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Chapter 7 THE EMPTY SHAPE OF A MAN

FRANCOIS VILLON WAS laughing. There was no amusement in his high, thin laugh, but a sort of wild despair and a sort of madness. Mad indeed was that which had materialized out of a whirl of coruscant light and poised now before us.

It was almost all head, three-quarters a huge ovoid head; yellow-gray skin naked of hair drawn tightly over a monstrous skull. Two enormous eyes, lidless and lashless, swam with an oily iridescence. The head's face had no nose, unless two black orifices just below its midpoint were nares. A round, tiny mouth beneath these putative nostrils was innocent of lips or teeth. Where ears should be, two circular areas of skin pulsed as though the brain within momentarily would burst through membranes too frail to restrain it.

The rest, invested by some dark hued, horny integument, was a bulbous torso out of which grew two boneless tentacles each terminated by splayed and writhing branches—caricatures of hands. Legs there must have been also, and feet of sorts, for the apparition stood upright as a man stands.

"Voila, John March," Villon chuckled, "he who calls himself Kass."

It was that chuckle, I think, the amazing effrontery of it, that set my thought processes going again. I did not really see this thing, I told myself. I was the victim of a hypnotic illusion induced by the whirling lights and the white blaze at its center. It was not, it could not be real.

I dragged the side of my hand across my eyes, and looked again, and the great head was still there, its bulging eyes fixed upon me. In their gaze was the same hard, impersonal speculation I had so resented in Achronos Astaris. Somehow more dreadful it was now, for Astaris at least had been human, while this…

"I am human," Kass broke in. "A million years more human than you." He did not say it. The words were within my own mind, a thought perceived, not heard, but it must have come from him. I could not have formulated it.

Moreover, Villon heard the soundless message too. "A million years more human than you or I," he drawled to prove it, his accents slurred. "Look well, my friend. See to what all mankind's aspirations, all mankind's strivings, shall bring us in the end." My gaze shifted to him. A sardonic grin twisted those thin, scarred lips of his. "In truth there must be a God, for only God could play so bitter a jest."

What they were saying seemed so much grim nonsense, but before I had time to react to it I became aware that Kass's attention had swung to Villon, and I sensed that Kass was puzzled. Once more I was reminded of Astaris, of how when the strange little man had demanded from me the meaning of love I had felt him to be troubled by some queer urgency, by some driving need for a knowledge that was denied him.

"Why do you not fear me?" Kass was inquiring of the Frenchman. "There is the consciousness of utter defeat in you, and despair, but you do not fear me. Why?"

"Fear you?" Villon murmured, insolence in the cant of his narrow head, divine contempt in the stance of the scrawny frame on whose bony angles hung his tattered finery. "I? Who have made a ballade of love's betrayal and a villanelle of torture's rack? Who have metered a rondeau by the clatter of my best friend's bones swung from a gibbet, and flung a roundelay to the rabble with the hangman's knot under my own left ear? Fear you? I who have listened to the music of the Universe and dreamed the dreams of the angels and the damned?

"There is that within me Lucifer cannot touch, nor the God your existence blasphemes destroy. I have gone up into a Heaven of my own devising and down into a Hell of my own imagining, and you can show me no terrors I have not known aforetime. Fear you? I am a poet."

He slapped the face of Kass with his mocking laugh, and there was a hush that was not of sound alone. Or there may have been some reply, but I did not know of it, for in that instant the corner of my eye caught furtive movement among the rocks and my look slid to it, my head not turning.

I glimpsed them only for an eye-blink before the shadows hid them, but in that split-second I saw them clearly and I knew I could not be mistaken, though reason insisted I must be. Reason, even with the animate, tangible presence of Francois Villon to confute it, insisted I could not have seen a knight in chain mail and a forester in the brilliant green of Sherwood Forest peering from behind a boulder's jagged edge, gesturing to me not to betray them.

