"Because I signed to them to let you stay. You did not see, whatever-your-name-is...."
"Call me Carlin Keele, Carl for short. What is your name, and what is your race, and why are you so different from people as I know them?"
"My name is Nokomee, as I told you before. You are still confused from the magic that led you here. I have saved you once, and now we are even; my debt to you is paid. You will never see your friends again, and if you do, you will be sorry that you saw them, for they will have become beasts of burden. Now go, before it is too late. This is not your kind of country."
Something in her eyes, something in the sharp peremptory tone she used, told me the truth.
"You don't really want me to go, Nokomee. I don't want to go. Many things make me want to stay--your beauty is not the least attraction. I could learn so much that my people do not know, that yours seem to know."
"I would not want my beauty to lead you to your death." Nokomee did not smile, she only looked at me, and I saw there a deep loneliness, a tender need for companionship and sympathy that had never been filled in her life. She looked at me, and her lower lip trembled a little, her eyes suddenly averted from mine.
"Nokomee, there is so much we would have to tell each other, you of your life, and I of the great country of which you have never heard. Would you not like to see the great cities of my country?"
She shook her head, turned on me with sudden fierce words: "When you came and struck down that hideous cross-eyed man, my heart went out to you in gratitude. Go, while my heart remains soft, it is not so often that the heart of a Zerv is soft toward any outlander. Go, I cannot protect you from this place."
"I will stay," I said.
"Stubborn fool!" She stamped her foot prettily, imperiously, vexed at my refusal to go out of that weird place the way I had entered. "Stay then, but do not expect me to keep off the slaves of the Goddess. This place can be most evil to those who do not know what it is, nor why it is secret."
She turned, walked behind the great dais of the crystal sarcophagus, and I followed just in time to see her disappear behind a hanging curtain of leather. I hastened after, my hand on my gun, for I had no wish to be left alone where I had seen my three companions stricken down with no enemy in sight.
Behind the curtain a passage led, along the passage were several doors. She sped past these lightly, almost running. I followed, she must have heard me, but she did not look back. The doors along the passage were curtained. Through the gaps of the curtain I could see they were empty of life. The curtains were rotted as if long unused, dirty and blotched with mould staining the leather.
Though she had spoken to me in Korean, and I had answered in the same tongue, I knew she was no native, for she spoke it differently, perhaps no better than myself. I was no judge; what she used may have been a dialect different from that I had heard previously.
I followed as she emerged from the long tunnel into the blaze of sunlight. She stood for a moment letting her eyes adjust to the glare. I stumbled to her side, half-blinded, stood looking down at the scene which seemed to engross her.
Gradually it came clear, like a television screen coming into perfect tune--the immense inner valley that the mountain of cloud-like snow enclosed. In the center of the encircled valley a lake shimmered blue as the sky, and about that lake was a city.
My eyes refused, at first, to accept what they were seeing. My mind rebelled, but after a minute of staring and making sure--I gasped.
Alien to this earth it was, but beautiful! Towers, and round-based dwellings braced together in one single unit of structural strength, a designed whole such as our architects dream of and never achieve. Walled with white marble, the city was a fortress, but a lovely fortress. Yet there was a coldness, an angularity, that told me these Zervs, as Nokomee had called her race, lacked true sympathy for life forms, lacked emotion as we know it in art. Yet it was beautiful, if repellent because so alien, so pure in design, so lacking in the sympathetic understanding of man's nature. This was a city no earthman could ever call home. It lacked something. There were no dogs, no strolling women or running children, it lay silent and waiting--for what?
Nokomee waved a hand.
"Titanis, our first earth colony. But it is no longer ours. The Schrees have taken it from us. That is why it is silent."
I did not understand. There were plodding lines of people, disciplined, carrying burdens, no bigger than ants at this distance. There was an ominous horror about the quiet beauty of the place. It was somehow like a beautiful woman lying just slain. Yet I could see no wounds of war, no reason for the feeling that I had, like the sudden shrinking one might have at sight of the stump of a man's arm just amputated.
