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They had not gone far, but were waiting for him only a little above. Aldo held
the other lamp, and Luchare was just filling it from the now depleted oilskin,
which she cast away. They did not light it but fell in behind Hiero and began
their upward journey. He set a sharp pace and no one questioned it, but they
were all too exhausted to run, and a brisk walk was the best they could do.
"How long can it hold them, do you suppose?" Luchare gasped at length.
"Long enough," Hiero said curtly. "For God's sake, darling, save your breath!
We're not out of danger yet. The ancients had exact time devices and 1 don't!
Just keep walking and try to keep your mind a blank."
She did not flare up in anger, for she recognized by now that his orders had
reason, and they trudged on in silence. The light showed the ramp to be almost
featureless, a great tube, lined with some age-defying substance, which had
been cut into the earth and rock with micrometer precision by its long-dead
makers. Once or twice they passed a sealed opening in the walls, but they did
not stop. There were no lights visible, and only the flicker of their little
lamp lit the way.
This must have been the main path, the priest reflected, driving his weary
legs forward and upward. They had been walking a long time, at least it felt
like forever, but he dared not rest. The forces trapped in that place behind
them were too awful to take any chances with. But talking might ease the
strain.
"Did you find any computers?" he asked at length.
"No," was Aldo's answer. "Such a search might take a week, or a month. But
Luchare found something. She is carrying it. Do you think the Unclean can,
free themselves? They have the man and beast power to find anything there. And
what about the House? It is so powerful, Hiero. What might it not do with the
knowledge of the past?"
"The house cares nothing about the past or machines or weapons. I know what it
thinks or feels as well as anyone human that is, now alive. It has no use for
mechanical devices,
AN END AND A BEGINNING 315
but only what it makes or grows itself." He forgot Luchare's find as his worry
reasserted itself.
"Yet it, or perhaps one of its creatures, was looking around at the control
board. Don't forget that."
"I know." Hiero's laugh was grim. "And it had no idea what it was doing, I'm
sure of that too. Yet it may have given us a way out by its action. How long
have we been walking, do you suppose?"
"At least an hour, I should think. Are we safe yet?"
"No. Keep walking. We've got to keep on till we drop, if necessary. I can
still feel the pressure behind me. And the House is weakening!"
"Can they kill it and follow us? Maybe we can block this tunnel, then."
Luchare's tone was defiant, her attitude that of the princess she was. Hiero's
heart warmed to her.
"Maybe we can," he said more cheerfully. "But it hasn't quite let go yet. It
never had to control so many powerful minds before, all alien to it and all
trying to break loose. It hasn't dared move, I can feel that, all right.
Perhaps it's summoning some of its carnivorous slime molds. And the Unclean
are still there too. I can feel all their minds, even under their screens,
like one big ball of force."
"I also," Aldo admitted. "What an amazing creature the House is. How I would
like to know it, to learn what it thinks, feels, and wants from life." His
tone was wistful.
Hiero glanced at his aged ally in amazement. The Eleventh Commandment really
embraced everything, it seemed!
We are close to the good air. Gorm had been waddling unhappily along, his pink
tongue hanging out and his fur an inch deep in gray film. Now he scented
escape from this underground world he disliked, and his spirits lifted.
Hiero momentarily covered the lamp with the edge of his cloak, and they all
strained their eyes. Was there a faint lessening of the blackness ahead? The
very thought revived their flagging energy.
Soon it was a reality. As the light grew, Hiero slowed his pace. "There may be
a rearguard," he said. "They'd be fools if there weren't something of the
kind. Let me probe a bit while you three rest and catch your breath."
His mind sped forward ahead of them, seeking any intel-
316 HIERO'S JOURNEY
ligence that might be lurking above at the tunnel's mouth. But he could detect
nothing, not even the shrouded energy which he had learned meant an Unclean
mind shield. Unbelievable as it seemed, the whole force of the enemy had
apparently plunged into the bowels of the earth, so overconfident of his
destruction it had left nothing behind.
He told the others this, and they went cautiously on. Three more great curves,
and the light was quite strong enough to make the guttering lamp unnecessary.
The faint calling and piping of birds came to their ears now, and even the
human noses could catch the sweet scent of the air which poured down the
shaft.
"Let me go first." Hiero took the lead again and soon saw the great, opened
doors ahead. He absently noted the shattered hinges and, when he stepped
outside, the cleverness of the device amazed him. For the two huge doors were
made of something on the outside which imitated weathered, gray rock and yet
which must have been far more impervious than any granite. The Unclean had
been indeed cunning to penetrate their secret and so quickly follow on his
traces.
All this raced through his mind as he drank in the cool air of the tropic
dawn, but he urged the others on as before.
"Hurry," he said, "hurry! We can't delay yet! We may not be safe for hours!"
He gave Luchare, who was stumbling, his arm again. He was oblivious to the
packet to which she clung with her other hand, for her telescoped spear was
now tucked through her belt.
The four set off to the south over the boulder-strewn waste onto which the
huge tunnel had opened. Limping and staggering, they went on, no one
questioning Hiero's iron determination or right to drive them thus. Aldo now
frankly leaned on his heavy staff, something no one had seen him do before.
Still they staggered on, their breath coming in painful gasps, their muscles
twitching and burning. The ground was semi-desert, tall weeds and thornbush
growing up through patches of rock and scree. The cool air of dawn gave way to
the burning heat of morning and (very slowly now) they hobbled forward. Time
seemed to pass with terrible slowness.
Then it happened. Hiero, who had been listening both with his mind and his
other senses, felt it first.
AN END AND A BEGINNING
317
"Down!" he shouted and, falling, pulled Luchare close to him. Aldo, too, fell
prone, while the bear simply collapsed.
First came a gentle tremor of the earth, so slight it might have deceived them
into thinking it was a muscle spasm of their own overused bodies.
Then the earth began to shake and heave, rising and falling in a great wave,
as if the tiny atoms of flesh which clung to it were being tossed in some
inconceivable blanket. For the first time, Gorm let out a howl of sheer
terror.
A distant, muffled roar filled the air. Slowly the heaving of the troubled
earth died away. A ringing in their ears also ceased. They raised their heads
and looked at one another. Hiero was the first to grin, his white teeth [ Pobierz całość w formacie PDF ]