The Dwellers in the Mirage - A. Merritt - ebook

The Dwellers in the Mirage ebook

A. Merritt



This science fantasy novel by Abraham Merritt concerns American Leif Langdon who accidentally discovers a hidden valley in Alaska that unexpectedly supports abundant life, including two tribes of people: a pygmy race; and warriors who descend from Mongols. The warriors worship an evil Kraken, whom they summon to offer human sacrifice. The inhabitants believe Langdon to be the reincarnation of their long dead hero, Dwayanu... There are lost civilizations, malignant gods, ancient rituals, wicked priests, strange monsters, raging battles and comely princesses, or in one case, a beautiful witch-woman Lur – in a very satisfying grand adventure. Highly recommended for fans of both weird fiction and sword & sorcery.

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Liczba stron: 385

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I raised my head, listening–not only with my ears but with every square inch of my skin, waiting for a recurrence of the sound that had awakened me. There was silence, utter silence. No soughing in the boughs of the spruces clustered around the little camp. No stirring of furtive life in the underbrush. Through the spires of the spruces the stars shone wanly in the short sunset to sunrise twilight of the early Alaskan summer.

A sudden wind bent the spruce tops, carrying again the sound–the clangor of a beaten anvil.

I slipped out of my blanket, and round the dim embers of the fire toward Jim. His voice halted me.

“All right, Leif. I hear it.”

The wind sighed and died, and with it died the humming aftertones of the anvil stroke. Before we could speak, the wind arose. It bore the after-hum of the anvil stroke–faint and far away. And again the wind died, and with it the sound.

“An anvil, Leif!”


A stronger gust swayed the spruces. It carried a distant chanting; voices of many women and men singing a strange, minor theme. The chant ended on a wailing chord, archaic, dissonant.

There was a long roll of drums, rising in a swift crescendo, ending abruptly. After it a thin and clamorous confusion.

It was smothered by a low, sustained rumbling, like thunder, muted by miles. In it defiance, challenge.

We waited, listening. The spruces were motionless. The wind did not return.

“Queer sort of sounds, Jim.” I tried to speak casually, He sat up. A stick flared up in the dying fire. Its light etched his face against the darkness –thin, and brown and hawk-profiled. He did not look at me.

“Every feathered forefather for the last twenty centuries is awake and shouting! Better call me Tsantawu, Leif. Tsi’ Tsa’lagi–I am a Cherokee! Right now–all Indian.”

He smiled, but still he did not look at me, and I was glad of that.

“It was an anvil,” I said. “A hell of a big anvil. And hundreds of people singing...and how could that be in this wilderness...they didn’t sound like Indians...”

“The drums weren’t Indian.” He squatted by the fire, staring into it. “When they turned loose, something played a pizzicato with icicles up and down my back.”

“They got me, too–those drums!” I thought my voice was steady, but he looked up at me sharply; and now it was I who averted my eyes and stared at the embers. “They reminded me of something I heard...and thought I saw... in Mongolia. So did the singing. Damn it, Jim, why do you look at me like that?”

I threw a stick on the fire. For the life of me I couldn’t help searching the shadows as the stick flamed. Then I met his gaze squarely.

“Pretty bad place, was it, Leif?” he asked, quietly. I said nothing. Jim got up and walked over to the packs. He came back with some water and threw it over the fire. He kicked earth on the hissing coals. If he saw me wince as the shadows rushed in upon us, he did not show it.

“That wind came from the north,” he said. “So that’s the way the sounds came. Therefore, whatever made the sounds is north of us. That being so –which way do we travel tomorrow?”

“North,” I said.

My throat dried as I said it.

Jim laughed. He dropped upon his blanket, and rolled it around him. I propped myself against the bole of one of the spruces, and sat staring toward the north.

“The ancestors are vociferous, Leif. Promising a lodge of sorrow, I gather –if we go north...’Bad Medicine!’ say the ancestors...’Bad Medicine for you, Tsantawu! You go to Usunhi’yi, the Darkening-land, Tsantawu!...Into Tsusgina’i, the ghost country! Beware! Turn from the north, Tsantawu!’”

“Oh, go to sleep, you hag-ridden redskin!”

