From Supernatural Stories 37 - 1960
BY BRON FANE
Copyright © R. Lionel Fanthorpe
Used with permission
“First the crash, then the fall. The endless, black fall.”
It was a devil of a night, a helluva night, an unbelievable night. Sheets of torrential rain cut down through the inoffensive atmosphere like the knives of a thousand angry demons. As they struck the slushy surface of the road they were grasped in the hands of a savage ground frost. A ground frost which took the sleet, and the rain, and the damp things of the air, and turned them into the sheets of lethal oiled glass that the road surface had become. It was a motorist’s nightmare. Only a hero or a mad dog would have ventured out on such a night, and yet the two who drove through it were neither mad dogs nor heroes.
Val Stearman crouched comfortably behind the wheel of his powerful sports car. It was a magnificent hundred-miles-an-hour-plus job, of Continental origin and wonderful road-holding capacity.
Val was in his middle thirties. His broad, bulldog-like head was crowned with a mass of dark, wavy hair, just beginning to tinge grey at the temples.
His eyes, dark grey, and set well apart, were set under expressive brows. His face was lined, as the face of any man in his thirties is lined, but they were lines of character, and there were little quirls of laughter around the corners of his mouth. Val Stearman was one of those characters, all too rare in the 20th century — a devil-may care adventurer. His strong mouth above the powerful jutting jaw was pursed in thoughtful concentration, as he stared into the sheeting rain and stinging sleet cutting visibility down to twenty-yards-minus.
The hands that gripped the wheel were like hands of steel, powerful hands, bronzed, yet not over-bulky; as flexible as hawsers. They were the hands of a strong man and yet at the same time, the hands of an artist. They were sensitive and at the same time tremendously powerful. The arms connecting those hands to the broad shoulders were like links of muscular chain, the biceps and forearms would have graced any heavyweight pugilist. The broad barrel chest had difficulty in accommodating itself to the confines of the car.
Slim-waisted and powerful-legged, Val Stearman was a man in his prime. A man who was mentally and physically as tough and resilient as any man can be. Mentally he was as fine a specimen as he was physically. He had been through many strange experiences. A man who for many years had accepted an agnostic materialism with resignation simply because he could not, with all intellectual honesty, embrace anything else. He had been through a series of psychic events which had finally convinced him that there were many things in this world which could not be seen, tasted, handled and weighed. Things which defied description, by the natural laws of science.
Because those things had been thrust upon his consciousness time and time again, and because he was a rational, sane, level-headed man, he had come to accept the inevitable facts. Life was more than flesh and blood. Life was more than bricks and mortar. Life was more than commerce and industry. Life was more than a succession of meaningless nights and days. There were many things in life — very many things — and the greatest of those things were the things which it was least possible to weigh up and attest, to analyse or to synthesize. The greatest things in life were the imponderables. The things that could not be assessed or judged easily; certainly could not be fully gauged or ascertained on a purely physical plane. They were the abstracts of life.
The things which men like Picasso searched for on canvas, and which the revolutionary composers sought for through the medium of music.
They were the things which artists lived and died for. They were the things beyond art, and beyond music, and beyond literature. Things which were, in very essence of fact, beyond science itself.
These were the things which Stearman had discovered. Things which were known by a thousand names in a thousand lands, but which could all be summed-up in one word, and that word was — magic! There were powers older than the power of humanity. There was wisdom greater than the minds of men could comprehend. It was this wisdom and these powers which had finally convinced Val Stearman that he had been wrong in assuming that life was just a casual hotch-potch of materialistic things. It was more, far, far more than that. Life was real, life was earnest. The realest, and the most earnest of all the many facets of life were the things which were not easily visible or readily discernible. They were the mysterious things, exciting things.
They were the things that could not easily be expressed in words.
Many people had approached them from a vast variety of avenues. The magician had sought them through his spells and incantations; the priest sought them through his religion; the artist through his canvas; the musician through his music.
Sometimes they were known as poltergeist phenomena; sometimes as ghosts, spirits, revenants, fairies, hobgoblins, demons, witches, little people, leprechauns, banshees — oh, there were millions and millions of names. There was Voodoo, Shamanism — there were more names than there were cosmic realities, and yet when all the tumult and the shouting of the empty words died, the basic fact still remained; and the basic fact in Stearman’s mind was that somewhere, somehow, above and beyond everything there were two spiritual forces, one good and the other evil. One positive, orderly, constructive, creative, Divine; the other destructive, chaotic, evil. To him it was as simple as that, and both had their terrestrial counterparts.
Such a man was Val Stearman — such was his philosophy of life, a philosophy which he had not simply thought up for the sake of finding one, but a philosophy which had been thrust upon him by the very sequence of events through which he had passed since the dim and distant days of his youthful agnosticism.
