"The Golden Goddess whose symbol led him here. He does not know what it is. He stole it by murdering one of our own messengers for it. He did not know at all; he only heard the tales that some relate about her. They are false tales."
"Did he tell you how he got it?"
"He was boasting to me, trying to get me to tell what I knew about her dwelling-place. I would not, that is why he hurt me."
"Why did you come back, whatever-your-name?"
"My name is Nokomee, and I came back to tell you something you need to know. Leave these others, and you will live! Stay with them, you will be slain with them. We do not allow such as he to come among us, golden girl or no."
"I cannot leave my comrades because of danger. What kind of man do you think me?"
"I do not care! I can only tell you. This is a secret place, where we remain hidden from the men of earth. I know what happens to those who stray upon our secrets! Go, and think no more to pry into treasure tales of this mountain land. It is not for such as you. Go, before it is too late. I cannot hold back the death from you."
I laughed. I thought of the Koreans who had deserted, of their talk about the fires at night, of demons and haunted mountains ahead.
"We came a long way on the track of Barto's tale of treasure from which he brought the golden girl. It will take more than words to frighten us away."
"Do not laugh! I try to save you from something even worse than death that can come to you. I want to return to you the favor that you did me. If you do not listen to me, how can I help you?" Her voice took on a plaintive, charming note; she smiled a half-smile of complete witchery.
A high, keening cry came suddenly from the slopes above us, and she raised on her toes as if to spring away.
"They come, my friends! I must leave you. I can only tell you to stay close by your fire at night. I cannot say what fate will strike you. I cannot help you. Go back, friend who would live, go back!"
She turned and sprang lightly up the slope toward the sound of the cry, half human, half beast-like, that she had called "her friends." It had sounded to me like the cry of a wolf, or a cat-man, anything but human. But people can make odd sounds, and imitate beasts. Still it had been an eerie sound that gave me a foreboding, added to her warning words. What kind of people were these, who wore leather and jewels and used bows that might have come off an Assyrian wall painting?
Came a tumult above, the high clear blast of some horn, a dozen eerie cries hardly human--a rush and a pounding in the earth as though a party had ridden off on heavy, full-size horses. No Manchurian pony ever made such a sound on soft ground!
Polter and Noldi came back about an hour later. I had dragged the big Barto into a tent and made him comfortable. He was snoring peacefully. Polter squatted down beside me, folding his long form like a jackknife.
"That thing was a ship, Keele," he said. There was a husky excitement, repressed but still obvious about him. I grunted.
"It landed among some big timber on the south end of the mountain. We got pretty close, enough to see the sides of the thing. Men busy around it, we couldn't get too close, afraid they'd see us."
I started, a pulse of unreasoning fear, of terrific interest, ran through me. I asked in a voice I couldn't keep calm, "What kind of men, Hank? I saw reports of such ships in the papers, no one got close enough to see that much. Newspapers called them illusions!"
"They're not our kind of men; they are something very different. I don't know just how to tell you, besides I couldn't be sure. But they seem to be a people--" He stopped. "I'd rather you'd see it yourself. You wouldn't believe me."
Noldi came out of the tent where Barto was still snoring. He came over and squatted across the fire, eyeing me strangely.
"What happened to the big jerk, Carl?" he asked, a little tremor of anger in his voice.
"I've got to tell you fellows we're in trouble," I began. I did not believe that the girl's people would ignore Jake's attack upon her.
Hank looked at the slender man from New York's East Side. "What's the matter with Barto?"
"S'got a bruise on his jaw the size of a goose-egg. Like a mule kicked him. Scratched up quite a bit. I just wondered. He's unconscious, too; I couldn't wake him up."
"We may be in for it," I went on. "When I got back to camp, Hank had a girl. He'd thrown her down, was struggling with her. I had to put him asleep to stop it. Didn't want trouble with her people."
Noldi glanced at the torn place in the soft sod where the scuffle had taken place. I had unconsciously nodded toward it. He got up, walked over, picked something out of the grass.
