From Supernatural Stories 47 - 1961
BY BRON FANE
Copyright © R. Lionel Fanthorpe
Used with permission
“Strange shadows dwelt among the crumbling stones.”
“Do you like it, Val?” La Noire was holding up a rather uneven sheet of amber coloured glass.
“What is it?” Stearman looked at the sheet of ochre translucence in bewilderment. That was nothing new to him. His exotic, mysterious wife was nothing if not bewildering. Bewilderment was one of his most constant companions, his intimate acquaintance.
“It’s an ornament.” She said it almost defiantly, as though half expecting him to criticise, which was rather unfair. Val Stearman was if anything inclined to be over indulgent as far as the beautiful La Noire was concerned.
His mind was not on the sheet of amber glass as he looked at her. How many years? His hair was greying. Hers was as dark as ever. There was an inch of middle-aged spread around the iron muscles of his waist. His handsome face was lined. He had worn pretty well, he told himself, but there was no denying the fact that he had definitely worn. The degree of erosion was not yet serious. He would still be tough in twenty years time, but just infinitesimally he was beginning to slow down. He could still draw a gun like lightning, but he reckoned Earp or the James boys would probably have had the edge on him now. Whatever that meant. He paused to re-analyse the rather abstruse train of thought that was leading him precisely nowhere at an amiable pace. He thought that what he had really been thinking was. . . .
“Darling, you’re not concentrating.”
“Sorry,” he grinned. He had forgotten for a second that La Noire was a telepath. That was one wifely virtue that he sometimes wished she hadn’t got.
“I said do you like the glass?” He forced himself to concentrate on it. The sheet had rounded contours, an uneven surface and an irregular density of hue. It varied from the gentlest tints of smoke yellow to a veritable orange glare. In places it was practically opaque. In others he could actually see through it. Taken on the average it admitted light more often than not. It was an odd non-functional thing.
“Well, I suppose it’s all right,” he murmured in a rather non-committal voice.
La Noire looked rather crest-fallen.
“You don’t really like it, do you?” He had to be honest. That was the way he felt about her. That was the way their relationship worked. A man had to be honest when his wife was a telepath. If he hadn’t adored her he couldn’t have lived with her for more than a few hours.
“No, darling.” He said it as gently as possible. He hated to hurt her feelings, but honestly . . . ! That weird sheet of amber glass. It seemed so utterly purposeless. What on earth was the point of the thing?
“Does a thing have to have a reason?” La Noire’s voice cut straight across his thoughts with uncanny precision. That telepathy again!
“I suppose not,” Val was on the defensive. “But I would have thought that having a purpose would have increased its value.”
“Why does everybody say ‘I would have thought’ instead of ‘I think’ nowadays?” asked La Noire rhetorically. “It’s so much easier, more grammatical and more direct, yet nobody uses it any more.” She looked at Val reproachfully. “You always used to be terribly forthright darling. Don’t say this terrible trend of the sixties has engulfed even you. I prefer the fighting fifties any day.”
“You would,” said Val rather caustically. “But then you’re amoral.”
“I’m not quite sure what amoral means,” said La Noire ruefully, “It doesn’t sound awfully flattering.”
“Depends on the standpoint,” Stearman was laughing.
“Anyway,” said La Noire with a little pout, “What about my ornament? Even if you don’t like it I’ve got to put it somewhere?” There was a question in her voice.
“How about the trash can?” grinned Stearman. “I’ll shift your mother’s portrait to make room for it!”
“If I hadn’t just paid ten bob for this down in the Portobello Road,” said La Noire clenching her beautiful hands into two cute little fists, “I’d . . . I’d . . . break it over your head.”
“I’m glad you consider my poor old nut is worth more than half a quid,” rejoined her irrepressible husband.