“All right, I’m just telling you.”

Then a little later:

“‘And heard ancestral voices prophesying war’–it’s worse than war these ancestors of mine are prophesying, Leif.”

“Damn it, will you shut up!”

A chuckle from the darkness; thereafter silence.

I leaned against the tree trunk. The sounds, or rather the evil memory they had evoked, had shaken me more than I was willing to admit, even to myself. The thing I had carried for two years in the buckskin bag at the end of the chain around my neck had seemed to stir; turn cold. I wondered how much Jim had divined of what I had tried to cover...Why had he put out the fire? Because he had known I was afraid? To force me to face my fear and conquer it?...Or had it been the Indian instinct to seek cover in darkness?...By his own admission, chant and drum-roll had played on his nerves as they had on mine...

Afraid! Of course it had been fear that had wet the palms of my hands, and had tightened my throat so my heart had beaten in my ears like drums.

Like drums...yes!

But...not like those drums whose beat had been borne to us by the north wind. They had been like the cadence of the feet of men and women, youths and maids and children, running ever more rapidly up the side of a hollow world to dive swiftly into the void...dissolving into the nothingness...fading as they fell...dissolving...eaten up by the nothingness...

Like that accursed drum-roll I had heard in the secret temple of the Gobi oasis two years ago!

Neither then nor now had it been fear alone. Fear it was, in truth, but fear shot through with defiance...defiance of life against its negation... upsurging, roaring, vital rage...frantic revolt of the drowning against the strangling water, rage of the candle-flame against the hovering extinguisher...

Was it as hopeless as that? If what I suspected to be true was true, to think so was to be beaten at the beginning!

But there was Jim! How to keep him out of it? In my heart, I had never laughed at those subconscious perceptions, whatever they were, that he called the voices of his ancestors. When he had spoken of Usunhi’yi, the Darkening- land, a chill had crept down my spine. For had not the old Uighur priest spoken of the Shadowed-land? And it was as though I had heard the echo of his words.

I looked over to where he lay. He had been more akin to me than my own brothers. I smiled at that, for they had never been akin to me. To all but my soft-voiced, deep-bosomed, Norse mother I had been a stranger in that severely conventional old house where I had been born.

The youngest son, and an unwelcome intruder; a changeling. It had been no fault of mine that I had come into the world a throwback to my mother’s yellow-haired, blue-eyed, strong-thewed Viking forefathers. Not at all a Langdon. The Langdon men were dark and slender, thin-lipped and saturnine. stamped out by the same die for generations. They looked down at me, the changeling, from the family portraits with faintly amused, supercilious hostility. Precisely as my father and my four brothers, true Langdons, each of them, looked at me when I awkwardly disposed of my bulk at their table.

It had brought me unhappiness, but it had made my mother wrap her heart around me. I wondered, as I had wondered many times, how she had come to give herself to that dark, self-centered man my father–with the blood of the sea-rovers singing in her veins. It was she who had named me Leif– as incongruous a name to tack on a Langdon as was my birth among them.

Jim and I had entered Dartmouth on the same day. I saw him as he was then –the tall, brown lad with his hawk face and inscrutable black eyes. pure blood of the Cherokees, of the clan from which had come the great Sequoiah, a clan which had produced through many centuries wisest councillors, warriors strong in cunning.

On the college roster his name was written James T. Eagles, but on the rolls of the Cherokee Nation it was written Two Eagles and his mother had called him Tsantawu. From the first we had recognized spiritual kinship. By the ancient rites of his people we had become blood-brothers, and he had given me my secret name, known only to the pair of us, Degataga–one who stands so close to another that the two are one.

My one gift, besides my strength, is an aptness at languages. Soon I spoke the Cherokee as though I had been born in the Nation. Those years in college were the happiest I had ever known. It was during the last of them that America entered the World War. Together we had left Dartmouth, gone into training camp, sailed for France on the same transport.