I did something then that until that moment I should not have dreamed either possible or necessary. I deliberately blotted what I'd seen out of my consciousness, made myself think of something else at once; of the way the pallid and sourceless light glimmered on the round of Kass's skull, of how his monstrous shadow was a grayish-purple like no shadow I had elsewhere seen.

And I did this just in time, for once more he was reading me. "Matters stranger to you than the color of a shadow there will be to wonder at," he remarked, "before we are prepared to deal with you." It is difficult to convey the feeling of—nakedness—given one by the realization that one's thoughts are exposed to another. "Come. The Council awaits me."

"Lead on, fellow," I said, trying to get jauntiness into my tone. Villon had set me an example of courage I was ashamed not to emulate. "Whither thou goest I shall go." I rather suspected I wouldn't be very successful if I objected, and, too, I had a pretty good hunch that wherever he wanted to take me would bring me nearer Evelyn Rand.

No. All this weirdness into which I had been plunged had not driven the thought of her from my mind. Rather it had multiplied many times my anxiety for her. If she were here, and in the power of creatures like this…

A stinging prickle netted my body. Kass's fingers were touching my shoulder; his other hand gripped Villon. "Come!" It was as if abruptly I was at the heart of a maelstrom of some electric force. Panic struck at me. I had felt this same sensation at the moment the grotesque being appeared. Was I about to dissolve into a whirl of flashing, multi-colored sparks?

Nothing happened. Nothing except that the rocks about, the ground beneath, abruptly were flowing past us. We were motionless. It was the plain, the horizon, that moved. A sharp, twanging sound came from my left. Kass's touch was gone and the speeding earth pulled my feet from beneath me. I pitched forward headlong. Falling, I twisted, saw the writhing fingers that had released me pluck something from the air. A feathered arrow!

My shoulder hit the now motionless dirt. "Up, St. George!" a deep-chested voice bellowed, metal rattling through it. "Have at thee, hell spawn!" The burly, mailed figure I had glimpsed lunged out from behind a rock, his linked gauntlets sweeping a great two-handed sword down upon our captor's sickly-hued, immense skull. "Die, caitiff!" someone else cried, and a lithe green figure leaped past Villon, also fallen, and thrust a dagger at Kass's great eye.

The knight's broadsword shattered into a thousand clanging shards; the forester's knife, arrested in blank air, shivered as though it had jabbed into the trunk of an oak.

Neither blade had touched Kass, though the latter had not moved by the tenth of an inch. No one was moving now. All the fierce motion had stopped; the pounce of the ambushers from the covert which the flow of the landscape had brought to us, the skid of our momentum that had taken Villon and myself yards along the suddenly halted ground.

The scene held. Kass; one tentacle lifted to grasp the arrow, the membranes at either side of his gargantuan eves a trifle distended, no other sign of emotion about him. The knight; bladeless hilt clutched in chain-gloved fists, longskirted cloak of iron mesh enveloping columnar legs straddled to give foundation to his futile blow, all his head but his swarthy, hate-darkened face swathed in metal fabric, all his immense strength impotent. The other, the forester—

He was a lithe and slender arc, fluid movement abruptly rigid. His shoes, of some soft, chamois-like leather and pointed of toe, were green. His taut legs were tightly sheathed to the waist in the emerald of May leaves and his sleeveless leather jerkin repeated the hue as did the fabric that puffed about his shoulders and enveloped his extended arm, thrusting a dagger into the nothingness that held it. In spite of a flame-colored beard his countenance was youthful and debonair, though contorted now by a furious despair. The green, conical hat he wore sported a cocky, crimson feather.

Curious how one's mind works sometimes. There was in mine at that instant, not disappointment at the failure of the ambush I had anticipated and done my best not to betray, not consternation at the manner in which Kass had defeated it, but only a sort of dazed amazement at the anachronistic assembling of the figures in that strange tableau.