After lengthy discussion the Stearmans remembered the cupboard under the stairs. There was only one short flight in their Park Lane flat, and it was ornately carpeted with some weird astrakhan-like material that looked like the fur of the great white woolly Wugga-Waffa. A fabulous beast, it is supposed by some obscure authorities to be transmigratory and live on the Steppes.
Under the short flight of stairs was an elaborately concealed cupboard. Like the glass it was decidedly nonfunctional.
Val and La Noire surveyed the cupboard thoughtfully for several minutes.
“If we took the door off. . . .” began La Noire, thoughtfully.
“We could use it as a toboggan and slide down the stairs,” Val’s interruption was unkind and to the point.
They surveyed the cupboard again in silence.
“Do you really want the door off?” asked Val at last. “If you’re really serious about it I’d pull the whole darned place to splinters with my teeth. I’m sorry I’ve been pulling your leg so much, honey.”
“I’m not sure yet, honestly,” La Noire put her arm around Val’s waist. He bent his head a little and kissed her beautiful red lips.
“Yes,” she said it suddenly, decisively, “that’s what we’ll do.”
He looked at her expectantly, like a faithful old dog hoping for a bone.
“I want to take that silly little door off and put our new orange glass there, instead,” she announced. Val looked a little taken aback.
“I like the way you said ‘our’,” he grinned. “I haven’t claimed a share in the flaming thing.” Nevertheless he took the door off as she requested. The resulting aperture was an astrakhan-fringed cave measuring about three feet by two, the glass just fitted.
Val Stearman was a practical man. He finally succeeded in making two wooden slides for the glass to rest in. It looked for all the world like a great orange guillotine when he had finished. He glanced at his watch.
“Dinner at Alfredo’s and a show?”
“I’m not too sure that you deserve it after the Orange Glass Incident, but I’m noted for my generous disposition,” laughed Val.
“I’m noted for my powers of persuasion, too,” La Noire’s laugh was soft, feminine and enchanting.
It was a pleasant evening and they arrived home tired. Sleep was only seconds away as Val turned out the light.
He woke up suddenly, with an indescribably vague sensation of wrongness. It is the type of feeling a man gets when he retires exhausted to bed only to recall that he has forgotten to latch the front door. It was as though a door had been left open. But not a physical door. Val Stearman felt as if a psychic draught was blowing down some eerie fourth dimensional corridor. It was as though a rift had opened in reality. He felt as if he and La Noire were exposed to some eldritch horror from another plane. It was a singularly exposed feeling . . . an uneasy feeling. . . .
He lay in the dimness of the bedroom wondering whether to wake her. She lay serene and intoxicatingly lovely, on the pillow beside him. He wondered how he had managed to sleep so easily. It occurred to him that he must be growing old. He grinned ruefully in the darkness. The grin faded. His mind was tune in to something. Something ought not to have been there. Something didn’t belong on the physical plane. Something didn’t belong in the same realm of existence as ordinary mortal man. Val Stearman sat upright in the darkness and he didn’t like something one little bit. He liked it as much as he liked arsenic or a visit to the dentist.
Finally he decided to wake La Noire. It was a pity, he thought. She looked, so beautiful as she lay asleep, so tranquil, so angelic. Love welled up within him like the swelling tide of the Solway. He woke her with a tender kiss. Her enchanting black eyes opened like the wings of a butterfly unfolding. She smiled up at him in the darkness. He kissed her again.
“What’s the matter, darling?” Her question was a soft whisper.
“I feel as if I’ve left a door open,” answered Val. “Only I know I haven’t.”
“I’m sure you haven’t,” agreed La Noire. She cocked her magnificent head on one side like a beautiful bird, and listened intently.
“There’s something in here that shouldn’t be,” murmured Val, in a voice of silky softness. La Noire nodded in the darkness.
