A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS
Maskull did not awaken till long after Blodsombre. Leehallfae was standing by his side, looking down at him. It was doubtful whether ae had slept at all.
"What time is it?" Maskull asked, rubbing his eyes and sitting up.
"The day is passing," was the vague reply.
Maskull got on to his feet, and gazed up at the cliff. "Now I'm going to climb that. No need for both of us to risk our necks, so you wait here, and if I find anything on top I'll call you."
Ale phaen glanced at him strangely. "There's nothing up there except a bare hillside. I've been there often. Have you anything special in mind?"
"Heights often bring me inspiration. Sit down, and wait."
Refreshed by his sleep, Maskull immediately attacked the face of the cliff, and took the first twenty feet at a single rush. Then it grew precipitous, and the ascent demanded greater circumspection and intelligence. There were few hand- or footholds: he had to reflect before every step. On the other hand, it was sound rock, and he was no novice at the sport. Branchspell glared full on the wall, so that it half blinded him with its glittering whiteness.
After many doubts and pauses he drew near the top. He was hot, sweating copiously, and rather dizzy. To reach a ledge he caught hold of two projecting rocks, one with each hand, at the same time scrambling upward, his legs between the rocks. The left-hand rock, which was the larger of the two, became dislodged by his weight, and, flying like a huge, dark shadow past his head, crashed down with a terrifying sound to the foot of the precipice, followed by an avalanche of smaller stones. Maskull steadied himself as well as he could, but it was some moments before he dared to look down behind him.
At first he could not distinguish Leehallfae. Then he caught sight of legs and hindquarters a few feet up the cliff from the bottom. He perceived that the phaen had aer head in a cavity and was scrutinising something, and waited for aer to reappear.
Ae emerged, looked up to Maskull, and called out in aer hornlike voice, "The entrance is here!"
"I'm coming down!" roared Maskull. "Wait for me!"
He descended swiftly -- without taking too much care, for he thought he recognised his "luck" in this discovery -- and within twenty minutes was standing beside the phaen.
"The rock you dislodged struck this other rock just above the spring. It tore it out of its bed. See -- now there's room for us to get in!"
"Don't get excited!" said Maskull. "It's a remarkable accident, but we have plenty of time. Let me look."
He peered into the hole, which was large enough to admit a big man without stooping. Contrasted with the daylight outside it was dark, yet a peculiar glow pervaded the place, and he could see well enough. A rock tunnel went straight forward into the bowels of the hill, out of sight. The valley brook did not flow along the floor of this tunnel, as he had expected, but came up as a spring just inside the entrance.
"Well Leehallfae, not much need to deliberate, eh? Still, observe that your stream parts company with us here."
As he turned around for an answer he noticed that his companion was trembling from head to foot.
"Why, what's the matter?"
Leehallfae pressed a hand to aer heart. "The stream leaves us, but what makes the stream what it is continues with us. Faceny is there."
"But surely you don't expect to see him in person? Why are you shaking?"
"Perhaps it will be too much for me after all."
"Why? How is it affecting you?"
The phaen took him by the shoulder and held him at arm's length, endeavouring to study him with aer unsteady eyes. "Faceny's thoughts are obscure. I am his lover, you are a lover of women, yet he grants to you what he denies to me."
"What does he grant to me?"
"To see him, and go on living. I shall die. But it's immaterial. Tomorrow both of us will be dead."
Maskull impatiently shook himself free. "Your sensations may be reliable in your own case, but how do you know I shall die?"
"Life is flaming up inside you," replied Leehallfae, shaking aer head. "But after it has reached its climax -- perhaps tonight -- it will sink rapidly and you'll die tomorrow. As for me, if I enter Threal I shan't come out again. A smell of death is being wafted to me out of this hole."
"You talk like a frightened man. I smell nothing."
"I am not frightened," said Leehallfae quietly -- ae had been gradually recovering aer tranquillity -- "but when one has lived as long as I have, it is a serious matter to die. Every year one puts out new roots."
"Decide what you're going to do," said Maskull with a touch of contempt, "for I'm going in at once."
The phaen gave an odd, meditative stare down the ravine, and after that walked into the cavern without another word. Maskull, scratching his head, followed close at aer heels.