"Some girl, wearing this kind of stuff!"
He handed the glittering bauble to Polter. It was a necklace of emeralds, with a pendant of gold in which was set a big blue stone that I couldn't recognize, maybe a diamond, maybe something else. It looked almighty valuable, each stone was as big as a man's thumbnail. It had snapped, lain there unnoticed by either of us.
Noldi looked at me a little venomously.
"Looks as if you were a little premature, letting her go. We should have found out where she gets this kind of sparkle first!"
"Seemed the safest thing to do. We are only four, how could we handle her friends?"
"Bah, they wouldn't have known where she was. We could have kept her till we were good and ready to let her go."
I stood up, took out my pipe and filled it.
"What about this ship you saw, and the people around it. That's important, not this girl and her jewelry."
"We couldn't see much except that it was a ship and that it landed in the trees where it couldn't be seen from the sky. It's pretty big, and there are men moving around it. That's all."
"That's plenty! If we run into them, there is no knowing what they'll do. That ship was never built on this planet."
Noldi didn't smile or laugh. He just looked at me. Serious, puzzled, and a little scared.
"You think it's a space ship, eh, Keele?"
"What else could it be?"
"What's it doin' out here in no man's land?" Polter asked. "You'd think strangers like that would land near a city, try to make some kind of official contact."
"If you were landing on a strange world, would you land near a city?" I asked.
"I guess you hit it. They don't know whether they'd be welcome or not. Scared, eh?"
"Just careful, I'd say. We don't know anything about them. But ships like that have been reported off and on for hundreds of years. Don't be surprised if you never see a trace of it again, and if no one else but me ever believes you when you mention it. I don't think we'll have to worry about the flying saucer."
"What the hell do they want, then?" Noldi didn't know what I meant, exactly.
"Nobody knows, Frans. Nobody ever saw them as close as you just did today."
Watching Jake Barto next morning, I saw that the little image in his hand pointed right across the center of that cloud-topping mountain. That meant we had to go around it, for we were not equipped for such climbing, nor would there have been any sense in it. Jake figured on circling to the left, and I was glad, for I for one wanted no parts of that disk ship that Polter and Noldi had seen in the other direction. Jake ignored me. He was unpredictable!
It was a long mountain, and we traveled along one side, toward the north, figuring on crossing to the east wherever a pass appeared. After a time a faint trail showed, and we followed it. It drew us higher, until we were moving perilously along a ledge of rock, with precipitous walls above and a sharp drop below. Higher and higher, above the tree-line now, the path went on, and there were signs of travel along it that worried me.
Polter was in the lead, and as we rounded a shoulder of rock, gave a cry of wonder. We hurried after, to see the trail breaking over a low crest of the mountain, and leading now downward. This shoulder of rock outthrust here marked the place where the trail we were following crossed the ridge of the mountain crest at its lowest point. But it also marked something else, which was what had caused Polter's cry.
A line of dust across the trail and along the near-bare rocks stirred and lifted and fell fitfully, as if the air was barred passage by some invisible wall, and there were the skeletons of birds that had flung themselves against the invisible wall and died, falling there. There was the skeleton of a goat half across the trail; and at one side, what had once been a man! All these dead--and the bones could be seen here and there along the far line of the dust--had gone so far and no farther. Polter had stopped fearfully ten feet from the clearly marked line--and I for one had no desire to add my skeleton to the others.
For a few minutes none of us had anything to say, then reason reasserted itself, and I pressed past Polter, knowing that the thing was an illusion born of coincidence and wind currents. Some baffling current of wind around the mountain formed here a wall of air cleavage, and the skeletons were merely coincidence. I pushed up to the strange line of lifting and falling dust, a little roll showing the magic of invisible force, and pressed on, as if to cross.
Behind me a cry gave me pause. I turned, looking for that cry's source, for it seemed to me the cry was the girl I had rescued from Barto. That saved me, for the little horse behind me pressed on across the strange line--and faltered, gave a horse-scream of terror, fell dead before me.
