"We have a curious custom in Zyobor of which I have not yet told thee," she murmured. "It concerns the kings of Zyobor. The color of their hair."
She glanced up at my own carrot-top, and then averted her gaze.
"For all of our history our kings have had--red hair. On the few occasions when the line has been reduced to a lone queen, as in my case, the red-haired men of the kingdom have striven together in public combat to determine which was most powerful and brave. The winner became the Queen's consort."
"And in this case?" I asked, my heart beginning to pound madly.
"In my case, my lord, there is to be no--no striving. When I was a child our only two red-haired males died, one by accident, one by sickness. Now there are none others but infants, none of eligible age. But--by a miracle--thou--"
She stopped; then gazed up at me from under long, gold flecked lashes.
"I was afraid ... I was doomed to die ... alone...."
It was after I had replied impetuously to this, that she told me of the terror that was about to engulf all life in the beautiful undersea city.
"Thou hast wonder, perhaps, why I should be forward enough to tell thee this instead of waiting for thine own confession first," she faltered. "Know, then--the reason is the shortness of the time we are fated to spend together. We shall belong each to the other only a little while. Then shall we belong to death! And I--when I knew the time was to be so brief--"
And I listened with growing horror to her account of the enemy that was advancing toward us with every passing moment.
About twenty miles away, in the lowest depression of Penguin Deep, lived a race of monsters which the people of Aga's city called Quabos.
The Quabos were grim beings that were more intelligent than Aga's fish-servants--even, she thought, more intelligent than humans themselves. They had existed in their dark hole, as far as the Zyobites knew, from the beginning of time.
Through the countless centuries they had constructed for themselves a vast series of dens in the rock. There they had hidden away from the deep-sea dangers. They, too, preyed on the mound-fish; but as there was plenty of food for all, the Zyobites had never paid much attention to them.
But--just before we had appeared, there had come about a subterranean quake that changed the entire complexion of matters in Penguin Deep.
The earthquake wiped out the elaborately burrowed sea tunnels of the Quabos, killing half of them at a blow and driving the rest out into the unfriendly openness of the deep.
Now this was fatal to them. They were not used to physical self defense. During the thousands of years of residence in their sheltered burrows they had become utterly unable to exist when exposed to the primeval dangers of the sea. It was as though the civilization-softened citizens of New York should suddenly be set down in a howling wilderness with nothing but their bare hands with which to contrive all the necessities of a living.
Such was the situation at the time Stanley, the Professor and myself arrived in Zyobor.
The Quabos must find an immediate haven or perish. On the ocean bottom they were threatened by the mound-fish. In the higher levels they were in danger from almost everything that swam: few things were so defenceless as themselves after their long inertia.
Their answer was Zyobor. There, in perfect security, only to be reached by the diving chamber that could be sealed at will by the twenty-yard, counterbalanced lock, the Quabos would be even more protected than in their former runways.
So--they were working day and night to invade Aga's city!
"But Aga," I interrupted impulsively at this point. "If these monsters are fishes, how could they live here in air--"
I stopped as my objection answered itself before she could reply.
They would not have to live in air to inhabit Zyobor. They would inundate the city--flood that peaceful, beautiful place with the awful pressure of the lowest depths!
That thought, in turn, suggested to me that every building in Zyobor would be swept flat if subjected suddenly to the rush of the sea. The great low cavern, without the support of the myriad walls, would probably collapse--trapping the invading Quabos and leaving the rest without a home once more.
But Aga answered this before I could voice it.
The Quabos had foreseen that point. They were tunneling slowly but surely toward the city from a point about half a mile from the diving chamber. And as they advanced, they blocked up the passageway behind them at intervals, drilled down to the great underground sea that lay beneath all this section, and drained a little of the water away.
In this manner they lightened, bit by bit, the enormous weight of the ocean depths. When the city was finally reached, not only would it be ensured against sudden destruction but the Quabos themselves would have become accustomed to the difference in pressure. Had they gone immediately from the accustomed press of Penguin Deep into the atmosphere of Zyobor, they would have burst into bits. As it was they would be able to flood the city slowly, without injury to themselves.