The moment they stepped across the bubbling spring, the atmosphere altered. Without becoming stale or unpleasant, it grew cold, clear and refined, and somehow suggested austere and tomblike thoughts. The daylight disappeared at the first bend in the tunnel. After that, Maskull could not say where the light came from. The air itself must have been luminous, for though it was as light as full moon on Earth, neither he nor Leehallfae cast a shadow. Another peculiarity of the light was that both the walls of the tunnel and their own bodies appeared colourless. Everything was black and white, like a lunar landscape. This intensified the solemn, funereal feelings created by the atmosphere.
After they had proceeded for about ten minutes, the tunnel began to widen out. The roof was high above their heads, and six men could have walked side by side. Leehallfae was visibly weakening. Ae dragged aerself along slowly and painfully, with sunken head.
Maskull caught hold of aer. "You can't go on like that. Better let me take you back."
The phaen smiled, and staggered. "I'm dying."
"Don't talk like that. It's only a passing indisposition. Let me take you back to the daylight."
"No, help me forward. I wish to see Faceny."
"The sick must have their way," said Maskull. Lifting aer bodily in his arms, he walked quickly along for another hundred yards or so. They then emerged from the tunnel and faced a world the parallel of which he had never set eyes upon before.
"Set me down!" directed Leehallfae feebly. "Here I'll die."
Maskull obeyed, and laid aer down at full length on the rocky ground. The phaen raised aerself with difficulty on one arm, and stared with fast-glazing eyes at the mystic landscape.
Maskull looked too, and what he saw was a vast, undulating plain, lighted as if by the moon -- but there was of course no moon, and there were no shadows. He made out running streams in the distance. Beside them were trees of a peculiar kind; they were rooted in the ground, but the branches also were aerial roots, and there were no leaves. No other plants could be seen. The soil was soft, porous rock, resembling pumice. Beyond a mile or two in any direction the light merged into obscurity. At their back a great rocky wall extended on either hand; but it was not square like a wall, but full of bays and promontories like an indented line of sea cliffs. The roof of this huge underworld was out of sight. Here and there a mighty shaft of naked rock, fantastically weathered, towered aloft into the gloom, doubtless serving to support the roof. There were no colours -- every detail of the landscape was black, white, or grey. The scene appeared so still, so solemn and religious, that all his feelings quieted down to absolute tranquillity.
Leehallfae fell back suddenly. Maskull dropped on his knees, and helplessly watched the last flickerings of aer spirit, going out like a candle in foul air. Death came.... He closed the eyes. The awful grin of Crystalman immediately fastened upon the phaen's dead features.
While Maskull was still kneeling, he became conscious of someone standing beside him. He looked up quickly and saw a man, but did not at once rise.
"Another phaen dead," said the newcomer in a grave, toneless, and intellectual voice.
Maskull got up.
The man was short and thickset but emaciated. His forehead was not disfigured by any organs. He was middle-aged. The features were energetic and rather coarse -- yet it seemed to Maskull as though a pure, hard life had done something toward refining them. His sanguine eyes carried a twisted, puzzled look; some unanswerable problem was apparently in the forefront of his brain. His face was hairless; the hair of his head was short and manly; his brow was wide. He was clothed in a black, sleeveless robe, and bore a long staff in his hand. There was an air of cleanness and austerity about the whole man that was attractive.
He went on speaking dispassionately to Maskull, and, while doing so, kept passing his hand reflectively over his cheeks and chin. "They all find their way here to die. They come from Matterplay. There they live to an incredible age. Partly on that account, and partly because of their spontaneous origin, they regard themselves as the favoured children of Faceny. But when they come here to find him, they die at once."
"I think this one is the last of the race. But whom do I speak to?"
"I am Corpang. Who are you, where do you come from, and what are you doing here?"
"My name is Maskull. My home is on the other side of the universe. As for what I am doing here -- I accompanied Leehallfae, that phaen, from Matterplay."
"But a man doesn't accompany a phaen out of friendship. What do you want in Threal?"
"Then this is Threal?"
Maskull remained silent.
Corpang studied his face with rough, curious eyes. "Are you ignorant, or merely reticent, Maskull?"
"I came here to ask questions, and not to answer them."
The stillness of the place was almost oppressive. Not a breeze stirred, and not a sound came through the air. Their voices had been lowered, as though they were in a cathedral.