We stopped, terror of the unknown in our breasts, wondering--afraid to put the wonder into words. We did not look at each other or discuss the thing, we just accepted it, and stared dumbly at it like animals. I tossed a rock across the body of the now quite motionless pack animal, the rock reached the wall beneath which my animal lay dead--slowed, curved sharply to the ground, did not roll, but lay as if imprisoned in invisible jelly!
There was a wall of invisible and deadly force there, and there was no known explanation for it!
I growled at Barto, all the suspicion and distrust that had been building up in me toward him in my voice.
"What does your golden girl tell you now, Jake?"
Jake surprised me. He walked ahead toward that frightening manifestation of the unknown, holding the little statuette before him like a sword, his ugly face rapt in some listening beyond me. As the little statue crossed the line, he sang out: "Listen, Goddess of the Golden forces, listen and heed! We come from afar to pay our worship, to give to you our devotion, and we are met with this wall of death! Is that the way you greet your friends?"
Jake waved the statuette in a circular motion, then crossed the circle twice with the waving gold. He stood there, his crossed eyes darting here and there along the line of force, and after a long minute, after a time that seemed filled with a distant chuckling, like thunder too far off to be heard clearly--the lift and fall of the dust on the baffled wind stopped, the strict line of the wind's stoppage began to disappear, the line of demarcation was gone!
Jake reached out an arm, feeling cautiously for the invisible wall, and after a minute, his face lightened from its habitual gloom, he stepped across the line, and did not stagger and fall as had the horse. The wall was gone! Jake turned, said calmly: "Come on, our friends have decided to let us in."
My mind in a whirl at the unexpected display of knowledge beyond me, of forces beyond the power of any rifle bullet to overcome, of strange hidden things here--I stepped across the line, keeping close to the tracks left by Jake's big feet. Polter and Noldi followed and the horses plodded after. We trudged on, but not the same. We were afraid, and we were conscious of a vast ignorance, of a fear that we did not belong here, that the only wise thing for us to do was to turn back and give up this Jake Barto and his cross eyes and his mumbo jumbo statue to his own doom.
At least that's the way I felt, but something stronger than curiosity drew me on. I wanted to know why I was so drawn when reason kept demanding I give up this quest. I wanted to know why a golden statue pointed always to one point on the horizon, and why that wall of force had obeyed Jake's injunction to go away. Or was I unable to think, really? Was I shocked out of my ability to reason and act on my reason's dictates?
Ahead, as the trail dipped low, a vast panorama of valley and hill and hollow, of eerie rocky spires, lay outspread. Here and there were cultivated fields, and figures at work on the fields. In the distance shone a stream. It flowed meandering into a wide lake. There were two villages, not clear in the haze. At the distant lake, some kind of larger structure lifted tall towers, shining with prismatic glitter, a city of strange appearance.
We had crossed a barrier, and we had entered a land of the living--but it was unclear before us. The drifting mountain mists, the sun-glitter and the haze of noon kept the scene from striking through to our brains with its true significance. For there was an eerie difference about the scene; it was not a land below us such as any of us had ever seen. I felt that and yet I could not think clearly about it. We moved along like zombies, not thinking--just accepting the unusual and the unknown as casually as if we were travelers who could not be astounded. But inside, my mind was busily turning the significance and the meaning of this wall of force. I had heard of such walls before--upon Shasta in California, and in Tibet, and in ancient times in Ireland, and there were other instances of a similar wall in the past, and in the present in other places. But what it could really mean, that was what I did not know.
After crossing that invisible barrier, things began to happen in a sequence, of a strangeness and with a rapidity such that I was unable to analyze or to rationalize. From there on I was like a man on a tightrope, hounded by invisible tormentors trying to shake me off. I had not time to wonder whether it was true that spirits existed. What I did think was that some of these Korean primitives had a Devil Doctor who surpassed all others in trickiness, and was amusing himself at our expense. But I did not think it, I clung to the idea to save my reason from tottering over the brink.