Val slid a hand under the pillow and produced his big Browning automatic. It was a heavy .45 calibre job with a beautifully balanced action. But it was more than a heavy, accurate, well balanced weapon. There was something very singular about that gun. It was loaded with silver bullets. The Stearmans had done many strange things in many strange lands. Val had made as many sinister enemies as it is possible for a reckless daredevil reporter-adventurer to make. He had specialised in the unusual for years. Offbeat stuff; off-trail stuff; that was Val Stearman’s life blood. It was the elixir that pounded through his veins as a substitute for oxy-haemoglobin. Adventure and existence were synonymous as far as Val was concerned. He could not have conceived one without the other. The latter would have been a tasteless vista of wasted nights and days without the former. Life without adventure would have been as void of meaning to Stearman as life without the enigmatic La Noire, and neither would have been endurable.
His athletic toes touched the floor. Long powerful muscular legs followed the toes out of bed. He slipped on his dressing gown, and tiptoed down the corridor gun in hand. The hand that held the gun was a rock, a rock of flesh and blood. A rock of muscle and bone. It was a rock upon which the ship of the uninvited presence in the Stearman flat would very likely founder. Val was hardly a green-horn in these matters. He and La Noire had had many a psychic adventure before. They had destroyed a black magic coven, a number of werewolves and vampires, a ghoul, and a host of other sinister creatures of the night.
At the end of the corridor Val paused and called to La Noire over his shoulder.
“You should be careful what you bring into the house, honey.” There was a certain gentle devil-may-care debonair banter in the words, but the tone was serious enough.
La Noire’s only answer was a startled gasp.
A vivid orange-yellow light like the noxious smoke of some foul unnatural candle was filling the far end of the corridor.
“The glass!” she exclaimed.
“The glass, indeed!” rejoined Val grimly. They approached it on tip-toe.
“We’ve seen some pretty queer sights,” admitted Val, “but this is certainly a turn-up for the book. It’s original at least.”
“You don’t think it’s one of them?” asked La Noire in a whisper.
“Doubtful,” said Stearman, shaking his great powerful head. “It’s possible they’ve tried to plant some new devilry, but bombs are more in their line, I think.”
They were standing directly in front of the glowing orange yellow glassy thing.
“It’s not physical,” whispered La Noire in that beautiful mellow, liquid voice of hers. “It’s something belonging to the great ethereal world. It’s something occult . . . something supernatural . . . it’s paranormal . . . para-psychological.”
They moved over slowly until they stood directly in front of the glowing patch of orange yellow light. The glass itself seemed to have disappeared, leaving only this bright, yellowish glow in the aperture.
“It’s like the sight-smoke in a scrying crystal,” exclaimed La Noire in sudden inspiration. “It makes me think of a broken crystal from which the psychic vapours have escaped.” Val peered at the yellow glow carefully. It was as she had said. It looked for all the world like a patch of crystal-gazer’s mist that had escaped from its glassy prison.
As they watched a strange, subtle change began to take place in the glow. It seemed to clear. The movement was very gradual at first, but it rapidly became more definite. It was clearing. It was very definitely clearing. They could see through the thing perfectly. It was like watching a very old film at first and then it cleared until it had the clarity of a good quality TV. The definition altered again. It became so stark and acute that it tended to hurt the eyes. The detail was needle sharp, it was like watching a distant scene through a pair of superb binoculars.
They were looking at a panorama of neatly cultivated fields. A line of gently rolling hills filled the horizon. In the foreground was a city. A strange Faerie city. There was a weird unreal quality about its architecture. The spires seemed to float above the quaint winding streets. The domes were not perfectly rounded, they seemed to conform to a pattern of sorts but there was nothing of the understood architectural rule about them. The city seemed alien, strange, bizarre and a trifle grotesque. It was an uneasy city, illuminated by an aura of uneasy yellow light. It was the centrepiece of an uneasy yellow world. The world beyond the yellow glass was utterly unknown, absolutely strange.
“A few minutes ago,” whispered La Noire, “that was the cupboard under our stairs, concealed by a sheet of yellow glass.”