"Then do you want my society, or not?" asked Corpang.
"Yes, if you can fit in with my mood, which is -- not to talk about myself."
"But you must at least tell me where you want to go to."
"I want to see what is to be seen here, and then go on to Lichstorm."
"I can guide you through, if that's all you want. Come, let us start."
"First let's do our duty and bury the dead, if possible."
"Turn around," directed Corpang.
Maskull looked around quickly. Leehallfae's body had disappeared.
"What does this mean -- what has happened?"
"The body has returned to whence it came. There was nowhere here for it to be, so it has vanished. No burial will be required."
"Was the phaen an illusion, then?"
"In no sense."
"Well, explain quickly, then, what has taken place. I seem to be going mad."
"There's nothing unintelligible in it, if you'll only listen calmly. The phaen belonged, body and soul, to the outside, visible world -- to Faceny. This underworld is not Faceny's world, but Thire's, and Faceny's creatures cannot breathe its atmosphere. As this applies not only to whole bodies, but even to the last particles of bodies, the phaen has dissolved into Nothingness."
"But don't you and I belong to the outside world too?"
"We belong to all three worlds."
"What three worlds -- what do you mean?"
"There are three worlds," said Corpang composedly. "The first is Faceny's, the second is Amfuse's, the third is Thire's. From him Threal gets it name."
"But this is mere nomenclature. In what sense are there three worlds?"
Corpang passed his hand over his forehead. "All this we can discuss as we go along. It's a torment to me to be standing still."
Maskull stared again at the spot where Leehallfae's body had lain, quite bewildered at the extraordinary disappearance. He could scarcely tear himself away from the place, so mysterious was it. Not until Corpang called to him a second time did he make up his mind to follow him.
They set off from the rock wall straight across the airlit plain, directing their course toward the nearest trees. The subdued light, the absence of shadows, the massive shafts, springing grey-white out of the jetlike ground, the fantastic trees, the absence of a sky, the deathly silence, the knowledge that he was underground -- the combination of all these things predisposed Maskull's mind to mysticism, and he prepared himself with some anxiety to hear Corpang's explanation of the land and its wonders. He already began to grasp that the reality of the outside world and the reality of this world were two quite different things.
"In what sense are there three worlds?" he demanded, repeating his former question.
Corpang smote the end of his staff on the ground. "First of all, Maskull, what is your motive for asking? If it's mere intellectual curiosity, tell me, for we mustn't play with awful matters."
"No, it isn't that," said Maskull slowly. "I'm not a student. My journey is no holiday tour."
"Isn't there blood on your soul?" asked Corpang, eying him intently.
The blood rose steadily to Maskull's face, but in that light it caused it to appear black.
"Unfortunately there is, and not a little."
The other's face was all wrinkles, but he made no comment.
"And so you see," went on Maskull, with a short laugh, "I'm in the very best condition for receiving your instruction."
Corpang still paused. "Underneath your crimes I see a man," he said, after a few minutes. "On that account, and because we are commanded to help one another, I won't leave you at present, though I little thought to be walking with a murderer.... Now to your question.... Whatever a man sees with his eyes, Maskull, he sees in three ways -- length, breadth, depth. Length is existence, breadth is relation, depth is feeling."
"Something of the sort was told me by Earthrid, the musician, who came from Threal."
"I don't know him. What else did he tell you?"
"He went on to apply it to music. Continue, and pardon the interruption."
"These three states of perception are the three worlds. Existence is Faceny's world, relation is Amfuse's world, feeling is Thire's world."
"Can't we come down to hard facts?" said Maskull, frowning. "I understand no more than I did before what you mean by three worlds."
"There are no harder facts than the ones I am giving you. The first world is visible, tangible Nature. It was created by Faceny out of nothingness, and therefore we call it Existence."
"That I understand."
"The second world is Love -- by which I don't mean lust. Without love, every individual would be entirely self-centred and unable deliberately to act on others. Without love, there would be no sympathy -- not even hatred, anger, or revenge would be possible. These are all imperfect and distorted forms of pure love. Interpenetrating Faceny's world of Nature, therefore, we have Amfuse's world of Love, or Relation."
"What grounds have you for assuming that this so-called second world is not contained in the first?"