The first thing after the wall that could not exist but did--after we had passed on over the ridge and half way down the mountain side--was a gully along the mountain side, up which Barto turned. I assumed he was still following the pointing of the magnetic statuette, but I was vaguely conscious that none of us were really conscious--were under a kind of spell in which our actions and our thoughts were predetermined--inevitable! I knew it, but I could not shake it off, nor put my finger on any reason why I should shake it off and call a halt to the strange, wordless, silent following of Jake and his eerie talisman.
The faint trail led along the bottom of the gully, and after twenty minutes of downward progress, led into a dark overhang of rock, the sky hardly visible where the rocks almost met overhead. Down the semi-cavern we went; still silent, zombie-like; and I felt ever more strongly the compulsion that made us so move and so unable to do otherwise.
Jake was striding rapidly now, his dark ugly face aflame with weird eagerness, my own heart pounding with alarm at the strangeness and the irrationality of the whole proceeding. He held the statuette out stiffly, it seemed fairly to leap in his hands, as if tugging with an ecstatic longing to reach the dark place ahead. The rocks closed completely overhead; the dimness changed to stygian darkness. I got out my flashlight, sent the beam ahead. But Jake was pressing on through the darkness, directly in the center of the trail.
Quite suddenly the cavern turned, opened ahead, wider and wider--and before us lay a room of jeweled splendor, the temple of some forgotten--or was it forgotten?--cult of worship.
The golden statue in the center of the big round chamber drew our eyes from the splendor of the peculiarly decorated walls, from the strange crystal pillar on the tall dais at the far wall, from the weird assemblages of crystals and metals that had an eerie resemblance to machines--to a science entirely unknown to modern men. All these details of that chamber I remember now, looking back, but then--my attention and that of the others was entirely drawn to the beauty of the tall, golden woman who stood in frozen metallic wonder at the center of the forgotten crypt.
Jake, his ugly face in a transport, had fallen to his knees, was crawling forward to the statue abjectly, mouthing phrases of worship and self-abnegation. Close on his heels came Polter and Noldi, eyes rapt, movements mechanical. I stopped, some last remnant of sense remaining in my head, and by a strong effort of will held my limbs motionless.
As Jake reached the statue, the little golden replica of the life-sized woman of gold seemed to leap out of his reaching hands, and clung against the metallic waist of the golden woman as a lodestone to the mother lode.
Even as Barto's hands touched the statue, he slumped, lay there outstretched, his fingertips touching the metal hem of the golden skirt; and whether he was unconscious from unsupportable ecstasy or for what mad reason, I did not know, but I did not want to know.
Undeterred by Jake's condition, the two men following in his steps also reached out hands to touch the golden metal--and fell flat on their faces beside Jake Barto, unconscious, or dead!
I stood, numb and with a terrific compulsion running through my nerves, which I resisted with all my will. I drew my eyes from the strangely pleasant magnetic lure of the metal woman with an effort and examined that strange chamber.
The walls were covered with a crystalline glittering substance, like molten glass sprayed on and allowed to harden. Behind this glasseous protective surface, paintings and carvings spread a fantasy of strange form and color, but the light was too dim to make much of it, except that it was alien to my experience, and exceedingly well done, speaking of a culture second to none.
Beyond the central form of the strange golden statue, was the dais which I had noticed at once, and now my eyes picked out the fact that on it was also a glasseous protective sheath about a form--another statue, I thought.
Thoughtfully I prowled along the rim of the room, examining the wall frescoes foot by foot, seeing on them a strange depiction of semi-human forms, of crab-men and crab-women, of snake-men and snake-women, of men half-goat and half-man, of creatures hardly human with great jaws that looked like rock-cutters, with hands like moles on short powerful arms, fish people with finned legs and arms, their hands engaged in catching great fish and placing them in nets, a nightmare of weird half-human shapes that gradually brought to me a message that I could not accept.