I looked into Nokomee's face, and there were tears in her eyes. My heart sank. I felt a vast sympathy for her sorrow, though I could not understand.
"We planned so much with our new freedom here in your wilderness. Then came the raiders, to freeze our Queen in her sleep, to drive us into your forests, to make of us that remained mindless slaves and maimed horrors. I cannot bear it, stranger. I cannot...."
She turned and wept, her head on my chest. I patted her head, feeling entirely incompetent to console her for what injuries I could not imagine.
"What raiders, Nokomee? Tell me. Perhaps there is a way I can help. Who knows?"
"We are so few now, who were so many and so strong--and every day fewer. There is no hope. Do not try to wake it in me. It would be madness."
"Tell me. Perhaps that alone would help you."
"How can I tell you the long history of my home world, the immortal wisdom of our Queen, the strange science her immortal family gave her, of how we fought to protect her from our own tyrants and at last fled into space with her? How can I tell you of what she is? How could you understand the ages of struggle on our own world that reduced her kind to but a dozen, and left our kind, the mortals, at the mercy of the Schrees? You ask, but it is impossible for you to believe things you do not know about."
"Perhaps if I told you of my people and their life, you would understand that I could understand what you think is impossible for me. I am not ignorant as the others of earth people you have met. And my nation is numerous, the greatest of this earth."
"Our ways are too strange to you. But I will try. You need not try to tell me of your people; we examined your earth carefully before we chose this valley for our retreat. Here we built and raised the force wall to keep out inquiring interlopers like yourself who might bring the powers of your nation in ignorant war against us. But from our home world the Schrees were sent on our trail, and they found us. They were too many. Our only hope was in safe hiding, and they found us out. We did not know they could find us, or we would never have built. We thought pursuit had long been abandoned, but they are driven by single-minded hate, not by logic. It has been a lifetime of wandering they have followed us. It has been all my lifetime, making this home here, thinking ourselves safe--and then they came and destroyed all our work."
As she talked, she had quieted. We had resumed walking along the ledge of the mountainside. Suddenly from ahead a man leaped out, his strange weapon trained on my breast. I stood, not daring to move, while Nokomee shouted a string of shrill alien syllables at him. He thrust the weapon back in his belt, and fell in behind us as we passed. I could not help staring at him, and at the thing he had pointed at me.
It was a tapering tube about a foot long, triggered on the thumb side with a projecting stud, with a hand-grip shaped with finger grooves. I knew it was a weapon with a long history of development behind it by the simplicity of the lines, the entire efficiency of its appearance. The small end was a half-inch, perhaps, in bore, the big end perhaps three inches or less. He handled it as though it weighed but a trifle. I did not ask what it was.
The man himself was no taller than Nokomee, though much more solidly built, with thick, slightly bowed legs and heavy black brows on bulging bone structure, his eyes deep-set beneath. His ears, like Nokomee's, were high and too small to be natural. His teeth were larger than normal on earth, and the incisors smaller and more pointed, the canines heavier and longer. There was a point to his chin, heavy-angled and thick-boned as it was, it was not an earthman's chin. His neck was long, more supple and active, he kept moving his head in an unnatural watchfulness like a wild animal's. I wondered what other differences, small in themselves, but adding up to complete strangeness of aspect, I would find in time.
"That is Holaf," murmured Nokomee in Korean to me. "He is a chief among us now, since the fall of our strength. He is good, but young and always too impetuous. He needs long experience, and it looks as if he would get it, now."
"You have more than one leader?" I asked.
"We have three chiefs left to us, who rule their families--their clans. We have but one real leader. He is an old wise man left us by good fortune. He is our lone scientist. The chiefs of the clans listen to the leader, but they argue. Things look bad for us all."
"You are too few to reconquer the city?"
"Too few, yes. And time plays against us, for with the coming of the ships from our home planet--that I should call that tyrant's nest home!--there will be even more of the Schrees, then. We are a lost people now. There is no hope, eventually we will be hunted down as you earthmen will be hunted down, like animals. Made into slaves--and worse than slaves. You will learn what I mean when next you see your three friends."