"They are contradictory. A natural man lives for himself; a lover lives for others."
"It may be so. It's rather mystical. But go on -- who is Thire?"
"Length and breadth together without depth give flatness. Life and love without feeling produce shallow, superficial natures. Feeling is the need of men to stretch out toward their creator."
"You mean prayer and worship?"
"I mean intimacy with Thire. This feeling is not to be found in either the first or second world, therefore it is a third world. Just as depth is the line between object and subject, feeling is the line between Thire and man."
"But what is Thire himself?"
"Thire is the afterworld."
"I still don't understand," said Maskull. "Do you believe in three separate gods, or are these merely three ways of regarding one God?"
"There are three gods, for they are mutually antagonistic. Yet they are somehow united."
Maskull reflected a while. "How have you arrived at these conclusions?"
"None other are possible in Threal, Maskull."
"Why in Threal -- what is there peculiar here?"
"I will show you presently."
They walked on for above a mile in silence, while Maskull digested what had been said. When they came to the first trees, which grew along the banks of a small stream of transparent water, Corpang halted.
"That bandage around your forehead has long been unnecessary," he remarked.
Maskull removed it. He found that the line of his brow was smooth and uninterrupted, as it had never yet been since his arrival in Tormance.
"How has this come about -- and how did you know it?"
"They were Faceny's organs. They have vanished, just as the phaen's body vanished."
Maskull kept rubbing his forehead. "I feel more human without them. But why isn't the rest of my body affected?"
"Because its living will contains the element of Thire."
"Why are we stopping here?"
Corpang broke off the tip of one of the aerial roots of a tree, and proffered it to him. "Eat this, Maskull."
"For food, or something else?"
"Food for body and soul."
Maskull bit into the root. It was white and hard; its white sap was bleeding. It had no taste, but after eating it, he experienced a change of perception. The landscape, without alteration of light or outline, became several degrees more stern and sacred. When he looked at Corpang he was impressed by his aspect of Gothic awfulness, but the perplexed expression was still in his eyes.
"Do you spend all your time here, Corpang?"
"Occasionally I go above, but not often."
"What fastens you to this gloomy world?"
"The search for Thire."
"Then it's still a search?"
"Let us walk on."
As they resumed their journey across the dim, gradually rising plain, the conversation became even more earnest in character than before. "Although I was not born here," proceeded Corpang, "I've lived here for twenty-five years, and during all that time I have been drawing nearer to Thire, as I hope. But there is this peculiarity about it -- the first stages are richer in fruit and more promising than the later ones. The longer a man seeks Thire, the more he seems to absent himself. In the beginning he is felt and known, sometimes as a shape, sometimes as a voice, sometimes an overpowering emotion. Later on all is dry, dark, and harsh in the soul. Then you would think that Thire was a million miles off."
"How do you explain that?"
"When everything is darkest, he may be nearest, Maskull."
"But this is troubling you?"
"My days are spent in torture."
"You still persist, though? This day darkness can't be the ultimate state?"
"My questions will be answered."
A silence ensued.
"What do you propose to show me?" asked Maskull.
"The land is about to grow wilder. I am taking you to the Three Figures, which were carved and erected by an earlier race of men. There, we will pray."
"And what then?"
"If you are truehearted, you will see things you will not easily forget."
They had been walking slightly uphill in a sort of trough between two parallel, gently sloping downs. The trough now deepened, while the hills on either side grew steeper. They were in an ascending valley and, as it curved this way and that, the landscape was shut off from view. They came to a little spring, bubbling up from the ground. It formed a trickling brook, which was unlike all other brooks in that it was flowing up the valley instead of down. Before long it was joined by other miniature rivulets, so that in the end it became a fair-sized stream. Maskull kept looking at it, and puckering his forehead.
"Nature has other laws here, it seems?"
"Nothing can exist here that is not a compound of the three worlds."
"Yet the water is flowing somewhere."
"I can't explain it, but there are three wills in it."
"Is there no such thing as pure Thire-matter?"
"Thire cannot exist without Amfuse, and Amfuse cannot exist without Faceny."
Maskull thought this over for some minutes. "That must be so," he said at last. "Without life there can be no love, and without love there can be no religious feeling."