As he thought of those dim and distant days he turned and cast a swift adoring glance at the beautiful jet-haired woman in the passenger seat beside him. The mysterious and ever-beautiful La Noire.
La Noire, whom he realised had aged no more in the ten years that he had known her, than a mountain, or a river, or a sunset, ages. She was somehow enigmatic, there was about her the same mysterious eastern beauty that enveloped the Sphinx — she was herself an imponderable. Her eyes, black as night, seemed to ripple with the same translucent light that played and irridesced from her almost blue-black hair. Her skin was as pure and flawless as the most beautiful silk or satin. The cast of her features was a thing of exquisite beauty; a thing that neither pen, nor brush, nor words, could ever capture. He looked at her beautiful figure, a figure that would have been the envy of a Venus or an Aphrodite. He looked at her, and in looking at her a great suffusion of love welled up within him, and he forgot in the warmth of his feeling, the night and the sleet and the icy roads and the reason that they were out upon those roads. The reason that they were out on that treacherous night, the reason why they had left the warmth and security of their hotel lounge, the reason that they had left their coffee and sandwiches, the reason why they had gone out to answer that phone call.
He thought of all the adventures that they had been through since the beginning. He remembered the time when La Noire had been the most brilliantly successful spiritualist medium of the century, and when he had arrived as an incredulous young reporter, cynical and hard-bitten despite his years, to find her involved with a coven of black magicians and witches who were evil, whereas she was only mysterious, and he had found in a moment that whatever she was, whatever she believed in, and whatever she stood for, that he had to love her. And if there were, in her way of life, things that he could not understand, then he would have to accept those things as part and parcel of her background and environment.
He remembered the fights they had undertaken against the hunchback, and the sinister Dr. Jules, and the dread professor, Von Haak. He remembered the other adventures in which they had been involved. It had been a crazy chequer-work of a career. There had been vampires and werewolves, ghouls and a hundred-and-one sinister and evil creatures of the night. It was as if the very fact that he and La Noire were fighting as white magicians, almost, against all the dark forces, using their knowledge and their power and their courage and their love to destroy evil wherever they came across it. To destroy all the minions of the great evil force that had once nearly engulfed them themselves, that evil seemed to be attracted to them, as though they were some psychic magnet. One after another they had encountered fantastic adventures, and strange other-worldly beings and creatures that had no right to exist in the sane, clear, cool world of men.
They had seen beasts that had no right to walk upon the fair green plains of earth. They had encountered and destroyed sinister, evil creatures of the night. Now they wondered where their path was leading them.
It had all been so simple. One moment they had been sitting in the lounge of their hotel, between assignments, for Val Stearman was a journalist. He was, in effect, the star journalist of the “Daily Globe” and it was a factor to his eternal credit that he was able to endure the dour, taciturn, ill-humour of the “Globe’s” brilliant but irascible Scots editor, Mac.
But somehow holidays came. When they came they were all too few, all too far between, but when they came the Stearmans liked to get far away from London. They got out; they found a quiet country hotel; they settled down for a pleasant evening in the lounge, and suddenly a telephone rang. A discreet steward had walked in . . . and the whole evening had exploded around them and collapsed into a shower of dust — the dust of might-have-been.
The evening of peace that might have been, and just hadn’t. The telephone caller had given no name, yet by the very fact that the caller had known they were there the whole strange business had taken on a supernatural air that was not to be denied. Just a discreet steward with a tray of drinks, and a message pad upon which he had scribbled “Telephone call for Mr. Val Stearman”.
Stearman had picked up the phone. He could almost hear it ringing in his head now as he strained his eyes through the sleet at the treacherous icy road, and by working miracles with brake, clutch and accelerator; by slamming the gear-stick around in a way few drivers could manipulate it, he averted disaster by a hair’s breadth and he knew that La Noire’s eyes were regarding him admiringly. He turned to her in the darkness.
“Got any ideas about that blasted phone call yet?” She shook her lovely head, forgetting he could not see her in the dark, for night and day were almost the same to La Noire. She could see as well in the dark shadows of the evening as she could in the brightness of the morning sun.
“No, no, I haven’t,” she said. “I haven’t any ideas at all. I just know that I can sense something dreadful, something evil, some terrible threat. . . .”
“There was a pretty solid threat in making the call itself,” remarked Stearman dourly.
“Yes, yes, I know, darling, it’s almost like the old days.”
“You mean when Van Haak, and the hunchback and that crowd were on the go?” said Val. “Yes, life was pretty hectic then at times. That time in the Voskaag Valley — ah, there are a thousand and one adventures that we have been through. That night in the train, oh, I dunno, hundreds and hundreds of things . . . every one had its own special threat, its own special peril. It’s as though we were a besieged garrison, with some dark force outside trying many different ways to get at us. To get in; testing our defences every time.”