It was too much for me. I asked: "Why don't you leave this place, and go on to another?"
"On your little world? It is not big enough to hide ourselves from them. And we have lost our ships, we cannot get others."
"You think that they mean to conquer our whole planet?"
"In time they will do so. Not yet, but when they are many, they will spread, slaughter all who fight them, and enslave all who do not. They are very terrible creatures, not men at all, you know."
"Not like you and I?"
"Not at all. You will see, soon. Hurry, it is late, and we have council to attend."
There was a deep passion in her words, quick and sharp and strange on her lips as they were, a passion of anger and hopeless effort that somehow roused me into desire to help her and these strange people of hers. Too, if what she said was true, these raiders who had despoiled her people would in time engulf the world with a war of conquest, even if they were less able to defeat us than she estimated. I resolved to make the most of this opportunity to learn the worst of this hidden threat to men everywhere. I felt a kinship with Nokomee and her friend, silent and alert beside me, and I realized it could well be that I had in my hands the future of mankind, and that it behooved me not to let it fall through carelessness.
Lapsed now into silence, we reached the end of the trail along the ledge. We came out upon a broad shelf, with several cave mouths opening along its cliff-side. Gathered here in the twilight were some two-score men and women, bearing weapons; some the short powerful bow I had seen in Nokomee's hands; others weapons like Holaf's tapered tube; still others bearing small, round metal shields embossed with weird designs that meant nothing to me. Squatted here, without fire, they fell silent at our approach, eyeing me with curiosity and the beginnings of anger at my intrusion. Nokomee began to talk swiftly in that rattling, high-pitched tongue of theirs. I squatted down on my heels, took out my pipe, lit it. At the flare of my match Holaf struck it from my hand. I realized it had been a blunder, even a spark might attract attention to their presence on the hillside. Still, the incident told me Nokomee had not been lying to me.
Holaf pointed at the city far below, now glowing here and there with lights, and at the match on the ground. Then he motioned to a cave mouth, and I followed him. Inside there was a fire burning, furs strewn about the floor, metal urns and even mirrors hung on the rough stone walls. I sat on a rude wooden bench of newly-hewed wood, lit my pipe again without interference. But I was sorry to miss that conference outside in the open air. I wanted to hear, even if I could not understand. Holaf still remained by my side, and his hand did not leave the oddly-carved butt of the tapered tube-gun.
I sat there, feeling very much alone, with Holaf watching me somberly, the only light a flickering amber from the fire. I started to my feet as a musically pitched, almost singing voice questioned Holaf in their tongue. I looked about for the source, then saw her moving toward me in the half-light, and I stepped back in a kind of awe and embarrassment, for this was new.
She was as tall as myself, shaped with slender Amazonian strength, but curved and soft and subtly aware of her feminine allure, strongly interested and pleased at the awe and pleasure in my face. Her, rounded, fully adult body was sketched over with a web of silkily gleaming black net, light and unsubstantial as a dream, clinging and wholly revealing. Her eyes were dark-lidded and wide-set, her brow high and proud, and about her neck hung a web of emeralds set in a golden mesh of yielding links.
She came on, moving on shoes like Japanese water shoes, completely mystifying as to how she balanced on the stilt-like soles. Stepping thus in little balancing steps like a dancer, she moved very close, peering into my eyes, so that I blushed deeply at the nearness and the nudity of her, and she laughed, amusedly, as at a child. Her long, gemmed hand reached out and touched me, and she talked to Holaf excitedly, her face all smiles and interest; I was a wholly fascinating new toy he had brought her, it seemed. Then she sank to the bench, crossing her lovely knees over her hands, clasped together as if to make sure they behaved. To me she was wholly cultured and I some strange boor who had never been in a drawing room. I felt the impact of that culture in her interested eyes and in the sleek, smart bearing of her utterly relaxed body. She stretched a hand to gesture me to be seated, and I tried Korean on her.