Sitting there, under the slow-growing Alaskan dawn, my mind leaped over the years mother’s death on Armistice return to New York to a frankly hostile home...Jim’s recall to his clan...the finishing of my course in mining wanderings in second return to America and my search for Jim...this expedition of ours to Alaska, more for comradeship and the wilderness peace than for the gold we were supposed to be seeking–

A long trail since the War–the happiest for me these last two months of it. It had led us from Nome over the quaking tundras, and then to the Koyukuk, and at last to this little camp among the spruces, somewhere between the headwaters of the Koyukuk and the Chandalar in the foothills of the unexplored Endicott Range. A long trail...I had the feeling that it was here the real trail of my life began.

A ray of the rising sun struck through the trees. Jim sat up, looked over at me, and grinned.

“Didn’t get much sleep after the concert, did you?”

“What did you do to the ancestors? They didn’t seem to keep you awake long.”

He said, too carelessly: “Oh, they quieted down.” His face and eyes were expressionless. He was veiling his mind from me. The ancestors had not quieted down. He had lain awake while I had thought him sleeping. I made a swift decision. We would go south as we had planned. I would go with him as far as Circle. I would find some pretext to leave him there.

I said: “We’re not going north. I’ve changed my mind.”

“Yes. Why?”

“I’ll tell you after we’ve had breakfast,” I said–I’m not so quick in thinking up lies. “Rustle up a fire, Jim. I’ll go down to the stream and get some water.”


I started. It was only in moments of rare sympathy or in time of peril that he used the secret name.

“Degataga, you go north! You go if I have to march ahead of you to make you follow...” he dropped into the Cherokee..."It is to save your spirit, Degataga. Do we march together–blood-brothers? Or do you creep after me–like a shivering dog at the heels of the hunter?”

The blood pounded in my temples, my hand went out toward him. He stepped back, and laughed.

“That’s better, Leif.”

The quick rage left me, my hand fell.

“All right, Tsantawu. We go–north. But it wasn’t–it wasn’t because of myself that I told you I’d changed my mind.”

“I know damned well it wasn’t!”

He busied himself with the fire. I went after the water. We drank the strong black tea, and ate what was left of the little brown storks they call Alaskan turkeys which we had shot the day before. When we were through I began to talk.


Three years ago, so I began my story, I went into Mongolia with the Fairchild expedition. Part of its work was a mineral survey for certain British interests, part of it ethnographic and archeological research for the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania.

I never had a chance to prove my value as a mining engineer. At once I became good-will representative, camp entertainer, liaison agent between us and the tribes. My height, my yellow hair, blue eyes and freakish strength, and my facility in picking up languages were of never-ending interest to them. Tartars, Mongols, Buriats, Kirghiz–they would watch while I bent horseshoes, twisted iron bars over my knees and performed what my father used to call contemptuously my circus tricks.

Well, that’s exactly what I was to them–a one-man circus. And yet I was more than that–they liked me. Old Fairchild would laugh when I complained that I had no time for technical work. He would tell me that I was worth a dozen mining engineers, that I was the expedition’s insurance, and that as long as I could keep up my act they wouldn’t be bothered by any trouble-makers. And it is a fact that they weren’t. It was the only expedition of its kind I ever knew where you could leave your stuff unwatched and return to find it still there. Also we were singularly free from graft and shake-downs.

In no time I had picked up half a dozen of the dialects and could chatter and chaff with the tribesmen in their own tongues. It made a prodigious hit with them. And now and then a Mongol delegation would arrive with a couple of their wrestlers, big fellows with chests like barrels, to pit against me. I learned their tricks, and taught them ours. We had pony-lifting contests, and some of my Manchu friends taught me how to fight with the two broadswords –a sword in each hand.

Fairchild had planned on a year, but so smoothly did the days go by that he decided to prolong our stay. My act, he told me in his sardonic fashion, was undoubtedly of perennial vitality; never again would science have such an opportunity in this region–unless I made up my mind to remain and rule. He didn’t know how close he came to prophecy.

In the early summer of the following year we shifted our camp about a hundred miles north. This was Uighur country. They are a strange people, the Uighurs. They say of themselves that they are descendants of a great race which ruled the Gobi when it was no desert but an earthly Paradise, with flowing rivers and many lakes and teeming cities. It is a fact that they are apart from all the other tribes, and while those others cheerfully kill them when they can, still they go in fear of them. Or rather, of the sorcery of their priests.