“Well, our defences — the Great Power whom we try inadequately to serve — seem to have held out pretty well,” said Stearman. “I don’t meant to sound overconfident, but —” He took a hand off the wheel for a second, and slapped the bulge in his right-hand pocket. The bulge was occasioned by the presence of a very heavy .45 calibre Browning. It was a fine gun, wonderfully accurate and devilishly powerful. It was an extremely unusual gun. The big Browning was loaded with silver bullets. There were other things that they carried with them as well. Things that they were never without.
For having found that they were so often the centre of strange, weird, psychic disturbances, they took necessary precautions. It was as natural for them to go out with a .45 calibre revolver loaded with silver bullets as it was for a fireman to go out with a fire engine and a ladder if he thought there was going to be a fire. In the psychic sense, metaphorically speaking, there was always a fire, when the Stearmans went out.
There was always an onslaught upon them, by something dark and sinister; something which had always been hounding them since Stearman had rescued La Noire from the coven and destroyed that coven at the same time. Ever since that great gun in his pocket had spat silver death at Jules, Van Haak and the hunchback.
One by one their enemies had gone down, yet that dark, evil presence which was the inspiration of their enemies, continued to live and move and have its being, and it seemed that it would always be there, and that it had always been there.
“What exactly did he say — go over the exact words again, darling,” said La Noire.
“It was a crazy message,” returned her husband, “absolutely crazy and yet, I don’t think it could have been ignored. . . .”
“Let’s have the exact words,” she insisted.
“Right! Not that I’m any Leslie Welch, but I can remember a message like that! I picked up the phone and a voice said ‘Is that you, Stearman?’ I said ‘Yes’, which, after all, was about the only thing I could say.”
“I wonder if it was,” said La Noire. “I wonder seriously what would have happened if you had said ‘No’.”
“The voice would probably have said, ‘Oh yes you are — don’t lie’.”
“Or he might have been completely nonplussed and the whole thing would have fallen through,” said La Noire.
“Well, the point is, I said ‘Yes’. It might have been Mac or one of Mac’s staff who had tracked us down. You know what a ferret he is for tracking us down when we’re on holiday.”
“Yes, I know,” replied La Noire with weary resignation. “Well, after you’d said ‘Yes’, darling, what exactly did this voice say then?”
“‘You must leave at once — I insist’. There was a kind of hypnotic quality about it. I know it sounds a bit corny to say this, but it was more of a command than a statement. He said it in such a matter-of-fact tone as though he was so sure we’d do it. ‘Leave the hotel at once and drive north until you see the sign and then beware the Black Abyss!’ and before I could do anything about it he hung up. When we tried to trace the call the operator said that apart from the fact that it came from an exchange further to the north the cause was untraceable, due to some technical breakdown. They could only get the vague general direction.”
“It’s as though it’s a call from hell itself,” said La Noire, “a dark, frightening call. A call from out of the darkness, calling us into the darkness.”
“Have you got that odd psychic feeling that we are going out into danger?” he asked.
“Well, we must be,” said La Noire. “Let’s go back.” Stearman shook his head stubbornly.
“You know what old Sir Richard Grenville said after he’d fought with the fifty-three Spaniards and his ship was almost a wreck, and his powder was spent, and the hand weapons were bent and broken, he said, ‘I have never turned my back upon Don or devil yet’. I’m not perfect, La Noire — you know I’m not — I’ve got more faults than the next man, rather than less, but there’s one thing I will never do, as long as I have life and breath, I’ll not turn my back upon the enemy. You know what Bunyan said in ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ . . . Pilgrim had armour, but it only protected the front of his body. He had no armour on his back. If he turned his back upon the foe he was lost. Pilgrim didn’t retreat, and though I’m not one-tenth of the man he was, I’m not a twentieth of the man that Bunyan was — I’m a very rough old diamond — if in fact I’m a diamond at all, I may just be a rough old lump of clay, but I’ve got principles even if I don’t very often stick to them.”
“You know, darling,” said La Noire thoughtfully, “if a man were able to live up to his principles, his principles couldn’t be very high, could they?”
“You give me great comfort with your words of wisdom,” replied Stearman with a grin. “There’s a lot in what you say, honey. Be that as it may, and getting back to the subject in hand, I can no more turn my back on a mysterious hypnotic voice that telephones me when no one knows where we are . . .”
“Wait a bit — the car, darling! Everybody knows our car!”
“Well, I agree she’s a bit awkward to hide — bright red, outstanding Continental sports. She was standing outside the hotel. Everybody in the hotel must have known.”