"It is a pleasure to meet you, lady. If I but knew who you were, and how to speak properly, there is much we could find of interest to discuss."
"I am sure of it, stranger. First you must tell me of yourself, and then later we will talk of what is familiar to me. I cannot put off the curiosity which burns me. Please tell me all about your people and yourself!" Her voice was hard to follow, she handled the clumsy Korean with a bird-like quickness and an utter disregard for the nature of the language. Her eyes burned into my own, and I sat embarrassed beside her, tongue-tied, while Holaf smiled quietly and kept his hand on his weapon.
So I talked about New York, about my home town in Indiana, about my mine in South America, about anything and everything, and she listened, rapt eyes encouraging me, hanging on every stumbling, mispronounced, difficult word. I would have given an arm to have been able to talk expertly in her own tongue.
Thus engaged, and engrossed by her, I glanced up absently to note Nokomee's eyes blazing into my own in fury, and spaced about the room in a listening circle, a score of others. I stopped abruptly, and Nokomee lashed out at the woman beside me with a string of alien expletives that made her face flame with an anger as great as Nokomee's own. I wondered vaguely what I had done....
Their strange, grim faces, all watching me, seeming to peer inside me, trying to gauge me as an enemy or a friend. I stood up, for the exciting near-nude body of the woman who had caused Nokomee's outburst was too close, too intimately relaxed.
Abruptly Nokomee took me by the hand, led me out and along the ledge on the cliff. Into another cavern entrance she led me, to a smaller chamber, where another fire burned, and another bench invited to its warmth. She half pushed me to a seat, and busied herself in the next adjoining chamber, rattling dishware, and now and again giving a sharp exclamation as of extreme disgust.
I gathered I had been guilty of falling for the Zerv equivalent of a vamp. How wrong I was in this deduction I was to learn. It was not the woman's beauty that Nokomee feared, but something vastly more dangerous. I was very ignorant then. The Zervs were an ancient people and their ways were strange entirely. For the net-clad beauty had been a "Zoorph." I asked Nokomee, as she repeated the word again.
"What is a Zoorph, that makes you so angry? I thought she was very charming. I saw no harm in talking to her!"
Nokomee thrust her head out of the curtained doorway, from which the smell of food told me I had not eaten since morning.
"A Zoorph dear child of earth, is a creature not good for man or beast! Only a Zerv would be fool enough to keep so dangerous an animal about! If I told you, you would not believe it."
"Tell me anyway, Nokomee."
The girl came, bearing food on a tray. She squatted at my feet, putting the tray on the bench, and holding a large graceful urn of some liquid to replenish my cup. Very prettily she did this, yet I gathered that it was something which would have overwhelmed me with the honor if I had understood. I did appreciate her service, and I tried to say so, but she silenced me.
"Never mind, one day you will understand how proud we are, that in our own world and in our own society you would be less than a worm. Yet I serve you, who am more above you than a princess would be in your world. Thus does the world change about one, and one adjusts. But do not think of it. It must be, or some terrible thing like the Zoorph would seize upon you here among us."
I laughed a little, for I was sure she was telling a lie, to warn me against the "vamp" in the only words she could think of in the alien tongue.
Her face flushed deep red at my laughter, and she half rose as if to leave, but restrained her anger.
"A Zoorph is worse than a disease, it has enervated my people until they have lost everything, and still they are among us. They are children raised by a secret cult on my own world, trained into strange practices. It is somewhat like a witch or sorcerer would be to you, but much, much different. You could not understand unless you were raised among us. When men are tired of life, they go to a Zoorph. It is not nice to speak of, what they are and what they do. To us, it is like death, only worse. Yet we have them, as ants have pets, as dogs have lice, as your people have disease. It is a custom. It is a kind of escape from life and life's dullness--but it is escape into madness, for the Zoorph has an art that is utter degradation, and few realize how bad they are for us. You must never go near her again!"
