-gaze with pale, unwavering
eyes.
Vaudir moved forward with a mechanical stiffness that somehow
could not hide her grace–it was as if no power existing could ever
evoke from that lovely body less than loveliness. She came to the man’s feet and stopped there. Then a long shudder swept her from
head to foot and she dropped to her knees and laid her forehead to
the floor.
Across the golden loveliness of her the man’s eyes met Smith’s, and
the man’s voice, deep, deep, like black waters flowing smoothly,said, “I am the Alendar.”
“Then you know me,” said Smith, his voice harsh as iron in the vel-vet
dimness.
“You are Northwest Smith,” said the smooth, deep voice dispassionately. “An outlaw from the planet Earth. You have broken your last
law, Northwest Smith. Men do not come here uninvited–and live.
You perhaps have heard tales…
His voice melted into silence, lingeringly.
Smith’s mouth curled into a wolfish grin, without mirth, and his gunhand swung up. Murder flashed bleakly from his steel-pale eyes. And
then with stunning abruptness the world dissolved about him. A burst
of coruscations flamed through his head, danced and wheeled and
drew slowly together in a whirling darkness until they were two
pinpoint sparks of light–a dagger stare under level brows. .
When the room steadied about him he was standing with slack arms,
the gun hanging from his fingers, an apathetic numbness slowly
withdrawing from his body. A dark smile curved smoothly on the
Alendar’s mouth.
The stabbing gaze slid casually away, leaving him dizzy in sudden
vertigo, and touched the girl prostrate on the floor. Against the black
carpet her burnished bronze curls sprayed out exquisitely. The green
robe folded softly back from the roundness of her body, and nothing
in the universe could have been so lovely as the creamy whiteness of
her on the dark floor. The pit-black eyes brooded over her
impassively. And then, in his smooth, deep voice the Alendar asked,
amazingly, matter-of-f actly, “Tell me, do you have such girls on
Earth?”Smith shook his head to clear it. When he managed an answer his
voice had steadied, and in the receding of that dizziness even the
sud-den drop into casual conversation seemed not unreasonable.
“I have never seen such a girl anywhere,” he said calmly.
The sword-gaze flashed up and pierced him.
“She has told you,” said the Alendar. “You know I have beauties here
that outshine her as the sun does a candle. And yet..
Smith met the questioning gaze, searching for mockery, but finding
none. Not understanding–a moment before the man had threatened
his life–he took up the conversation.
“They all have more than beauty. For what other reason do kings buy
the Minga girls?”
“No–not that charm. She has it too, but something more subtle than
fascination, much more desirable than loveliness. She has courage,
this girl. She has intelligence. Where she got it I do not un-derstand. I
do not breed my girls for such things. But I looked into her eyes once,
in the hallway, as she told you–and saw there more arousing things
than beauty. I summoned her–and you come at her heels. Do you
know why? Do you know why you did not die at the outer gate or
anywhere along the hallways on your way in?”
Smith’s pale stare met the dark one questioningly. The voice flowed
on.
“Because there are–interesting things in your eyes too. Courage and
ruthlessness and a certain–power, I think. Intensity is in you. And I
believe I can find a use for it, Earthman.”Smith’s eyes narrowed a little. So calm, so matter-of-fact, this talk.
But death was coming. He felt it in the air–he knew that feel of old.
Death–and worse things than that, perhaps. He remembered the
whispers he had heard.
On the floor the girl moaned a little, and stirred. The Alendar’s quiet,
pinpoint eyes flicked her, and he said softly, “Rise.” And she rose,
stumbling, and stood before him with bent head. The stiffness was
gone from her. On an impulse Smith said suddenly, “Vaudir!” She
lifted her face and met his gaze, and a thrill of horror rippled over him.
She had regained consciousness, but she would never be the same
frightened girl he had known. Black knowledge looked out of her
eyes, and her face was a strained mask that covered horror barely–
barely! It was the face of one who has walked through a blacker hell
than any of humanity’s understanding, and gained knowledge there
that no human soul could endure knowing and live.
She looked him full in the face for a long moment, silently, and then
turned away to the Alendar again.
And Smith thought, just before her eyes left his, he had seen in them
one wild flash of hope-less, desperate appeal. .
“Come,” said the Alendar.
He turned his back–Smith’s gun-hand trembled up and then fell
again. No, better wait. There was always a bare hope, until he saw
death closing in all around.
He stepped out over the yielding carpet at the Alendar’~ heels. The
girl came after with slow steps and eyes downcast in a horrible
parody of meditation, as if she brooded over the knowledge thatdwelt so ter-ribly behind her eyes.