The air around them grew strangely colder. There was a strange feeling in the atmosphere. It was like being in the grip of a powerful electro-magnet. Val was reminded of an occasion on which he had been inveigled into riding on the Rotor at a fun fair. They seemed to be caught up in a fantastic vortex of power. It was like being involved in a Maelstrom. They were picked up like weightless leaves in a strong eddying air current. They were swept along like grains of sand and caught in a Saharan storm, swept up and forward by a relentless remorseless pressure, a pressure which increased and grew with every passing second until neither seconds nor distance seemed to have any meaning. Space and time had become oddly disjointed.
Val and La Noire were aware of nothing except an enormous density of yellow mist that was all around them. It was a sensation somewhat akin to being at the bottom of a very, very deep hole. They felt that everything was pressing upon them.
It was like finding oneself in a punctured diving suit at the bottom of a very deep loch. The coldness in the air was beginning to abate somewhat. It was growing warmer again and the yellow glare around them was becoming clearer, the misty quality of the light was fading . . . Previously it had been a sort of phosphorescence, an opalescent light, but now it was clear, almost like sunshine, and they were no longer floating, drifting or being pulled by strange psychic forces. They were standing on ground — solid ground. Ground that was bathed and suffused with yellow light. They looked up. . . .
Far, far above them a bluish sky — a bluish purple sky — like a gigantic inverted bowl, filled their field of vision from horizon to horizon in every direction.
There was nothing to be seen except that tremendous phantasmagoria of sky. No birds flew through it. No trees interlaced it with their graceful branches — there was just the sky. And below the sky, where it met the horizon they could see a line of gently rounded hills.
La Noire clung to Val for protection.
“We have fallen through the yellow glass,” she whispered. “It’s drawn us down into this unknown universe.”
Val was nodding quietly.
“It certainly seems like it,” he agreed. He turned around and surveyed the landscape. There were no other hills apart from those that blocked the horizon ahead of them, and as they turned round they could see nothing but mile after mile of neatly cultivated fields, like a green and brown patchwork quilt in the yellow light.
A little distance from where they stood was a road. Not a terribly good road — but a road!
They made their way towards it. The road led to the city.
“What are we going to do?” whispered La Noire.
“I suggest we head for the city,” said Val. “It seems a logical step to take. It probably won’t do us much good, but it’s better than standing here in the fields. We shan’t get back to reality — or our own world — by standing here and looking.”
“Of course not,” La Noire agreed. “Come on!”
They stepped out bravely along the rather medieval road which led to the in the faerie city. Some of its ethereal quality seemed rather less beautiful and entrancing, rather more frightening and forbidding, the closer they got. It looked like a beautiful, poisonous flower that was somehow luring them towards terrifying danger. As they approached it, the closer they got the more obvious it became that the city was far from being in good repair. Also they noticed movement. Strange shadows dwelt among the crumbling stones . . . Before they could reach the enormous old gate, hanging at a strange angle upon weird hinges, the yellow light had begun to fade. It began to grow dark. There was no visible sun that had set, but all the same that yellow light was fading. It faded and dimmed as the lights in a theatre are put out by variable resistances, until a soft, yellow-tinged grey twilight covered the entire city. And the strange shadows that dwelt in the crumbling streets, strange shadows that lived in the crumbling stone, were moving, purposefully, and with sinister relentlessness, as though the dark, dead denizens of the faerie city were coming out like curious, nocturnal animals to see who had dared disturb their age-old peace.
Val and La Noire clung to each other tightly. Stearman’s hand still clasped the gun, and he was very glad indeed that he held it. He didn’t know how evil or how strange this realm was. He didn’t even know whether silver would be as effective against evil here as it was in the world they had just left. But he did know that he was very glad indeed to be armed.
It was almost pitch dark by the time they had stood in the gateway of the city. Only the very dimmest of outlines of the gate itself was visible to them.