Days passed into weeks, and every day I learned a few words of the Zerv language, every day I picked up a little more insight into their utterly different ways and customs and standards--their scale of values. It was a process replete with surprises, with revelations, with new understanding of nature itself as seen through the alien eyes.
I remained as a kind of semi-prisoner, tolerated because of Nokomee's position and her affection for me. Nokomee, I learned, was "of the blood," though there were few surviving of her family to carry on the power and prestige she would have inherited. Yet, she was "of the blood" and entitled to all the respect and obedience the Zervs gave even to their old ruler.
He was an attenuated skeleton of a man, with weary eyes and trembling hands, and I grew more and more sure that the inactivity against their usurpers visible in the valley beneath was due more to his age and timorous nature than to any inability to turn the tables. They seemed to hold the "Schrees" in contempt, yet never took any action against them, so that I wondered if the contempt were justified or was an inherited, sublimated hatred.
The supplies, rifles and ammunition which had been left on our horses when we entered the cavern of the golden image, had been brought to Nokomee's cavern and locked in a small chamber before my eyes. It was all there. As the time dragged on, I chafed at the inactivity, fought against the barriers of language and alien custom that separated me from these people, struggled to overcome their indifference and their, to me, impossible waiting for what I did not understand.
Finally I could wait no longer. In the night, I burst the lock of the closet with a bar, took out a rifle and .45 and two belts of cartridges. I slid over the lip of the ledge that hid us from the city's eyes. I was going to see for myself what we were hiding from, what we were waiting for, was going to take my chances with the dangers in that place they had built and from which they now hid. I had pressed Nokomee for explanations and promises of future participation in their life and activities, and I had been refused for the last time! Like a runaway, I slid down the steep cliff face, putting as much space between the Zervs and myself as rapidly as I could.
The night was dark as pitch. I had left Nokomee asleep in her chamber. I had avoided Holaf, who still kept a kind of amused watch over my activities, and I was free. Free to explore that weird city of plodding lives, of strange unexplained sounds, of ominously hidden activity!
Scrambling, sliding, worrying in the dimness, I finally reached the less precipitous slopes of the base of the cliff. As I stopped to get a bearing on the direction of the city, above me came a slithering, a soft feminine exclamation, and down upon me came a perfumed weight, knocking me sprawling in the grass.
My eyes quickly adjusted, I crawled to the dim shape struggling to her feet. Her face was not Nokomee's, as I had at first thought. Those enormous shadowed eyes, that thin lovely nose, the flower-fragile lips, the mysterious allure--were the woman whom Nokomee had described as a "Zoorph" and whom she had both feared and despised. I spoke sharply in the tongue of the Zervs. I had learned enough under Nokomee's tutelage to carry on a conversation.
"Why do you follow me, Zoorph?"
"Because I am weary of being cooped up with those who do not trust me, just as you. I want to find a new, exciting thing; just as do you. Even if it is death or worse, I want it. I am alive, as are you."
I put down the dislike and distrust the girl Nokomee had aroused in me against her. Perhaps she had been merely jealous of her.
"Don't you know what could happen in the city?" To me it was curious that she should want to go where the others feared to go.
"I know no better than you what awaits there, and I do not believe what they have told me of the Schrees. They are not wholly human, but neither are they evil wholly, as the Zervs suppose."
"Why do the Zervs wait, instead of trying to do something for themselves? They speak of the threat of these raiders, yet they do not try to help me bring others of my people here to stop the threat they speak of so fearfully. I do not understand."
"The old ruler thinks the ships will come and drive them off from his city. But he is wrong, they will never come. It is like waiting for the moon to fall. The raiders' ships will return, and they will be stronger than ever. But not a ship of the Zervs remains in neighboring space to succor us. Yet he hopes, and his followers wait. It is foolish, and he cannot trust you or men like you to get help for him. He is too old to meet new conditions and to understand."
Few of the Zervs had shown the rapt interest in me and my people that this Zoorph had made so plain. I thought backward on how carefully she and I had been kept apart since our first meeting, and I realized there was more to it than Nokomee's words of anger.