The dark archway at the opposite end of the room swallowed them
up. Light failed for an instant–a breath-stopping instant while Smith’s
gun leaped up involuntarily, like a live thing in his hand, futilely against
invisible evil, and his brain rocked at the utter black-ness that
enfolded him. It was over in the wink of an eye, and he won-dered if it
had ever been as his gun-hand fell again. But the Alendar said
across one shoulder,
“A barrier I have placed to guard my–beauties. A mental barrier that
would have been impassable had you not been with me, yet which–
but you understand now, do you not, my Vaudir?” And there was an
indescribable leer in the query that injected a note of mon-strous
humanity into the inhuman voice.
“I understand,” echoed the girl in a voice as lovely and toneless as a
sustained musical note. And the sound of those two inhuman voices
proceeding from the human lips of his companions sent a shudder
thrilling along Smith’s nerves.
They went down the long corridor thereafter in silence, Smith treading
soundlessly in his spaceman’s boots, every fiber of him tense to
painfulness. He found himself wondering, even in the midst of his
strained watchfulness, if any other creature with a living human soul
had ever gone down this corridor before–if frightened golden girls
had followed the Alendar thus into blackness, or if they too had been
drained of humanity and steeped in that nameless horror before their
feet followed their master through the black barrier.
The hallway led downward, and the salt smell became clearer and the
light sank to a glimmer in the air, and in a silence that was not human
they went on.Presently the Alendar said–and his deep, liquid voice did nothing to
break the stillness, blending with it softly so that not even an echo
roused, “I am taking you into a place where no other man than the
Alendar has ever set foot before. It pleases me to wonder just how
your unaccustomed senses will react to the things you are about to
see. I am reaching an–an age”–he laughed softly–“where
experiment in-terests me. Look!”
Smith’s eyes blinked shut before an intolerable blaze of sudden light.
In the streaked darkness of that instant while the glare flamed through
his lids he thought he felt everything shift unaccountably about him, as
if the very structure of the atoms that built the walls were altered. When he opened his eyes he stood at the head of a long gallery
blazing with a soft, delicious brilliance. How he had got there he made no effort even to guess.
Very beautifully it stretched before him. The walls and floor and
ceiling were of sheeny stone. There were low couches along the walls
at intervals, and a blue pool broke the floor, and the air sparkled
unac-countably with golden light. And figures were moving through
that champagne sparkle. .
Smith stood very still, looking down the gallery. The Alendar watched
him with a subtle anticipation upon his face, the pinpoint glitter of his
eyes sharp enough to pierce the Earthman’s very brain. Vaudir with
bent head brooded over the black knowledge behind her drooping
lids. Only Smith of the three looked down the gallery and saw what moved through the golden glimmer of the air.
They were girls. They might have been goddesses–angels haloed
with bronze curls, moving leisurely through a golden heaven where
the air sparkled like wine. There must have been a score of them
strolling up and down the gallery in twos and threes, lolling on the
couches, bathing in the pool. They wore the infinitely gracefulVenusian robe with its looped shoulder and slit skirt, in soft, muted
shades of violet and blue and jewel-green, and the beauty of them
was breath-stopping as a blow. Music was in every gesture they made, a flowing, singing grace that made the heart ache with its
sheer loveli-ness.
He had thought Vaudir lovely, but here was beauty so exquisite that it
verged on pain. Their sweet, light voices were pitched to send little
velvety burrs along his nerves, and from a distance the soft sounds
blended so musically that they might have been singing together. The
loveliness of their motion made his heart contract sud-denly, and the
blood pounded in his ears. .
“You find them beautiful?” The Alendar’s voice blended into the
humming lilt of voices as perfectly as it had blended with silence. His
dagger-glitter of eyes was fixed piercingly on Smith’s pale gaze, and
he smiled a little, faintly. “Beautiful? Wait!”
He moved down the gallery, tall and very dark in the rainbow light.
Smith, following after, walked in a haze of wonder. It is not given to
every man to walk through heaven. He felt the air tingle like wine, and
a delicious perfume caressed him and the haloed girls drew back
with wide, amazed eyes fixed on him in his stained leather and heavy
boots as he passed. Vaudir paced quietly after, her head bent, and
from her the girls turned away their eyes, shuddering a little.
He saw now that their faces were as lovely as their bodies, languorously, colorfully. They were contented faces, unconscious of
beauty, unconscious of any other existence than their own–soulless.