If that rock painting was telling a true story and not some allegorical fantasy--these people who had built this place had been a race who knew the secrets of life so intimately they could manipulate the unborn child into shapes intended to give it powers and physical attributes fitting it for amphibious life, for the underground boring life of a mole, for the tending of flocks in the goat-legged men--the whole gamut of these monstrous diversions from the normal human seemed to me designed--purposely--to build a race which, like ants, has a shape fitted to its trade.
I threw off the illusion of a deformed past race the wall art gave me, and passed on to examine the crystalline pillar on the dais. I stood a long time, before the dais, drinking in the beauty of the form locked within the prisoning glass.
No human, no earth woman--she was different from anything I had ever even imagined.
Female, vaguely human in form she was, with an unearthly beauty; but four-armed, with a forehead that went up and up and ended in a single tall horn, as on the fabled unicorn.
Her eyes were closed, if she had eyes beneath the heavy purple-veined lids, so like the petals of some night-flower, pungent with perfume.
Naked the figure was, except for a belt of what looked iron chain around the waist, black and corroded with time, holding her with a great bolt and link to the side of that crystalline prison.
Her hair, black as night, was pressed tight to the skull by the pressure of the crystal, which must have been poured about her in a molten or liquid state.
As I stood there agaze at the strangeness and wonder of her, a voice at my shoulder made me whirl in surprise. A soft, silky familiar voice: "Do you find the dead Goddess so fascinating, stranger from the world of men?"
It was the girl of the forest, no longer in hunting garb, but dressed in Turkish trousers, vest and slippers with upturned toes. Jewels glittered about her waist and neck and arms, her wrists jangled with heavy bangles, in her ears two great pendants swayed--her eyelids were darkened and her lips reddened. She was a ravishing houri of the harem, and I gasped a little at the change.
"Have you put on such clothes for my benefit?" I asked, for I really thought perhaps she had.
She frowned and stamped her foot in sudden anger.
"I come here to save you from what has happened to your friends, and you insult me. Don't you want to live? Do you want to become what they are going to become?" She pointed to the bodies of Jake and Noldi and Polter.
I turned where she pointed, to see a thing that very nearly made me scream out in revulsion.
I shuddered, shrank back; for several creatures were bending over the three, lifting them, bearing them away.
It was the strange, revolting difference from men in them that caused my fear. Once they may have been men, their far-off ancestors, perhaps--or in some other more recent way their bodies had been transformed, made over into creatures not human, not beast, not ghoul. What they were was not thinkable or acceptable by me. I turned my face away, shuddering.
They were men such as the wall-paintings pictured, something that had been made from the main stock of mankind, changed unthinkably into a creature who bore his tools of his trade in his own bone and flesh. Mole-men, men with short heavy arms and wide-clawed hands, made for digging through hard earth. They bore my friends away on their hairy-naked shoulders, and I stood too shocked to say a word. Three mole-men, accompanied by three tall, pale-white figures, figures inexpressibly alien--even through the heavy white robes--that moved with an odd hopping step that no human limb could manage, turned their paper-white, long, expressionless faces toward me for an instant, then were gone, on the trail of the mole-man. Beneath those robes must have been a body as attenuated as a skeleton, as different as an insect's from man's. Within those odd egg-shaped heads must have been a mind as alien to mine as an ant's mind.
"Why do your people take my companions?" I managed, when I had regained my composure.
"They are not my people; they are of the enemies of the Dead Goddess." The girl gestured to the figure in the crystal pillar. "My people have no time for them, but neither have we power over them. They go their way, and we go ours. Once, long ago, it was different, but time has made us a people divided."
"What will become of the three men?"
"They will become workmen of one kind or another. Everyone works, in their life-way. But it is not our way! They guard our land from such intruders; we let them. It is an ancient pact we have with them."
"Why did they not seize me, I am an intruder as much as the others?"