In the half light of the land, the tops of the hills containing the valley presently attained such a height that they could not be seen. The sides were steep and craggy, while the bed of the valley grew narrower at every step. Not a living organism was visible. All was unnatural and sepulchral.
Maskull said, "I feel as if I were dead, and walking in another world."
"I still do not know what you are doing here," answered Corpang.
"Why should I go on making a mystery of it? I came to find Surtur."
"That name I've heard -- but under what circumstances?"
Corpang walked along, his eyes fixed on the ground, obviously troubled. "Who is Surtur?"
Maskull shook his head, and said nothing.
The valley shortly afterward narrowed, so that the two men, touching fingertips in the middle, could have placed their free hands on the rock walls on either side. It threatened to terminate in a cul-de- sac, but just when the road seemed least promising, and they were shut in by cliffs on all sides, a hitherto unperceived bend brought them suddenly into the open. They emerged through a mere crack in the line of precipices.
A sort of huge natural corridor was running along at right angles to the way they had come; both ends faded into obscurity after a few hundred yards. Right down the centre of this corridor ran a chasm with perpendicular sides; its width varied from thirty to a hundred feet, but its bottom could not be seen. On both sides of the chasm, facing one another, were platforms of rock, twenty feet or so in width; they too proceeded in both directions out of sight. Maskull and Corpang emerged onto one of these platforms. The shelf opposite was a few feet higher than that on which they stood. The platforms were backed by a double line of lofty and unclimbable cliffs, whose tops were invisible.
The stream, which had accompanied them through the gap, went straight forward, but, instead of descending the wall of the chasm as a waterfall, it crossed from side to side like a liquid bridge. It then disappeared through a cleft in the cliffs on the opposite side.
To Maskull's mind, however, even more wonderful than this unnatural phenomenon was the absence of shadows, which was more noticeable here than on the open plain. It made the place look like a hall of phantoms.
Corpang, without delay, led the way along the shelf to the left. When they had walked about a mile, the gulf widened to two hundred feet. Three large rocks loomed up on the ledge opposite; they resembled three upright giants, standing motionless side by side on the extreme edge of the chasm. Corpang and Maskull drew nearer, and then Maskull saw that they were statues. Each was about thirty feet high, and the workmanship was of the rudest. They represented naked men, but the limbs and trunks had been barely chipped into shape -- the faces alone had had care bestowed on them, and even these faces were merely generalised. It was obviously the work of primitive artists. The statues stood erect with knees closed and arms hanging straight down their sides. All three were exactly alike.
As soon as they were directly opposite, Corpang halted.
"Is this a representation of your three Beings?" asked Maskull, awed by the spectacle in spite of his constitutional audacity.
"Ask no questions, but kneel," replied Corpang. He dropped onto his own knees, but Maskull remained standing.
Corpang covered his eyes with one hand, and prayed silently. After a few minutes the light sensibly faded. Then Maskull knelt as well, but he continued looking.
It grew darker and darker, until all was like the blackest night. Sight and sound no longer existed; he was alone with his own spirit.
Then one of the three Colossi came slowly into sight again. But it had ceased to be a statue -- it was a living person. Out of the blackness of space a gigantic head and chest emerged, illuminated by a mystic, rosy glow, like a mountain peak bathed by the rising sun. As the light grew stronger Maskull saw that the flesh was translucent and that the glow came from within. The limbs of the apparition were wreathed in mist.
Before long the features of the face stood out distinctly. It was that of a beardless youth of twenty years. It possessed the beauty of a girl and the daring force of a man; it bore a mocking, cryptic smile. Maskull felt the fresh, mysterious thrill of mingled pain and rapture of one who awakes from a deep sleep in midwinter and sees the gleaming, dark, delicate colours of the half-dawn. The vision smiled, kept still, and looked beyond him. He began to shudder, with delight -- and many emotions. As he gazed, his poetic sensibility acquired such a nervous and indefinable character that he could endure it no more; he burst into tears.
When he looked up again the image had nearly disappeared, and in a few moments more he was plunged back into total darkness.