He felt that instinctively. Here was beauty incarnate, physically, tangibly; but he had seen in Vaudir’s face–before–a sparkle of daring, a
tenderness of remorse at having brought him here, that gave her an
indefinable superiority over even this incredible beauty, soulless.They went down the gallery in a sudden hush as the musical voices
fell silent from very amazement.
Apparently the Alendar was a famil-iar figure here, for they scarcely
glanced at him, and from Vaudir they turned away in a shuddering
revulsion that preferred not to recognize her existence. But Smith was
the first man other than the Alendar whom they had ever seen, and
the surprise of it struck them dumb.
They went on through the dancing air, and the last lovely, staring girls
fell behind, and an ivory gateway opened before them, without a
touch. They went downstairs from there, and along another hallway,
while the tingle died in the air and a hum of musical voices sprang up
behind them. They passed beyond the sound. The hallway darkened
until they were moving again through dimness.
Presently the Alendar paused and turned.
“My more costly jewels,” he said, “I keep in separate settings. As
here–“
He stretched out his arm, and Smith saw that a curtain hung against
the wall. There were others, farther on, dark blots against the
dimness. The Alendar drew back black folds, and light from beyond
flowed softly through a pattern of bars to cast flowery shadows on the
opposite wall. Smith stepped forward and stared.
He was looking through a grille window down into a room lined with
dark velvet. It was quite plain.
There was a low couch against the wall opposite the window, and on
it–Smith’s heart gave a stagger and paused–a woman lay. And if the
girls in the gallery had been like goddesses, this woman was lovelier
than men have ever dared to imag-ine even in legends. She wasbeyond divinity–long limbs white against the velvet, sweet curves and
planes of her rounding under the robe, bronze hair spilling like lava
over one white shoulder, and her face calm as death with closed
eyes. It was a passive beauty, like ala-baster shaped perfectly. And
charm, a fascination all but tangible, reached out from her like a magic spell. A sleeping charm, magnetic, powerful. He could not
wrench his eyes away. He was like a wasp caught in honey. .
The Alendar said something across Smith’s shoulder, in a vibrant
voice that thrilled the air. The closed lids rose. Life and loveliness
flowed into the calm face like a tide, lighting it unbearably. That heady
charm wakened and brightened to a dangerous liveness–tug-ging,
pulling…. She rose in one long glide like a wave over rocks; she
smiled (Smith’s senses reeled to the beauty of that smile) and then
sank in a deep salaam, slowly, to the velvet floor, her hair rippling and
falling all about her, until she lay abased in a blaze of loveliness under
the window.
The Alendar let the curtain fall, and turned to Smith as the dazzlin
sight was blotted out. Again the pinpoint glitter stabbed into Smith’s
brain. The Alendar smiled again.
“Come,” he said, and moved down the hail.
They passed three curtains, and paused at a fourth. Afterward Smith
remembered that the curtain must have been drawn back and he must have bent forward to stare through the window bars, but the
sight he saw blasted every memory of it from his mind. The girl who
dwelt in this velvet-lined room was stretching on tiptoe just as the
drawn curtain caught her, and the beauty and grace of her from head
to foot stopped Smith’s breath as a ray-stab to the heart would have
done. And the irresistible, wrenching charm of her drew him forward
until he was clasping the bars with white-knuckled hands, unaware of
anything but her compelling, soul-destroying desirability. .She moved, and the dazzle of grace that ran like a song through
every motion made his senses ache with its pure, unattainable
loveliness. He knew, even in his daze of rapture, that he might hold
the sweet, curved body in his arms for ever, yet hunger still for the
fulfilment which the flesh could never wring from her. Her loveliness
aroused a hunger in the soul more maddening than the body’s hunger
could ever be.
His brain rocked with the desire to possess that intangible,
irresistible loveliness that he knew he could never possess, never
reach with any sense that was in him. That bodiless desire raged like madness through him, so violently that the room reeled and the white
outlines of the beauty unattainable as the stars wavered before him.
He caught his breath and choked and drew back from the intolerable, exquisite sight.
The Alendar laughed and dropped the curtain.
“Come,” he said again, the subtle amusement clear in his voice, and
Smith in a daze moved after him down the hail.
They went a long way, past curtains hanging at regular intervals along
the wall. When they paused at last, the curtain before which they
stopped was faintly luminous about the edges, as if something
dazzling dwelt within. The Alendar drew back the folds.
“We are approaching,” he said, “a pure clarity of beauty, hampered
only a little by the bonds of flesh.
Look.”