The cut of his coat of mail dated the sword-wielder as from the twelfth century. It was in the fourteenth that the Lincolnshire lads prowled Sherwood Forest attired in the green the forester wore. Francois Villon's Paris was that of the fifteen hundreds, and I—my birth date was the year nineteen hundred and twenty. Kass aside, we represented eight centuries of history. Eight hundred years! Absurd! They were masqueraders—

What of the Dawn Man I had fought and Villon had slain? That slavering brute had been no actor. Abruptly I was cold with recollection of the Frenchman's words: "Nothing, my friend, is impossible in this Land Where Time is Not," and then I was cold with something more imminent; a sound, a toneless squeal so shrill that it was at the upper threshold of hearing, a high, thin whine that pierced my ears and set my teeth on edge. It came from the tiny, puckered mouth that seemed so ludicrously inept in the vast yeasty expanse of Kass's visage and it was the first actual sound I had heard him utter.

It went on and on like a wire pulling through my brain, a blue fine wire that was all edge, all wounding edge. It flickered out into the dull, desolate glow brooding over that plain of tumbled rock and ominous shadows, and somewhere out there it found a response. Somewhere from among the malformed boulders, from among the gray-purple shadows that lurked at their bases and filled the mouths of their caves with mystery, something was answering Kass.

I rolled, tried to find the source of that second thin whine. My straining eyes could discover nothing alive in all that dreary tumulus. I saw only vacant chaos, only the gaping empty maws of caverns filled by impenetrable shadows.

The shadows were lengthening. That was queer, here where there was no sun to lower; then I realized that only one of the shadows was lengthening. It was flowing like a dark cloud, out of the mouth of a nearby cave. Like a gray-purple fog that somehow had more substance than a fog, it still was formless as drifting mist.

"Pater Noster in excelsis … " I heard Villon mumble a Latin prayer. And then I heard him gasp, "A drina. God preserve us! I thought they were chained to their lairs by the light."

The cloud parted from the shadow and was a shapeless blob about the size of a small auto, moving more and more swiftly toward us. The tenuous whine that answered Kass's call came from it. It was animate with a blind and groping sort of life, yet it had no shape. Or rather its shape was constantly changing as it billowed toward us, as once in a microscope I had seen the outlines of an amoeba change. Because of this it had no identity, but individuality it had in full measure, and a terrible malevolence.

Kass's call rose shriller. The approach of that purple-gray mass grew swifter, and something in the sightless way it moved made me more certain that were it not for the strange sound Kass made it would not have appeared, and having appeared would not know which way to move. I could see it more clearly, could see now that near its center there was a throbbing spot of deeper purple that did not change in shape, and I was afraid.

I was deathly afraid of the thing Villon had called a drina. I was afraid of it because, for all its formlessness, for all its blindness, I sensed intelligence within it, and I knew that intelligence was different in some terrible way from the intelligence of any creature I'd ever known.

Its shrill whine had an eager sound now. It rushed past me and two heart-stopping screams twisted me about!

Knight and forester hung high above the ground, each wrapped around the waist by one of Kass's pipestem tentacles. They were puppets with jerking, boneless limbs, with white masks on which the features had been ineptly splotched, so little of human had terror left in them. The drina boiled toward them.

Kass flung them down and the gray-purple mass rolled over them. Rolled over them and—rolled past where they'd fallen, and they were no longer there.

I saw them! I saw them sprawled within that monstrous purple bulk, forms blurred and indistinct like shapes seen in a pea-soup fog—and still alive! Still moving. And then, as the pitch of Kass's squeal changed, I saw them melt.

The drina was scudding away towards the nearest shadow-pool, reached it, merged with it. It was gone, and mailed knight and green-clad forester were gone, and there was only Kass, poised here, motionless and silent now, to all appearances already oblivious to what had occurred.

On the ground between him and the cave into which the drina had vanished lay the bladeless hilt of a two-handed sword, a dagger, and a heap of iron links that still retained the empty shape of a man. That was all…

Not quite. A little farther away, caught on jagged stone, a conical green hood flaunted a cocky, crimson feather.