Shortly afterward a second statue reappeared. It too was transfigured into a living form, but Maskull was unable to see the details of its face and body, because of the brightness of the light that radiated from them. This light, which started as pale gold, ended as flaming golden fire. It illumined the whole underground landscape. The rock ledges, the cliffs, himself and Corpang on their knees, the two unlighted statues -- all appeared as if in sunlight, and the shadows were black and strongly defined. The light carried heat with it, but a singular heat. Maskull was unaware of any rise in temperature, but he felt his heart melting to womanish softness. His male arrogance and egotism faded imperceptibly away; his personality seemed to disappear. What was left behind was not freedom of spirit or lightheartedness, but a passionate and nearly savage mental state of pity and distress. He felt a tormenting desire to serve. All this came from the heat of the statue, and was without an object. He glanced anxiously around him, and fastened his eyes on Corpang. He put a hand on his shoulder and aroused him from his praying.
"You must know what I am feeling, Corpang."
Corpang smiled sweetly, but said nothing.
"I care nothing for my own affairs any more. How can I help you?"
"So much the better for you, Maskull, if you respond so quickly to the invisible worlds."
As soon as he had spoken, the figure began to vanish, and the light to die away from the landscape. Maskull's emotion slowly subsided, but it was not until he was once more in complete darkness that he became master of himself again. Then he felt ashamed of his boyish exhibition of enthusiasm, and thought ruefully that there must be something wanting in his character. He got up onto his feet.
The very moment that he arose, a man's voice sounded, not a yard from his ear. It was hardly raised above a whisper, but he could distinguish that it was not Corpang's. As he listened he was unable to prevent himself from physically trembling.
"Maskull, you are to die," said the unseen speaker.
"Who is speaking?"
"You have only a few hours of life left. Don't trifle the time away."
Maskull could bring nothing out.
"You have despised life," went on the low-toned voice. "Do you really imagine that this mighty world has no meaning, and that life is a joke?"
"What must I do?"
"Repent your murders, commit no fresh ones, pay honour to..."
The voice died away. Maskull waited in silence for it to speak again. All remained still, however, and the speaker appeared to have taken his departure. Supernatural horror seized him; he fell into a sort of catalepsy.
At that moment he saw one of the statues fading away, from a pale, white glow to darkness. He had not previously seen it shining.
In a few more minutes the normal light of the land returned. Corpang got up, and shook him out of his trance.
Maskull looked around, but saw no third person. "Whose statue was the last?" he demanded.
"Did you hear me speaking?"
"I heard your voice, but no one else's."
"I've just had my death foretold, so I suppose I have not long to live. Leehallfae prophesied the same thing."
Corpang shook his head. "What value do you set on life?" he asked.
"Very little. But it's a fearful thing all the same."
"Your death is?"
"No, but this warning."
They stopped talking. A profound silence reigned. Neither of the two men seemed to know what to do next, or where to go. Then both of them heard the sound of drumming. It was slow, emphatic, and impressive, a long way off and not loud, but against the background of quietness, very marked. It appeared to come from some point out of sight, to the left of where they were standing, but on the same rock shelf. Maskull's heart beat quickly.
"What can that sound be?" asked Corpang, peering into the obscurity.
"It is Surtur."
"Once again, who is Surtur?"
Maskull clutched his arm and pressed him to silence. A strange radiance was in the air, in the direction of the drumming. It increased in intensity and gradually occupied the whole scene. Things were no longer seen by Thire's light, but by this new light. It cast no shadows.
Corpang's nostrils swelled, and he held himself more proudly. "What fire is that?"
"It is Muspel-light."
They both glanced instinctively at the three statues. In the strange glow they had undergone a change. The face of each figure was clothed in the sordid and horrible Crystalman mask.
Corpang cried out and put his hand over his eyes. "What can this mean?" he asked a minute later.
"It must mean that life is wrong, and the creator of life too, whether he is one person or three."
Corpang looked again, like a man trying to accustom himself to a shocking sight. "Dare we believe this?"
"You must," replied Maskull. "You have always served the highest, and you must continue to do so. It has simply turned out that Thire is not the highest."
Corpang's face became swollen with a kind of coarse anger. "Life is clearly false -- I have been seeking Thire for a lifetime, and now I find -- this."
"You have nothing to reproach yourself with. Crystalman has had eternity to practice his cunning in, so it's no wonder if a man can't see straight, even with the best intentions. What have you decided to do?"
"The drumming seems to be moving away. Will you follow it, Maskull?"