"What is a Zoorph, and what is your name? Why did Nokomee warn me against all Zoorphs?"
"A Zoorph is a member of a cult; a student of mysteries not understood by the many. The others have a superstition about us, that we destroy souls and make others slaves to our will. It is stupid, but it is like all superstitions--hard to disprove because so vague in nature." She flickered impossible eyelashes at me languishingly, in perfect coquetry. "You don't think me dangerous to your soul, do you?"
I didn't. I thought her a very charming and talented woman, whom I wanted to know much better. I said so, and she laughed.
"You are wiser than I thought, to see through their lies. They are good people, but like all people everywhere, they have their little insanities, their beliefs and their intolerances."
Yet within me there was a little warning shudder borne of the strange power of her eyes on my own, of the chill of the night, of many little past-observed strangenesses in her ways, in the fear the Zervs bore for her ... I reserved something of caution. She saw this in my eyes and smiled sadly, and that sad and understanding smile was perfectly calculated to dispel my last doubt of her. I slid closer across the grass, to lie beside her.
"What could I gain by a knowledge of what lies in the city, Zoorph?" I asked.
"My name is Carna, stranger. In that city you can learn whether there is danger for your people in what the Schrees plan on earth. We could not tell that, for we do not know enough about your own race's abilities. You could steal a vehicle to take you to your own rich cities. And as for me, I could go with you, to practice my arts in your cities and become rich and famous."
"What are your arts, Carna?"
"Nothing you would call spectacular, perhaps. I can read thought, I can foretell the future, and I can sometimes make things happen fortunately, if I try very hard. Such things, very unsubstantial arts, not like your gun which kills. Subtle things, like making men fall in love with me, perhaps."
She laughed into my eyes and I got abruptly to my feet. She was telling the truth in the last sentence, and I did not blame Nokomee for fearing her power.
"Let us see, then, Carna, what the night can give us. I cannot wait forever for chance to bring me freedom. Come," I bent and helped her to her feet, very pleasant and clinging her grasp on my arm, very soft and utterly smooth the flesh of her arm in my hand, very graceful and lovely her swift movement to rise. My heart was beating wildly, she was a kind I understood, but could not resist any the better for knowing. Or was I unkind, and she but starved for kindness and human sympathy, so long among a people who disliked and feared her?
We walked along in the darkness, the distant moving lights of that city closer each step, and a dread in my breast at what I would find there, a dread that grew. Beside me Carna was silent, her face lovely and glowing in the night, her step graceful as a deer's.
We circled the high wall of white marble keeping some twenty feet away, where the grass gave knee-high cover we could drop into instantly. We came around to the far side from the cliff, and stopped where a paved highway ran smooth, like pebbled glass, straight across the valley. I glanced at Carna, she gestured toward the open gate in the wall, and smiled a daring word.
"In!" I answered, and like two kids, hand in hand, we stole through the shadowed gateway, sliding quickly out of the light, standing with our backs to the wall, looking up the long, dim-lit way along which a myriad dark doorways told of life. But it was seemingly deserted. Carna whispered softly: "When it was ours, the night was gay with life and love, now--it is death!"
"Death or taxes, we're going to take a look."
We stole along the shadowed side of the street, the moon was up, shedding much too bright a light now for comfort. Perhaps a hundred yards along that strange street we went, I letting the Zoorph lead the way, for I had an idea she must know the city and have some plan, or she would not be here. If she meant to use me to escape into my world, I was all for her.
Then, from ahead, came the sound of feet, many of them in unison. We darted into a doorway, crouched behind a balustrade. Nearer came the feet, and I peered between the interstices of the screening balustrade. The feet came on; slow, rhythmic, marching without zest or pause or break, perfection without snap. As the first marching figure came into sight in the moonlight, I shuddered to the core with something worse than fear.
For they were men who were no longer men! When Barto and Polter and Noldi had been carried off unconscious, Nokomee had told me: "They are not my people. They go their way and we go ours. Time has made us a people divided. Time, and a cruel science."