One glance only Smith snatched of the dweller within. And the
exquisite shock of that sight went thrilling like torture through everynerve of him. For a mad instant his reason staggered before the terrible fascination beating out from that dweller in waves that wrenched
at his very soul–incarnate loveliness tugging with strong fingers at
every sense and every nerve and intangibly, irresistibly, at deeper
things than these, groping among the roots of his being, dragging his
soul out…
Only one glance he took, and in the glance he felt his soul answer that
dragging, and the terrible desire tore futilely through him. Then he
flung up an arm to shield his eyes and reeled back into the dark, and
a wordless sob rose to his lips and the darkness reeled about him.
The curtain fell. Smith pressed the wall and breathed in long, shuddering gasps, while his heart-beats slowed gradually and the unholy
fascination ebbed from about him. The Alendar’s eyes were glittering
with a green fire as he turned from the window, and a nameless
hunger lay shadowily on his face. He said, “I might show you others,
Earthman. But it could only drive you mad, in the end–you were very
near the brink for a moment just now–and I have another use for
you…. I wonder if you begin to under-stand, now, the purpose of all
this?”
The green glow was fading from that dagger-sharp gaze as the Alendar’s eyes stabbed into Smith’s. The Earthman gave his head a little
shake to clear away the vestiges of that devouring desire, and took a
fresh grip on the butt of his gun. The familiar smoothness of it brought
him a measure of reassurance, and with it a reawakening to the peril
all around. He knew now that there could be no conceivable mercy for
him, to whom the innermost secrets of the Minga had been
unaccountably revealed. Death was waiting–strange death, as soon
as the Alendar wearied of talking–but if he kept his ears open and
his eyes alert it might not–please God–catch him so quickly that he
died alone. One sweep of that blade-blue flame was all he asked,now. His eyes, keen and hostile, met the dagger-gaze squarely. The
Alendar smiled and said,
“Death in your eyes, Earthman. Nothing in your mind but murder. Can
that brain of yours comprehend nothing but battle? Is there no
curiosity there? Have you no wonder of why I brought you here?
Death awaits you, yes. But a not unpleasant death, and it awaits all,
in one form or another. Listen, let me tell you–I have reason for desiring to break through that animal shell of self-defense that seals in
your mind.
Let me look deeper–if there are depths. Your death will be–useful,
and in a way, pleasant.
Otherwise–well, the black beasts hunger. And flesh must feed them,
as a sweeter drink feeds me. – Listen.”
Smith’s eyes narrowed. A sweeter drink.–Danger, danger–the smell
of it in the air–instinctively he felt the peril of opening his mind to the
plunging gaze of the Alendar, the force of those compel-ling eyes
beating like strong lights into his brain. . – “Come,” said the Alendar
softly, and moved off soundlessly through the gloom. They followed,
Smith painfully alert, the girl walking with lowered, brooding eyes, her mind and soul afar in some wallowing darkness whose shadow
showed so hideously beneath her lashes.
The hallway widened to an arch, and abruptly, on the other side, one
wall dropped away into infinity and they stood on the dizzy brink of a
gallery opening on a black, heaving sea. Smith bit back a startled
oath. One moment before the way had led through low-roofed tunnels deep underground; the next instant they stood on the shore of a
vast body of rolling darkness, a tiny wind touching their faces with the
breath of unnamable things.Very far below, the dark waters rolled. Phosphorescence lighted
them uncertainly, and he was not even sure it was water that surged
there in the dark. A heavy thickness seemed to be inherent in the
rollers, like black slime surging.
The Alendar looked out over the fire-tinged waves. He waited for an
instant without speaking, and then, far out in the slimy surges,
something broke the surface with an oily splash, something mercifully
veiled in the dark, then dived again, leaving a wake of spreading rippies over the surface.
“Listen,” said the Alendar, without turning his head. “Life is very old.
There are older races than man.
Mine is one. Life rose out of the black slime of the sea-bottoms and
grew toward the light along many diverging lines. Some reached maturity and deep wisdom when man was still swinging through the
jungle trees.
“For many centuries, as mankind counts time, the Alendar has dwelt
here, breeding beauty. In later years he has sold some of his lesser
beauties, perhaps to explain to mankind’s satisfaction what it could
never understand were it told the truth. Do you begin to see? My race
is very remotely akin to those races which suck blood from man, less
remotely to those which drink his life-forces for nourish-ment. I refine
taste even more than that. I drink–beauty. I live on beauty. Yes,
literally.