"Now thou knowest our fate," concluded Aga with a shudder. "Zyobor will be a part of the great waters. We ourselves shall be food for these monsters...." She faltered and stopped.
"But this cannot be!" I exclaimed, clenching my fists impotently. "There must be something we can do; some way--"
"There is nothing to be done. Our wisest men have set themselves sleeplessly to the task of defence. There it no defence possible."
"We can't simply sit here and wait! Your people are wonderful, but this is no time for resignation. Send for my two friends, Aga. We will have a council of war, we four, and see if we can find a way!"
She shrugged despairfully, started to speak, then sent in quest of Stanley and the Professor.
They as well as myself, had had no idea of the menace that crept nearer us with each passing hour. They were dumbfounded, horrified to learn of the peril. We sat awhile in silence, realizing our situation to the full.
Then the Professor spoke: "If only we could see what these things look like! It might help in planning to defeat them."
"That can be done with ease," said Aga. "Come."
We went with her to the gardens and approached the nearest pool.
"My fish-men are watching the Quabos constantly. They report to me by telepathy whenever I send my thoughts their way. I will let you see, on the pool, the things they are now seeing."
She stared intently at the sheet of water. And gradually, as we watched, a picture appeared--a picture that will never fade from my memory in any smallest detail.
The Quabos had huddled for protection into a large cave at the foot of the cliff outside Zyobor. There were a great many Quabos, and the cave was relatively confining. Now we saw, through the eyes of the spine protected outpost of the Queen, these monstrous refugees crowded together like sheep.
The watery cavern was a creeping mass of viscous tentacles, enormous staring eyes and globular heads. The cave was paved three deep with the horrible things, and they were attached to the it walls and roof in solid blocks.
"My God!" whispered Stanley. "There are thousands of them!"
There were. And that they were in distress was evident.
The layers on the floor were weaving and shifting constantly as the bottom creatures struggled feebly to rise to the top of the mass and be relieved of the weight of their brothers. Also they were famished....
One of the blood red, gigantic worms floated near the cave entrance. Like lightning the nearest Quabos darted after it. In a moment the prey was torn to bits by the ravenous monsters.
The other side of the story was immediately portrayed to us.
With the emerging of the reckless Quabos, a sea-serpent appeared from above and snapped up three of their number. Evidently the huge serpent considered them succulent tidbits, and made it its business to wait near the cave and avail itself of just such rash chance-taking as this.
While we watched the nightmare scene, a Quabo disengaged itself from the parent mass and floated upward into the clear, giving us a chance to see more distinctly what the creatures looked like.
There was a black, shiny head as large as a sugar barrel. In this were eyes the size of dinner plates, and gleaming with a cold, hellish intelligence. Four long, twining tentacles were attached directly to the head. Dotted along these were rudimentary sucker discs, that had evidently become atrophied by the soft living of thousands of the creature's ancestors.
As though emerging from the pool into which we were gazing, the monster darted viciously at us. At once it disappeared: the fish-servant through whose eyes we were seeing all this had evidently retreated from the approach; although, protected by its spines, it could not have been in actual danger.
"How dost thou know of the tunneling?" I asked Aga. "Thy fish-men cannot be present there, in the rear of the tunnel, to report."
"My artisans have knowledge of each forward move," she answered. "I will show thee."
We walked back to the palace and descended to a smooth-lined vault. There we saw a great stone shaft sunk down into the rock of the floor. On this was a delicate vibration recording instrument of some sort, with a needle that quivered rhythmically over several degrees of an arc.
"This tells of each move of the Quabos," said Aga. "It also tells us where they will break through the city wall. How near to us are they, Kilor?" she asked an attendant who was studying the dial, and who had bowed respectfully to Aga and myself as we approached.
"They will break into the city in four rixas at the present rate of advance, Your Majesty."
Four rixas! In a little over sixteen days, as we count time, the city of Zyobor would be delivered into the hands--or, rather, tentacles--of the slimy, starving demons that huddled in the cavern outside!
Somberly we followed Aga back to her apartment.
"As thou seest," she murmured, "there is nothing to be done. We can only resign ourselves to the fate that nears us, and enjoy as much as may be the few remaining rixas...."
She glanced at me.