“But the operator said that call came from somewhere in the north . . . still, that again needn’t be very difficult, now we’ve got on to the track of weighing this thing up. We roll up at the hotel, and leave the car outside. Somebody — we’ll call him the mysterious Mr. X — who wants to dispose of us, sees the car outside and puts two and two together quite rapidly in his little hairy mind. First, it’s a filthy night, it’s freezing like hell, and after all, this was the kind of hotel where we might be reasonably suspected of staying. He sees that travelling conditions are bad, that it’s getting quite late in the evening, and he puts two and two together. Not being a complete and utter lamb brain he comes up with something approximating to four. He comes up with the basic idea that we are harboured there for the night. Well, that’s just fine, that’s all well and good. He now wants to set up a first-rate-mystery. . . .”
“There’s only one thing wrong,” said La Noire. “We’re assuming all the time that we’re up against a man — or a human being. I’ve got this awful feeling down here inside myself that it isn’t a human being. I feel it in my bones, in my very soul. It’s one of those other powers, I feel it here in my very bones.”
“The whole thing is cock-eyed at the moment,” said Val Stearman, as he fished in the dashboard locker and produced a packet of cigarettes. He steadied the wheel with his knee, struck a match and inhaled deeply.
“The whole thing is cock-eyed,” he repeated as he puffed out clouds of smoke. “There’s very little sense in it anywhere, to begin with. If somebody’s planning mischief why bother to pull us out of the hotel? They know we’re in there, why not walk into the lounge with a gun in one hand, and ‘pop, pop’, no more Stearmans! Why not just pile a bomb through the window and make a quick getaway? Better still, why not stick a bomb in the car. . . .” His voice tailed off as the thought struck him.
“Bomb in the car,” he repeated. “It’s been done before. They’ve even heaved coping stones down on us from castle battlements. They’ve got no worries about fighting with the Queensberry rules.”
“Who is this mysterious ‘they’?” questioned La Noire. “As far as we know that coven is broken up. We’ve encountered other dark powers since, but they haven’t been directly related to Jules’ and Van Haak’s crowd,” she mused.
“No — they haven’t — but a rose by any other name would smell as strong. They don’t have to be associated. Remember there’s more than one coven of witches in this land!”
“Do you think that ultimately word could have got along some cosmic ‘grape vine’?” said La Noire questioningly. “Just suppose that is what’s happened. At long last some other group that was known to the Jules and Van Haak crowd, or associated with them in some way, have found out about us, and they’re playing it very, very clever, not letting us know of their existence. Do you think that could be the reason behind all the weird and fantastic things that have happened to us? The reason that we keep getting involved with dark, malevolent creatures of the night? Could that have been at the back of it, even though we thought Van Haak and his crowd were finished? Is there some dark beam of psychic fury directed at us? Pushing us all the time towards sinister, psychic adventure? It could be, that would make sense, terrifying sense.”
“It would make a great deal of sense indeed,” agreed Val. “The point is, are we running blind, like a pair of primeval idiots, straight into the first trap they set? I think this might be a very good time to turn off the road and do a bit of thinking. I don’t want to turn my back on them. If they’ve chosen to make contact, I want to make contact, but I want to be sure that when we do, it is we who score and not they. That’s the essential thing. I want to get this thing sorted out. I wonder where we can pull in and think for a few minutes. I don’t want to go on blind. I want to know where the danger lies.”
“There’s a lay-by sign just ahead,” said La Noire.
“Good, we’ll pull in there,” said Val.
They pulled in to the lay-by up ahead of them. A lorry was there already. A large, dark, looming shape out of the darkness. A darker silhouette against the sleet-sodden night sky. As they pulled in front of it the beams of their headlights picked out the name written on the headboard of the lorry. Val’s heart missed a beat, for on the strange, dark, sinister vehicle waiting in the lay-by he read the words “The Black Abyss Transport Co.”
“By God,” he whispered, and his hand flashed down to the right-hand pocket of’ his jacket. This he knew was no coincidence. No commercial undertaking in its right mind would have called itself the “Black Abyss Transport Co.”. Weird, bizarre, fantastic, it all added up to what they had been saying . . . somewhere, somehow, another coven was seeking vengeance. Another group of misguided devil-worshipping lunatics were trying to avenge themselves on Val Stearman and La Noire. Were trying to wreak revenge for the other coven whom the intrepid psychic adventurers had already destroyed.
“If they want to play it rough, they can,” said Val, his eyes staring out into the darkness, stabbing it like two clear-cut beams of light.
“Might be a good idea to switch off the lights,” said La Noire.
“I think it might,” agreed Val, and turned off the headlights, then the engine. In the silence he could hear something ticking. Not very loudly, almost inaudibly. For a second he wondered whether it was the dashboard clock. Then his common sense and his memory came to his rescue in time. He knew that the electric clock on the dashboard was a perfectly silent model. It made not a sound as it told away the hours with soft, silent efficiency.
Yet something in the car was ticking almost inaudibly.
“Bomb,” he whispered to La Noire. “I’ll switch the headlights on again and we’ll creep out behind them. Get back as far as you can. There’ll probably be a ditch on the other side of this lay-by. We’ll get flat in that.”