“Beauty is as tangible as blood, in a way. It is a separate, distinct
force that inhabits the bodies of men and women. You must have noticed the vacuity that accompanies perfect beauty in so many women
the force so strong that it drives out all other forces and lives
vampirishly at the expense of intelligence and goodness and conscience and all else.”In the beginning, here–for our race was old when this world began,
spawned on another planet, and wise and ancient–we woke from
slumber in the slime, to feed on the beauty force inherent in mankind
even in cave-dwelling days. But it was meager fare, and we studied
the race to determine where the greatest prospects lay, then selected
specimens for breeding, built this stronghold and settled down to the
business of evolving mankind up to its limit of loveliness. In time we
weeded out all but the present type.
For the race of man we have developed the ultimate type of
loveliness. It is interesting to see what we have accomplished on
other worlds, with utterly different races. .
“Well, there you have it. Women, bred as a spawning-ground for the
devouring force of beauty on which we live.
“But–the fare grows monotonous, as all food must without change.
Vaudir I took because I saw in her a sparkle of something that except
in very rare instances has been bred out of the Minga girls. FOr
beauty, as I have said, eats up all other qualities but beauty. Yet
somehow intelligence and courage survived latently in Vaudir. It
decreases her beauty, but the tang of it should be a change from the
eternal sameness of the rest. And so I thought until I saw you.
“I realized then how long it had been since I tasted the beauty of man.
It is so rare, so different from female beauty, that I had all but
forgotten it existed.And you have it, very subtly, in a raw, harsh way….
“I have told you all this to test the quality of that–that harsh beauty in
you. Had I been wrong about the deeps of your mind, you would have
gone to feed the black beasts, but I see that Iwas not wrong.
Behind your animal shell of self-preservation are depths of that forceand strength which nourish the roots of male beauty. I think I shall give
you a while to let it grow, under the forcing methods I know, before I–
drink. It will be delightful. – The voice trailed away in a murmurous
silence, the pinpoint glitter sought Smith’s eyes. And he tried halfheartedly to avoid it, but his eyes turned involuntarily to the stabbing
gaze, and the alertness died out of him, gradually, and the compelling
pull of those glittering points in the pits of darkness held him very still.
And as he stared into the diamond glitter he saw its brilliance slowly melt and darken, until the pinpoints of light had changed to pools that
dimmed, and he was looking into black evil as elemental and vast as
the space between the worlds, a dizzying blankness wherein dwelt
unnamable horror… deep, deep…
all about him the darkness was clouding. And thoughts that were not
his own seeped into his mind out of that vast, elemental dark…
crawling, writhing thoughts… until he had a glimpse of that dark place
where Vaudir’s soul wallowed, and something sucked him down and
down into a waking nightmare he could not fight…
Then somehow the pull broke for an instant. For just that instant he
stood again on the shore of the heaving sea and gripped a gun with
nerveless fingers–then the darkness closed about him again, but a
different, uneasy dark that had not quite the all-compelling power of
that other nightmare–it left him strength enough to fight.
And he fought, a desperate, moveless, soundless struggle in a black
sea of horror, while worm-thoughts coiled through his straining mind
and the clouds rolled and broke and rolled again about him.
Some-times, in the instants when the pull slackened, he had time to
feel a third force struggling here between that black, blind downward
suck that dragged at him and his own sick, frantic effort to fight clear,
a third force that was weakening the black drag so that he hadmoments of lucidity when he stood free on the brink of the ocean and
felt the sweat roll down his face and was aware of his laboring heart
and how gaspingly breath tortured his lungs, and he knew he was
fighting with every atom of himself, body and mind and soul, against
the intangible blackness sucking him down.
And then he felt the force against him gather itself in a final effort –he
sensed desperation in that effort–and come rolling over him like a
tide. Bowled over, blinded and dumb and deaf, drowning in utter
blackness, he floundered in the deeps of that nameless hell where
thoughts that were alien and slimy squirmed through his brain. Bodiless he was, and unstable, and as he wallowed there in the ooze more hideous than any earthly ooze, because it came from black,
inhuman souls and out of ages before man, he became aware that
the worm-thoughts a-squirm in his brain were forming slowly into monstrous meanings–knowledge like a formless flow was pouring
through his bodiless brain, knowledge so dreadful that consciously he
could not comprehend it, though subconsciously every atom of his mind and soul sickened and writhed futilely away. It was flooding over
him, drenching him, permeating him through and through with the very
essence of dreadfulness–he felt his mind melting away under the solvent power of it, melting and running fluidly into new channels and
fresh molds–horrible molds. .