“Wish we had a torch,” Val said.
“So do I,” La Noire agreed fervently, and almost as though their wishes had been heard by some benevolent power of this strange realm, a soft silver radiance, a pinkish silver radiance began to steal over the darkened landscape. Slowly at first, and then faster and faster, the intensity of the light doubled and redoubled again, until it was almost as light as it had been before.
Now they could see the source of the radiance. Twin moons were rising gently above the horizon at the back of the line of hills. The long line of hills that rolled purposefully away in the distance like the spines on a dinosaur’s back. One was a bright silver disc, like a new half-crown, shining in the minter’s tray. The other was pink, a beautiful roseate hue like the bud of some celestial flower opening in the gardens of heaven. They could almost smell the warm, pleasant fragrance of that pink light. And together with the silver it turned the strange landscape of this unknown real into a world of faerie magic, and some of the sinister evil seemed to leave the forbidden city.
The wrought-iron patterns of the gate, hanging drunkenly on its crazy hinges, sprang up before their eyes, and now it was no mere wrought iron, but a tracery of magical silver. A tracery of beautiful rosy tones. The gates were not fastened, but wedged ajar, as though expecting them. Hand in hand Val and La Noire slid through them to the other side, and now they were in the forbidden city itself.
They stood beneath the strange old domes, stood looking round them at the fantastic old cobbled streets. They might have stepped back a thousand years into history. Towns like this one could have existed in the Middle Ages, but not with an architecture like this. . . .
It was at one and the same time a mixture of strange old world charm and a kind of visionary newness. There was about it a peculiar forcefulness, a strange quality of alien presences.
“Where do you think we are?” Val whispered.
“No idea — no idea at all, darling. It could be anywhere — the Past, the Future, the Present, an unknown realm, it could even be one of the Probability Worlds.”
Val was nodding,
“Yes, I suppose it could. How did we get transported here?”
“There was no doubt it was something to do with that piece of orange glass I bought,” La Noire said.
“It seems so old, so fantastically old,” Val answered and broke off. Something was moving, moving among the shadows, and it didn’t seem a terrible distance away.
What were they? What could they be? He looked up again at the faerie tracery of the ancient city’s architecture. It seemed to defy the very law of gravity — if there was a law of gravity on this strange place. The moving shadow was coming closer still. Val backed slowly away from it, keeping La Noire protectively behind him, the gun in his hand as steady as a rock. His finger began to tighten on the trigger. The shadow stepped out of the cover of the building, and he saw it in the pink and silver moonlight and uttered a cry of revulsion. Stearman was a strong man and it took a lot to revolt him. Stearman had a pretty well shock-proof mind. A man who can face a vampire without flinching; a man who can watch a ghoul at its grisly work and not turn away sickened; a man who can fight bare-handed with a werewolf and not turn away, is not a man who frightens easily.
It took a great deal to bring a cry of revulsion to Val Stearman’s lips, but he gave a cry of revulsion as he saw the shadow that stepped out into the moonlight. And yet there was nothing odd, singular, or significantly evil about the thing. Nothing that was any worse than any of the things that he had seen before, it was just that this combined all those visible, symbolic facets of representative evil that he had ever seen before. There was about it the sheer, nauseating revulsion of the ghoul, the sinister, smooth, svelte evil of the cultured vampire; it had the devilish ferocity of the werewolf. The intriguing mystery of the spectral phantom of the night. It had the malevolent glaring eyes of the demon, the grotesque ugliness of a witch, a wizard and a warlock.
There was in its being the solemn, sombre darkness of the necromancer. It had the gaunt unearthliness of the undead, and over and above all this it was strangely amorphous, changing, manipulating its outline, and as Val looked towards it, he realised why it had appeared as a shadow at first. The answer to the riddle of its appearance sprang into his mind, whole and complete. . . .
He heard La Noire whisper:
“I think I’m going to faint or be sick!” He held her tightly. His other hand held the gun.