As soon as La Noire was clear and making her way toward the ditch, that devil-may-care grin which was so much a part of Val Stearman’s stock-in-trade, flashed across his face, as a twitching, twinkling thought of courageau mischief lit up his mind. So they’d planted a bomb in his car, had they? And they’d left their Black Abyss transport lorry to watch results. It was clever. It was damnably clever. He felt a sickening sensation in the pit of his stomach as he wondered just how much they knew not only of his movements but of his intended movements. It was like trying to play chess with a telepath. Like trying to work moves four or five ahead, against an opponent who could read your mind as easily as he could see the board in front of him.
Wondering whether they had some evil telepathic force Val deliberately switched his thoughts on to other things. He began reciting Little Tommy Tucker, and Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary. He was concentrating all his thoughts on those. He had already forgotten — as far as his conscious mind was concerned — what he was going to do, but he put it into operation all the same. While he busily recited Mary Had a Little Lamb and Humpty Dumpty Sat on a Wall, even as he described with loud, emphatic clarity the ascent and descent of the Grand Old Duke of York and his Ten Thousand Men; while he dealt with Little Boy Blue Asleep in the Corn, and another gentleman catch a pig, and somebody else who put his finger in a pie and pulled out a plum and remarked on his innate goodness of character, even while all this nonsense was rattling off his lips with a tremendous seriousness; even as he was describing the House that Jack Built, and all the things it contained, and the peculiar carryings on of those who were involved in the edifice; even as he was reciting with fervent insistence the fate of the Ten Little Nigger Boys, and the old rhyme about Buckle My Shoe, he was moving the car silently with the brake off inch by inch, imperceptibly nearer and nearer to the lorry. He was moving it so slowly and so silently that he could still hear that imperceptible ticking. Almost imperceptible; almost inaudible ticking. Softly as a leaf blowing across a velvet counterpane; softly as the footsteps of a spider, and yet he could just hear it. There was the very faintest of faint bumps as the sports car’s fender lodged against the driver’s side-wheel of the lorry. There was a slight gradient at that point, and Val knew there was no need to put the hand-brake on. The sports would stay there.
Flat on his belly, moving with the speed and stealth of the ex-Commando that he was, he crawled across that lay-by until he reached the shelter of the ditch where La Noire crouched. It was cold and wet, but at least they were safe. Five minutes they waited, six, seven. . . . They looked at one another silently in the darkness. La Noire put her rose petal lips very close to his ear and whispered:
“Do you think it really —” she had been about to add “was a bomb?” But before she could complete the phrase there was a devastating roar.
Val saw the flash a split second before the shock wave began to move, and he flung himself flat in the bottom of the wet, muddy ditch with La Noire slightly beneath him. They spluttered and rolled over in the mud as the shock wave went across the top of the ditch like the blast from a thousand frustrated demons from the nethermost pit.
“Oh well, so much for the car,” said Val resignedly, “Thank God she’s insured, that’s all! I wonder how the Black Abyss Trucking Co. enjoyed that one!”
And then — they suddenly felt it growing colder. Much, much colder. The air above them seemed to be imbued with a dark, frost-like quality that was in no way due to the sleet and the water. A weird green light began drifting towards them across the lay-by; a green light that looked as if it came from the nethermost pit of Dante’s seven-ringed Inferno.
“There is evil here,” whispered La Noire. “Val, we’re in danger, awful danger!”
He squeezed her hand reassuringly. “We’ve seen worse!”
“We may have been through danger as bad, but never worse,” she whispered back. “That is the sign of the presence of the uttermost evil! The absolute evil! Infinite evil! It is coming towards us.”
It shimmered with a weird luminosity, a horrible irredescence, of its own. It was not so much a light as a ghost of a light. They felt rather than saw the deadly evil thing. It was of such a green that no artist could ever paint it. A sickly, yellowish green; a green like the blaze of unpurified sulphur. A bluish, yellowish green, and although it flickered as any flame would flicker, there was about its movements a horrible, characteristic other-worldliness, as though it was in some strange way defying all the powers of gravity, all the currents of the air, all the forces of natural, scientific law. It was a green light which behaved as no other green light anywhere in the physical universe could ever behave. It was a green light straight from hell. As though it had sprung up unbidden and unheralded from the innermost circle of Dante’s dread Inferno,
A cold, green, flickering light, drifting towards them across the lay-by. . . .
It was a weird combination of the everyday and the bizarre — plain yet fantastic. That was what made it so hideous and so terrifying, the fact that supernatural forces had encroached upon their sane, everyday world.