And just at that instant, while madness folded around him and his mind rocked on the verge of annihilation, something snapped, and
like a curtain the dark rolled away, and he stood sick and dizzy on the
gallery above the black sea. Everything was reeling about him, but
they were stable things that shimmered and steadied before his
eyes, blessed black rock and tangible surges that had form and
body–his feet pressed firmness and his mind shook itself and was
clean and his own again.And then through the haze of weakness that still shrouded him a
voice was shrieking wildly, “Kill!…
kill!” and he saw the Alendar staggering against the rail, all his
outlines unaccountably blurred and uncertain, and behind him Vaudir
with blazing eyes and face wrenched hideously into life again,
screaming “Kill!” in a voice scarcely human.
Like an independent creature his gun-hand leaped up–he had
gripped that gun through everything that happened–and he was dimly
aware of the hardness of it kicking back against his hand with the
recoil, and of the blue flash flaming from its muzzle. It struck the
Alendar’s dark figure full, and there was a hiss and a dazzle. .
Smith closed his eyes tight and opened them again, and stared with
a sick incredulity; for unless that struggle had unhinged his brain after
all, and the worm-thoughts still dwelt slimily in his mind, tingeing all he
saw with unearthly horror–unless this was true, he was looking not at
a man just rayed through the lungs, and who should be dropping now
in a bleeding, collapsed heap to the floor, but at–at–God, what was
it? The dark figure had slumped against the rail, and instead of blood
gushing, a hideous, nameless, formless black poured sluggishly
forth–a slime like the heaving sea below. The whole dark figure of the man was melting, slumping farther down into the pool of black-ness
forming at his feet on the stone floor.
Smith gripped his gun and watched in numb incredulity, and the
whole body sank slowly down and melted and lost all form–hideously,
gruesomely–until where the Alendar had stood a heap of slime lay
viscidly on the gallery floor, hideously alive, heaving and rippling and
striving to lift itself into a semblance of humanity again. And as he
watched, it lost even that form, and the edges melted revoltingly and
the mass flattened and slid down into a pool of utter horror, and he
became aware that it was pouring slowly through the rails into thesea. He stood watching while the whole rolling, shim-mering mound melted and thinned and trickled through the bars, un-til the floor was
clear again, and not even a stain marred the stone.
     A painful constriction of his lungs roused him, and he realized he had been holding his breath, scarcely daring to realize. Vaudir had collapsed against the wall, and he saw her knees give limply, and stag-gered forward on uncertain feet to catch her as she fell.
     “Vaudir, Vaudir!” he shook her gently. “Vaudir, what’s happened?
Am I dreaming? Are we safe now?
Are you–awake again?”
      Very slowly her white lids lifted, and the black eyes met his. And he saw shadowily there the knowledge of that wallowing void he had dimly known, the shadow that could never be cleared away. She was steeped and foul with it. And the look of her eyes was such that involuntarily he released her and stepped away. She staggered a little and then regained her balance and regarded him from under bent brows. The level inhumanity of her gaze struck into his soul, and yet he thought he saw a spark of the girl she had been, dwelling in torture amid the blackness. He knew he was right when she said, in a faraway, toneless voice, “Awake?… No, not ever now, Earthman. I have been down too deeply into hell… he had dealt me a worse torture than be knew, for there is just enough humanity left within me to realize what I have become, and to suffer. .
     “Yes, he is gone, back into the slime that bred him. I have been a part of him, one with him in the blackness of his soul, and I know. I have spent eons since the blackness came upon me, dwelt for eterni-ties in the dark, rolling seas of his mind, sucking in knowledge . and as I was one with him, and he now gone, so shall I die; yet I willsee you safely out of here if it is in my power, for it was Iwho dragged you in. If I can remember–if I can find the way….”
     She turned uncertainly and staggered a step back along the way they had come. Smith sprang forward and slid his free arm about her, but she shuddered away from the contact.
     “No, no–unbearable–the touch of clean human flesh–and it breaks the chord of my remembering….
     I can not look back into his mind as it was when I dwelt there, and I must, Imust….” She shook him off and reeled on, and he cast one last look at the billowing sea, and then followed. She staggered along the stone floor on stumbling feet, one hand to the wall to support herself, and her voice was whispering gustily, so that he had to follow close to hear, and then almost wished he had not heard, “–black slime–darkness
feeding on light–everything wavers so–slime, slime and a rolling sea- -he rose out of it, you know, before civi-lization began here–he is age-old–there never has been but one Alen-dar…. And somehow–I could not see just how, or remember why –he rose from the rest, as some of his race on other planets had done, and took the man-form and stocked his breeding-pens….”