The Professor's dry, cool voice cut across our wordless, engrossed communion.
"I don't think we'll give up quite as easily as all that. We can at least try to outwit our enemies. If it does nothing else for us, the effort can serve to distract our minds."
He drew from his pocket a sheet of parchment and the stub of his last remaining pencil. His fingers busied themselves apparently idly in the tracing of geometric lines.
"Looking ahead to the exact details of our destruction," he mused coolly, "we see that our most direct and ominous enemy is the sea itself. When the city is flooded, we drown--and later the Quabos can enter at will."
He drew a few more lines, and marked a cross at a point in the outer rim of the diagram.
"What will happen? The Quabos force through the last shell of the city wall. The water from their tunnel floods into Zyobor. But--and mark me well--only the water from the tunnel! The outer end, remember, is blocked off in their pressure-reducing process. The vast body of the sea itself cannot immediately be let in here because the Quabos must take as long a time to re-accustom themselves to its pressure as they did to work out of it."
He spread the parchment sheet before us.
"Is this a roughly accurate plan of the city?" he asked Aga.
She inclined her lovely head.
"And this," indicating the cross, "is the spot where the Quabos will break in?"
Again she nodded, shuddering.
"Then tell me what you think of this," said the Professor.
And he proceeded to sketch out a plan so simple, and yet so seemingly efficient, that the rest of us gazed at him with wordless admiration.
"My friend, my friend," whispered Aga at last, "thou hast saved us. Thou art the guardian hero of Zyobor--"
"Not too fast, Your Highness," interrupted the Professor with his frosty smile. "I shall be much surprised if this little scheme actually saves the city. We may find the rock so thick there that our task is hopeless--though I imagine the Quabos picked a thin section for help in their own plans."
A vague look came into his eyes.
"I must certainly get my hands on one of these monsters ... superhumanly intelligent fish ... marvelous--akin to the octopus, perhaps?"
He wandered off, changed from the resourceful schemer to the dreamy man of scientific abstractions.
The Queen gazed after him with wonder in her eyes.
"A great man," she murmured, "but is he--a little mad?"
"No, only a little absent-minded," I replied. Then, "Come on, Stanley. We'll round up every able bodied citizen in Zyobor and get to work. I suppose they have some kind of rock drilling machinery here?"
They had. And they strangely resembled our own rock drills: revolving metal shafts, driven by gas turbines, tipped with fragments of the same crystal that glittered so profusely in the palace walls. Another proof that practically every basic, badly needed tool had been invented again and again, in all lands and times, as the necessity for it arose.
With hundreds of the powerful men of Zyobor working as closely together as they could without cramping each others movements, and with the whole city resounding to the roar of the machinery, we labored at the defence that might possibly check the advance of the hideous Quabos.
And with every breath we drew, waking or sleeping, we realized that the cold blooded, inhuman invaders had crept a fraction of an inch closer in their tunneling.
The Quabos against the Zyobites! Fish against man! Two diametrically opposed species of life in a struggle to the death! Which of us would survive?
The hour of the struggle approached. Every soul in Zyobor moved in a daze, with strained face and fear haunted eyes. Their proficiency in mental telepathy was a curse to them now: every one carried constantly, transmitted from the brains of the servant-fish outposts, a thought picture of that outer cavern in the murky depths of which writhed the thousands of crowding Quabos. Each mind in Zyobor was in continual torment.
Spared that trouble, at least, Stanley and the Professor and I walked down to the fortification we had so hastily contrived. It was finished. And none too soon: the vibration indicator in the palace vault told us that only two feet of rock separated us from the burrowing monsters!
The Professor's scheme had been to cut a long slot down through the rock floor of the city to the roof of the vast, mysterious body of water below.
This slot was placed directly in front of the spot in the city wall where the Quabos were about to emerge. As they forced through the last shell of rock, the deluge of water, instead of drowning the city, was supposed to drain down the oblong vent. Any Quabos that were too near the tunnel entrance would be swept down too.
In silence we approached the edge of the great trough and stared down.
There was a stratum of black granite, fortunately only about thirty feet thick at this point, and then--the depths! A low roar reached our ears from far, far beneath us. A steady blast of ice cold air fanned up against us.