He knew that he was right about the thing, he wasn’t seeing it at all in the physical sense of seeing. His eyes were not picking up rays and waves of light that were reflecting from the creature’s body. He was perceiving the creature, but the perception was nothing at all to do with physical sight.
There was an evil entity in his path, of that there could be no doubt at all, but the evil entity in his path was not visible in the sense that a gate or a spire or a building is visible. It reflected no light. He was aware of it mentally. At some deep, subconscious level his mind was picking up the presence of an evil thing. Picking it up, analysing it, and throwing it up as a perception image towards his conscious levels, but throwing it up symbolically. His subconscious was trying to express to him the quintessence of all the evil that he had ever encountered. It was telling him that this shadow, this dark, flitting, fleeting thing, was an evil entity of the worst possible kind, the highest possible order.
So enwrapt was his attention with the thing that was approaching him that it was several seconds before he realised that La Noire was talking.
“This is one of the Great Dark Evil Ones,” she was saying. And he knew that the sensitive girl in his arms had gone off into one of her medium-like semi-trances. It reminded him dimly of the many years ago when he had rescued her from the coven of Black Magicians,
“We must take great care,” she was whispering, “my spirit guides tell me that this is a thing of tremendous evil, of deadly, dangerous power. With power to tear a soul from the body and drag it down to hell. All the quaintness and beauty of this strange realm is just a disguise, a camouflage, a facade, a whited sepulchre, and within there is nothing but corruption.”
At the Scriptural allusion, the creature in front of Stearman’s gun hesitated, and he knew then just how evil it was. The more deadly evil a creature was, the more susceptible it was to discovery by the simple expedient of Biblical text, or some sacred sign or symbol.
He leveled the gun at it thoughtfully. It was drawing closer, closer still. Just for a second he seemed to be back in No-man’s Land with his squad at his back, charging towards the German trench, he could almost hear himself yelling over his shoulder to the lads behind him.
“Don’t fire until you can see the whites of their eyes!” It took all his courage to stick to that old military maxim, but he did it, and then he pressed the trigger. The reverberating echo of the shot was thunderous. The whole strange realm of the orange glass world seemed to vibrate and tremble, seemed to rock as though the very axis had been shifted by some cosmic explosion.
The bullet struck the thing fair and square in the ‘chest’ — if such a foul creature of semi-humanity — sub-humanity, sub-normality — could be said to have a chest!
Perhaps ‘thorax’ would have been a better epithet, thought Stearman, and pressed the trigger twice more in rapid succession. The heavy silver slugs erupted from the barrel of the powerful Browning automatic in a cascade of violent death.
It seemed to go terrifyingly quiet after the echo of the explosions had died away.
There was a terrible quietness, and during it eternity seemed to come and go.
For a long, long second the thing in front of Stearman’s gun didn’t move, and then a look of incredulous horror and utter disbelief spread across its fantastically evil features, it crumpled into a heap of foul-smelling fragments.
There was a rush of air, a rush of air that grew stronger and stronger still.
Val and La Noire found themselves caught in the vortex again, caught in the maelstrom, being swirled up and up, and back.
Once more they were grains of sand in an enormous psychic sand storm. Once more they were flotsam and jetsam on the beach of eternity.
Then they were gone. Swirling down and down like cosmic snowflakes. Swirling through the dimensions, as no mortal was ever meant to do. . . .
As suddenly as it had started it was all over. Val and La Noire found themselves sitting breathless and bewildered on the thick astrakhan rug below the cupboard under the stairs. They were surrounded by shattered fragments of orange glass.
“Incredible,” breathed Val, “absolutely incredible.”
“Did it really happen?” La Noire asked, “Or have we just had a nightmare?”
For answer Val dragged open the clip of the big Browning.
“Three shots fired,” he said.
They looked for several minutes, but they never found the bullets.
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