     They went on up the dark hallway, past curtains hiding incarnate loveliness, and the girl’s stumbling footsteps kept time to her stumbling, half-incoherent words. “–has lived all these ages here, breeding and devouring beauty– vampire-thirst, a hideous delight in drinking in that beauty-force–I felt it and remembered it when Iwas one with him–wrapping black layers of primal slime about–quenching human loveliness in ooze, sucking– blind black thirst…. And his wisdom was ancient and dreadful and fullof power–so he could draw a soul out through the eyes and sink it in hell, and drown it there, as he would have done mine if I had not had, somehow, a difference from the rest. Great Shar, I wish I had not! I wish I were drowned in it and did not feel in every atom of me the horrible uncleanness of–what I know. But by virtue of that hidden strength I did not surrender wholly, and when he had turned his power to subduing you I was able to struggle, there in the very heart of his mind, making a disturbance that shook him as he fought us both– making it possible to free you long enough for you to destroy the human flesh he was clothed in–so that he lapsed into the ooze again.
     I do not quite understand why that happened–only that his weakness, with you assailing him from without and me struggling strongly in the very center of his soul was such that he was forced to draw on the power he had built up to maintain himself in the man-form, and weakened it enough so that he collapsed when the man-form was assailed. And he fell back into the slime again–whence he rose– black slime–heaving–oozing. …”
     Her voice trailed away in murmurs, and she stumbled, all but fall-ing. When she regained her balance she went on ahead of him at a greater distance, as if his very nearness were repugnant to her, and the soft babble of her voice drifted back in broken phrases without meaning.
     Presently the air began to tingle again, and they passed the silver gate and entered that gallery where the air sparkled like champagne. The blue pool lay jewel-clear in its golden setting. Of the girls there was no sign.
     When they reached the head of the gallery the girl paused, turning to him a face twisted with the effort at memory.
     “Here is the trial,” she said urgently. “If I can remember–” She seized her head in clutching hands, shaking it savagely. “I haven’t thestrength, now–can’t–can’t–” the piteous little murmur reached his ears incoherently. Then she straightened resolutely, swaying a little, and faced him, holding out her hands.
     He clasped them hesitantly, and saw a shiver go through her at the contact, and her face contort painfully, and then a shudder communicated itself through that clasp and he too winced in revolt.
     He saw her eyes go blank and her face strain in lines of tensity, and a fine dew broke out on her forehead. For a long moment she stood so, her face like death, and strong shudders went over her body and her eyes were blank as the void be-tween the planets.
     And as each shudder swept her it went unbroken through the clasping of their hands to him, and they were black waves of dreadfulness, and again he saw the heaving sea and wallowed in the hell he had fought out of on the gallery, and he knew for the first time what tor-ture she must be enduring who dwelt in the very deeps of that uneasy dark. The pulses came faster, and for moments together he went down into the blind blackness and the slime, and felt the first wriggling of the worm-thoughts tickling the roots of his brain. And then suddenly a clean darkness closed round them and again everything shifted unaccountably, as if the atoms of the gallery were changing, and when Smith opened his eyes he was standing once more in the dark, slanting corridor with the smell of salt and antiquity heavy in the air.
     Vaudir moaned softly beside him, and he turned to see her reeling against the wall and trembling so from head to foot that he looked to see her fall the next moment.
– “Better–in a moment,” she gasped. “It took–nearly all my strength to–to get us through–wait. …”So they halted there in the darkness and the dead salt air, until the trembling abated a little and she said, “Come,” in her little whimpering voice. And again the journey began. It was only a short way, now, to the barrier of black blankness that guarded the door into the room where they had first seen the Alendar.
     When they reached the place she shivered a little and paused, then resolutely held out her hands. And as he took them he felt once more the hideous slimy waves course through him, and plunged again into the heaving hell. And as before the clean darkness flashed over them in a breath, and then she dropped his hands and they were standing in the archway looking into the velvet-hung room they had left–it seemed eons ago.
     He watched as waves of blinding weakness flooded over her from that supreme effort. Death was visible in her face as she turned to him at last.
     “Come–oh, come quickly,” she whispered, and staggered forward.
     At her heels he followed, across the room, past the great iron gateway, down the hail to the foot of the silver stairs. And here his heart sank, for he felt sure she could never climb the long spiral distances to the top. But she set her foot on the step and went upward resolutely, and as he followed he heard her murmuring to herself,
     “Wait–oh, wait–let me reach the end–let me undo this much–and then–no, no! Please Shar, not the black slime again… Earth-man, Earthman!”
     She paused on the stair and turned to face him, and her haggard face was frantic with desperation and despair.