There is nothing so ordinary, so prosaic, so mundane as a lay-by on a great highway. We have all stopped there to mend a puncture, to adjust a carburetter, or to eat a picnic. It is the last place one would expect to find inroads of the realm of unreason. Yet here it was, the sign of the uttermost evil. A cold green light moving towards them across the tarmac, an evil thing that struck an unworldly chill to their hearts. A thing that sent paroxysms of terror through them.
“It’s still coming towards us,” hissed Val, his voice alive with emotion.
“I feel it in my bones,” said La Noire. “It’s going to touch us.”
“Ugh” Stearman shuddered involuntarily. There was something so repellant about the thing, that physical contact with it — even though it itself was scarcely physical — sent shivers down his broad, muscular back. He would far rather have cleaned out the Aegean stables than have permitted it to touch him. Yet there was little else they could do but crouch in that ditch and wait; the faculty of freedom of movement seemed to have been taken from them by this sinister, evil force. They could do nothing but crouch in the ditch, and the thing came closer, and closer, and closer. It seemed an eternity. Every second was a minute; every minute was an hour; every hour was a day; every day was a week; every week was a month; every month was a year; and every year was a decade.
They crouched and waited; dreadfully slowly, inexorably slowly, the hideous thing came closer and closer and closer. While they waited eternity seemed to come and go; time was swallowed up in the everlasting and then the inevitable happened. It touched them. They felt violently, physically sick.
There was a feeling of intense coldness, and then a dreadful sense of falling. The green light had gone, and they were in a hideous black abyss, falling, falling, falling . . . lower, lower, and lower still.
Down, and down again. Yet still further down, falling, falling, falling. . . . The only thing that they were aware of was that they were still clutched tightly in each other’s arms and that they were falling. Falling and falling again.
Another of those ageless eternities seemed to envelope them as they fell. There was no notable acceleration. Just a slow, steady, downward fall. That was perhaps the most terrible thing about the whole experience. It was a fall in slow motion. Then the darkness began to get thicker, and the black abyss began to grow blacker. It was a dreadful darkness, a darkness of the pit, the Stygian darkness as from the nethermost regions of the Underworld and the realms of Pluto. Black, terrifying darkness. It grew thicker and blacker with every passing second. It was unlike any mortal darkness, unlike any worldly darkness. It was a darkness that seemed to absorb every photon of light that had ever been emitted.
The darkness grew so thick that it was almost tangible. They felt as though they might very easily touch the very darkness itself; as though they might touch this black Nemesis . . . all the time it got darker and deeper and there seemed no respite . . . until they felt that their very sanity would go.
When the fall seemed to be coming to an ultimate point, when it seemed that flesh and blood could endure no more, the fall was suddenly over. They were not falling, they were on a level equilibrium. There had been no bump, no sense of a landing. They had simply stopped falling.
Val, with his arms still around La Noire, sat up and drew a deep breath. He was sitting on something — but what he didn’t know. He realised then that he had instinctively closed his eyes as the darkness shut in, in a vain effort to shut out the darkness.
On reflection he realised it was a singularly ostrich-like manoeuvre, and ostrich-like manoeuvres were unlike Val Stearman, who was a man who normally met danger with his eyes open and his shoulders squared.
This had been an experience such as no mortal man had ever lived through before — at least, an experience such as neither of the Stearmans had ever lived through before, and they had adventured with a capital “A” round the known world, and round many unknown ones!
They had travelled through strange, dark, psychic realms. They had met things that most of us have only read of, or dreamed of in nightmares. They had lived the experience, of twenty lifetimes, yet this was entirely new, entirely fresh, and utterly horrible.
On opening his eyes Val was surprised to find that not only had the darkness gone, but that there was a weird greyish light everywhere. He found that he could see tolerably well. It was a light of about the same intensity as intensity as one encounters in an earthly fog or mist. Yes despite the pearly opalescent greyness of the light it was perfectly easy to see. There was no misting, or clouding, or blurring of his vision, as there would have been in an earthly mist. It was like going through a long grey room in which everything was illumined by gleams of concealed lighting in which grey fluorescent tubes shed ghostly beams, but he knew there were no fluorescent tubes down here, if “down here” was a suitable phrase for summing up their present environment. He wondered whether the sensation of falling had been a purely psychological affair which had been concurrent with their removal from one dimension or realm, for he knew now with a very dreadful certainty that they were not anywhere near the earth that they had left behind. They might still be occupying the same tiny piece of space of land, that they had left. Their physical correlates might be in exactly the same place in the great Space-Time continuum but something had changed.
Perhaps, he reflected, the very molecular, atomic structure of their bodies was vibrating at a different wavelength. But whatever the reason, whatever the explanation, they were certainly not where they had been a few moments ago. They had crossed a dark threshold, they had fallen down a black abyss, a psychological, psychic, weird abyss that transcended all the boundaries of time and space as men know them.