"But where will it take us?"
"Perhaps out of Threal altogether."
"It sounds to me more real than reality," said Corpang. "Tell me, who is Surtur?"
"Surtur's world, or Muspel, we are told, is the original of which this world is a distorted copy. Crystalman is life, but Surtur is other than life."
"How do you know this?"
"It has sprung together somehow -- from inspiration, from experience, from conversation with the wise men of your planet. Every hour it grows truer for me and takes a more definite shape."
Corpang stood up squarely, facing the three Figures with a harsh, energetic countenance, stamped all over with resolution. "I believe you, Maskull. No better proof is required than that. Thire is not the highest; he is even in a certain sense the lowest. Nothing but the thoroughly false and base could stoop to such deceits.... I am coming with you -- but don't play the traitor. These signs may be for you, and not for me at all, and if you leave me -- "
"I make no promises. I don't ask you to come with me. If you prefer to stay in your little world, or if you have any doubts about it, you had better not come."
"Don't talk like that. I shall never forget your service to me... Let us make haste, or we shall lose the sound."
Corpang started off more eagerly than Maskull. They walked fast in the direction of the drumming. For upward of two miles the path went along the ledge without any change of level. The mysterious radiance gradually departed, and was replaced by the normal light of Threal. The rhythmical beats continued, but a very long way ahead -- neither was able to diminish the distance.
"What kind of man are you?" Corpang suddenly broke out.
"In what respect?"
"How do you come to be on such terms with the Invisible? How is it that I've never had this experience before I met you, in spite of my never-ending prayers and mortifications? In what way are you superior to me?"
"To hear voices perhaps can't be made a profession," replied Maskull. "I have a simple and unoccupied mind -- that may be why I sometimes hear things that up to the present you have not been able to."
Corpang darkened, and kept silent; and then Maskull saw through to his pride.
The ledge presently began to rise. They were high above the platform on the opposite side of the gulf. The road then curved sharply to the right, and they passed over the abyss and the other ledge as by a bridge, coming out upon the top of the opposite cliffs. A new line of precipices immediately confronted them. They followed the drumming along the base of these heights, but as they were passing the mouth of a large cave the sound came from its recesses, and they turned their steps inward.
"This leads to the outer world," remarked Corpang. "I've occasionally been there by this passage."
"Then that's where it is taking us, no doubt. I confess I shan't be sorry to see sunlight once more."
"Can you find time to think of sunlight?" asked Corpang with a rough smile.
"I love the sun, and perhaps I'm rather lacking in the spirit of a zealot."
"Yet, for all that, you may get there before me."
"Don't be bitter," said Maskull. "I'll tell you another thing. Muspel can't be willed, for the simple reason that Muspel does not concern the will. To will is a property of this world."
"Then what is your journey for?"
"It's one thing to walk to a destination, and to linger over the walk, and quite another to run there at top speed."
"Perhaps I'm not so easily deceived as you think," said Corpang with another smile.
The light persisted in the cave. The path narrowed and became a steep ascent. Then the angle became one of forty-five degrees, and they had to climb. The tunnel grew so confined that Maskull was reminded of the confined dreams of his childhood.
Not long afterward, daylight appeared. They hastened to complete the last stage. Maskull rushed out first into the world of colours and, all dirty and bleeding from numerous scratches, stood blinking on a hillside, bathed in the brilliant late-afternoon sunshine. Corpang followed closely at his heels, He was obliged to shield his eyes with his hands for a few minutes, so unaccustomed was he to Branchspell's blinding rays.
"The drum beats have stopped!" he exclaimed suddenly.
"You can't expect music all the time," answered Maskull dryly. "We mustn't be luxurious."
"But now we have no guide. We're no better off than before."
"Well, Tormance is a big place. But I have an infallible rule, Corpang. As I come from the south, I always go due north."
"That will take us to Lichstorm."
Maskull gazed at the fantastically piled rocks all around them. "I saw these rocks from Matterplay. The mountains look as far off now as they did them, and there's not much of the day left. How far is Lichstorm from here?"
Corpang looked away to the distant range. "I don't know, but unless a miracle happens we shan't get there tonight."
"I have a feeling," said Maskull, "that we shall not only get there tonight, but that tonight will be the most important in my life."
And he sat down passively to rest.