     “Earthman, promise–do not let me die like this! When we reach the end, ray me! Burn me clean, or I shall go down for eternity into theblack sinks from which I dragged you free. Oh, promise!”
     “Iwill,” Smith’s voice said quietly. “Iwill.”
     And they went on. Endlessly the stairs spiraled upward and endlessly they climbed. Smith’s legs began to ache intolerably, and his heart was pounding like a wild thing, but Vaudir seemed not to notice weariness. She climbed steadily and no more unsurely than she had come along the halls. And after eternities they reached the top. And there the girl fell. She dropped like a dead woman at the head of the silver spiral. Smith thought for a sick instant that he had failed her and let her die uncleansed, but in a moment or two she stirred and lifted her head and very slowly dragged herself to her feet.
     “I will go on–I will, I will,” she whispered to herself. “–come this far– must finish–” and she reeled off down the lovely, rosily-lit hall-way paneled in pearl.
     He could see how perilously near she was to her strength’s end, and he marveled at the tenacity with which she clung to life though it ebbed away with every breath and the pulse of darkness flowed in after it. So with bulldog stubbornness she made her wavering way past door after door of carven shell, under rosy lights that flushed her face with a ghastly mockery of health, until they reached the silver gate-way at the end. The lock had been removed from it by now, and the bar drawn.
     She tugged open the gate and stumbled through. And the nightmare journey went on. It must be very near morning, Smith thought, for the halls were deserted, but did he not sense a breath of danger in the still air?.The girl’s gasping voice answered that half-formed query as if, like the Alendar, she held the secret of reading men’s minds.
     “The–Guardians–still rove the halls, and unleashed now–so keep your ray-gun ready, Earthman….”
     After that he kept his eyes alert as they retraced, stumbling and slow, the steps he had taken on his way in. And once he heard dis-tinctly the soft slither of–something–scraping over the marble pave-ment, and twice he smelt with shocking suddenness in this scented air a whiff of salt, and his mind flashed back to a rolling black sea.
– . . But nothing molested them.
     Step by faltering step the hallways fell behind them, and he began to recognize landmarks, and the girl’s footsteps staggered and hesitated and went on gallantly, incredibly, beating back oblivion, fighting the dark surges rolling over her, clinging with tenacious fingers to the tiny spark of life that drove her on.
     And at long last, after what seemed hours of desperate effort, they reached the blue-lit hallway at whose end the outer door opened. Vaudir’s progress down it was a series of dizzy staggers, interspersed with pauses while she hung to the carven doors with tense fingers and drove her teeth into a bloodless lip and gripped that last flicker of life. He saw the shudders sweep over her, and knew what waves of washing dark must be rising all about her, and how the worm-thoughts writhed through her brain… But she went on.
     Every step now was a little tripping, as if she fell from one foot to the other, and at each step he expected that knee to give way and pitch her down into the black deeps that yawned for her. But she went on.
– She reached the bronze door, and with a last spurt of effort she lifted the bar and swung it open. Then that tiny spark flickered out likea lamp. Smith caught one flash of the rock room within–and something horrible on the floor–before he saw her pitch forward as the rising tide of slimy oblivion closed at last over her head. She was dying as she fell, and he whipped the ray-gun up and felt the recoil against his palm as a blue blaze flashed forth and transfixed her in midair. And he could have sworn her eyes lighted for a flickering instant and the gallant girl he had known looked forth, cleansed and whole, before death–clean death–glazed them.
     She slumped down in a huddle at his feet, and he felt a sting of tears beneath his eyelids as he looked down on her, a huddle of white and bronze on the rug. And as he watched, a film of defilement veiled the shining whiteness of her–decay set in before his eyes and progressed with horrible swiftness, and in less time than it takes to tell he was staring with horrified eyes at a pool of black slime across which green velvet lay bedraggled.
     Northwest Smith closed his pale eyes, and for a moment struggled with memory, striving to wrest from it the long-forgotten words of a prayer learned a score of years ago on another planet. Then he stepped over the pitiful, horrible heap on the carpet and went on. In the little rock room of the outer wall he saw what he had glimpsed when Vaudir opened the door.
     Retribution had overtaken the eunuch. The body must have been his, for tatters of scarlet velvet lay about the floor, but there was no way to recognize what its original form had been. The smell of salt was heavy in the air, and a trail of black slime snaked across the floor toward the wall. The wall was solid, but it ended there…
     Smith laid his hand on the outer door, drew the bar, swung it open. He stepped out under the hanging vines and filled his lungs with pure air, free, clear, untainted with scent or salt. A pearly dawn wasbreaking over Ednes.

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