Stearman was rapidly gathering his wits; they were on something soft and grey and velvety. It might well have been a thick grey pile carpet. He helped La Noire to her feet. It was not a carpet, it was some completely alien substance. They might have been treading upon a grey cloud. It was almost as though they were living through a weird dream sequence, and Val had an uncanny sensation of the unreality of his surroundings. They had been in strange unreal surroundings before, but this was a hundred times more horrible. This gripped his very soul with icy hands of terror that threatened to wring the very life blood from his heart in a sheer paroxysm of fear.
“Where are we?” asked La Noire.
Val shook his head. “I’ve no idea, darling,” he answered, “no idea at all, have you?”
“I don’t know. I’m not certain about anything yet. I’m still too confused after that — fall?” There was an intonation in her voice that made the last word into a question in its own right.
Val drew a deep breath and put his hand into his pocket, fishing for a cigarette. He found one and lit it with a hand that trembled a little.
“Well, wherever we are there’s enough air to sustain not only respiration but a cigarette at the same time.” It was a brave attempt at humour. La Noire smiled back and her smile was even braver.
Val looked around. There was nothing to be seen anywhere but the greyness. Grey above them, grey all around them, grey beneath them. There wasn’t even an horizon. To that extent at any rate, the mist-like quality of the place thoroughly emulated an earthly fog. You couldn’t see where the land met the sky. You couldn’t see where the sky met the ground. It was queer. . . .
La Noire’s beautiful face creased into a little puzzled frown,
“You’re getting an idea,” said Val.
“Well, you know the theory of other planes occupying the same space and time, and yet being independent of time because they are able to vibrate at different rates on a different wavelength. There’s something about this place that’s so horribly uncanny and alien that it makes me feel that our vibratory wavelengths — our vibratory patterns — have been interfered with by that sinister evil that approached us. We’ve been flung into some kind of limbo. Some other realm of existence. Even though we are roughly physical ourselves, we are not as solid, or as physical, as we were when we were on earth — or if we are, then our environment is not so solid. We don’t belong here!”
“You’re telling me,” said Val. “I have never been anywhere where I felt I belonged less. But these realms you were talking about — tell me more.”
“Well, the theory was, that as you descend so you come one by one to various realms, where the moral standards and the laws governing chaos and order gradually grow less and less rigid, and more and more depraved until you finally arrive at Hell itself, or the most chaotic and least ordered of the planes of existence. Whereas in the other direction, if you move upwards, you would find worlds of greater purity and beauty where goodness has practically overcome evil until you ultimately arrive at the zenith, which is at near as matters, heaven itself.”
“Let me get this straight,” said Val. “You mean there are ascending and descending layers of existence, and we on earth are somewhere in the middle of them, and that life goes on, on these other planes, but at the moment we have sunk down to the next level?”
“Maybe two or three levels,” said La Noire. “We may even have been pulled down to the very edge of Hell. It was a very dark and a very evil power that assailed us.”
“Yes,” he agreed, “I know that.” He squared his broad shoulders. “Well, wherever we are there must be some vestige of good in the place, for I am convinced that there is no spot on this universe where goodness cannot permeate and prevail.”
“Do you really believe that?” asked La Noire.
“Undoubtedly,” said Val. “Quite undoubtedly.” He put his hand into his pocket where the big Browning rested. “And we’ve still got this!”
“If it’ll work down here,” said La Noire.
“I don’t intend wasting a shot to find out — I’ve only got one spare clip and you never know what you’re going to encounter. Besides if evil is stronger than good down here we may need two or three shots to finish anything off.”
“Perhaps silver may not be proof against evil down here,” put in La Noire.
“Let’s hope it is,” said Val grimly as he replaced the gun in his pocket, and they set off walking hand-in-hand, across the grey carpet-like cloud substance beneath their feet.
Suddenly they were not alone. Something seemed to pop up out of the ground beneath them — something brown and wizened, yet which did not seem in the least terrifying or ugly.
“Who — or what — the blazes are you?” asked Stearman, gazing down at the thing. It took him all his time to suppress a grin, for it looked more like one of those quaint little stone figures, with which those of us with gardens are wont to decorate our herbaceous borders.
La Noire was stooping down towards the little wizened creature in its pointed shoes.
“It’s a gnome,” she whispered to Val.
“Yes! And why are you staring so?” said the figure. “Haven’t you ever seen a gnome before? There are plenty of us about!”
La Noire looked from it to Val and tentatively put her hand out and touched it. La Noire was highly sensitive to auras and characters and atmosphere. She smiled at Val.
“It’s good rather than evil,” she said.
“Of course I’m good,” answered the gnome. “All gnomes are good! Or most of us are! The trolls aren’t anything special, but we’re on the side of right.”
“Oh, so there is a force of good still here,” said Val. “That’s something to be thankful for.”
The gnome was looking up at them from its full 18 inch height. Its twinkling little eyes gleamed like two jewels set in gnarled brown oak.
“You don’t belong here, do you?” it said. “You’ve been sent here.” He looked at them again. “You’re from the realm above, aren’t you?”
“You know about that?” asked La Noire.
“Of course we do. You’re not the first, and I don’t suppose you’ll be the last. What did you do? Step into a fairy ring accidentally? Walk three times backwards round a ruined church on Midsummer’s Eve? No, you look too sensible for that! I know what it is! You were proving too powerful for them up there! The force of evil doesn’t get on very well up there. Things are almost equally balanced, aren’t they? Well, it gets on a bit better down here. It’s slightly got the upper hand. We hold our own fairly well, but it has its way more than we like. And in the realm below —” It shrugged its tiny shoulders and folded its arms. “Well, things are pretty grim down there! Three-quarters of the place is in the hands of darkness. But there’s still hope. There’s always hope. They appeal to us for help sometimes, and when we can spare somebody, we send down and do what we can.”
“You sound so prosaic and matter-of-fact about everything,” said Stearman.
“What other way is there to be?” demanded the gnome. “After all — when you’ve lived as long as I have, young man —”
“I’m not exactly young,” said Val indignantly.
“You’re not exactly old by my standards,” said the smiling gnome. “I bet you can’t count your birthdays in centuries!”
“Can you?” asked La Noire.
“But of course! We all can!” said the gnome. “Life begins at four hundred, you know, for us, and you’re not even in your prime till you’re coming on for a thousand!”
“Good heavens,” said Stearman. This is crazy, he thought, I must have gone insane, or else I’m dreaming all this. I can’t really be standing here in a strange grey world talking to a little brown man that just popped out of a grey carpet at my feet.
They moved on with the gnome leading the way walking with sprightly, springy steps.
“There’s a lot of evil in this world,” he said. “There’s some coming now, look out!” They ducked instinctively as something swooped down from the air above them. It was a gigantic bat, more like a pteradactyl than a bat. It swooped towards the gnome, who dodged dexterously and disappeared into a hole in the ground, only his beady little eyes twinkled out.
“Watch out, it’ll be after you next,” he said.
Val and La Noire had already thrown themselves flat, the big journalist’s powerful arm already dragging the gun from his pocket.
“What’s that?” said the twinkling-eyed figure in the hole.
“Haven’t you seen one before?” asked Val. “Tell me,” he rolled on his back to avoid another murderous rake of the talons of the bat-pteradactyl thing, “is silver a holy metal on this planet?”
“Silver! Why there’s hardly two ounces of it in the whole place! It’s the greatest weapon we’ve got! That’s not silver, is it?” he asked doubtfully.
“No, but it’s loaded with silver!” said Stearman. The bat thing was preparing for yet another dive.
“You’re sure silver is proof against evil down here?”
“Absolutely,” said the gnome, and dived down the hole again as the bat creature swooped. It was the last thing the pteradactyl did; it stopped one of Val Stearman’s silver slugs; it seemed to explode in mid-air and fluttered to the earth in a flurry of dust. The gnome popped up from his hole.
“Excellent!” he cried, “excellent!” And began rooting about in the remains of what had once been the lizard-bird. “Aha!” he cried as he found the remains of the spent silver bullet. “So it is silver. I never thought I’d see so much in my life! Oh, but it’s a beautiful sight!”
He produced a strange-looking implement from his belt and with dexterous skill drilled a neat hole through the spent bullet. “No more use to you, I suppose,” he said to Val.
“You’re welcome to it,” answered Stearman.
The gnome produced a thin chain from its pocket, threaded it through the hole it had drilled in the spent bullet, and suspended it from its neck. “From now on,” it said, “I can pretty well lead a charmed life! None of those things’ll come anywhere near me. Don’t you know that the radiations of silver alone are enough to drive off evil on this plane? There was no need to have shot it. . . .”
The gnome was suddenly interrupted by a cataclysmic crash from horizon to horizon, the uncanny grey landscape buckled and twisted as though in the grip of super-cosmic forces.
“The silver!” shouted the gnome, leaping down his hole again. “The dark powers have sensed the silver! They are afraid!”
Stearman and La Noire heard his words as though from far, far away.
The whole grey realm of the sub-world telescoped into nothingness, and they had the sensation of a wild, intoxicating upward rush, as though they were living rockets being projected into the stratosphere by the thrust of incalculable horse-power.
They were standing breathless and shaken in a lay-by, not far ahead tongues of greedy flame were licking at the remains of their car and the large black pantechnicon.
“Did it really happen?” asked Val.
La Noire inclined her beautiful head in a gesture of affirmation.
“I wonder,” she whispered, “whether or not we shall ever visit that realm again.”
“Who knows?” Val shrugged his powerful shoulders. “Now that this other coven are on our track almost anything could happen and probably will.”
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