Seldom had Uighurs appeared at the old camp. When they did, they kept at a distance. We had been at the new camp less than a week when a band of twenty rode in. I was sitting in the shade of my tent. They dismounted and came straight to me. They paid no attention to anyone else. They halted a dozen feet from me. Three walked close up and stood, studying me. The eyes of these three were a peculiar gray-blue; those of the one who seemed to be their captain singularly cold. They were bigger, taller men than the others.

I did not know the Uighur. I gave them polite salutations in the Kirghiz. They did not answer, maintaining their close scrutiny. Finally they spoke among themselves, nodding as though they had come to some decision.

The leader then addressed me. As I stood up, I saw that he was not many inches under my own six feet four. I told him, again in the Kirghiz, that I did not know his tongue. He gave an order to his men. They surrounded my tent, standing like guards, spears at rest beside them, their wicked longswords drawn.

At this my temper began to rise, but before I could protest the leader began to speak to me in the Kirghiz. He assured me, with deference, that their visit was entirely peaceful, only they did not wish their contact with me to be disturbed by any of my companions. He asked if I would show him my hands. I held them out. He and his two comrades bent over the palms, examining them minutely, pointing to a mark or a crossing of lines. This inspection ended, the leader touched his forehead with my right hand.

And then to my complete astonishment, he launched without explanation into what was a highly intelligent lesson in the Uighur tongue. He took the Kirghiz for the comparative language. He did not seem to be surprised at the ease with which I assimilated the tuition; indeed, I had a puzzled idea that he regarded it as something to be expected. I mean that his manner was less that of teaching me a new language, than of recalling to me one I had forgotten. The lesson lasted for a full hour. He then touched his forehead again with my hand, and gave a command to the ring of guards. The whole party walked to their horses and galloped off.

There had been something disquieting about the whole experience. Most disquieting was my own vague feeling that my tutor, if I had read correctly his manner, had been right–that I was not learning a new tongue but one I had forgotten. Certainly I never picked up any language with such rapidity and ease as I did the Uighur.

The rest of my party had been perplexed and apprehensive, naturally. I went immediately to them, and talked the matter over. Our ethnologist was the famous Professor David Barr, of Oxford. Fairchild was inclined to take it as a joke, but Barr was greatly disturbed. He said that the Uighur tradition was that their forefathers had been a fair race, yellow-haired and blue-eyed, big men of great strength. In short, men like myself. A few ancient Uighur wall paintings had been found which had portrayed exactly this type, so there was evidence of the correctness of the tradition. However, if the Uighurs of the present were actually the descendants of this race, the ancient blood must have been mixed and diluted almost to the point of extinction.

I asked what this had to do with me, and he replied that quite conceivably my visitors might regard me as of the pure blood of the ancient race. In fact, he saw no other explanation of their conduct. He was of the opinion that their study of my palms, and their manifest approval of what they had discovered there, clinched the matter.

Old Fairchild asked him, satirically, if he was trying to convert us to palmistry. Barr said, coldly, that he was a scientist. As a scientist, he was aware that certain physical resemblances can be carried on by hereditary factors through many generations. Certain peculiarities in the arrangement of the lines of the palms might persist through centuries. They could reappear in cases of atavism, such as I clearly represented.

By this time, I was getting a bit dizzy. But Barr had a few shots left that made me more so. By now his temper was well up, and he went on to say that the Uighurs might even be entirely correct in what he deduced was their opinion of me. I was a throwback to the ancient Norse. Very well. It was quite certain that the Aesir, the old Norse gods and goddesses–Odin and Thor, Frigga and Freya, Frey and Loki of the Fire and all the others –had once been real people. Without question they had been leaders in some long and perilous migration. After they had died, they had been deified, as numerous other similar heroes and heroines had been by other tribes and races. Ethnologists were agreed that the original Norse stock had come into North-eastern Europe from Asia, like other Aryans. Their migration might have occurred anywhere from 1000 B.C. to 5000 B.C. And there was no scientific reason why they should not have come from the region now called the Gobi, nor why they should not have been the blond race these present-day Uighurs called their forefathers.

No one, he went on to say, knew exactly when the Gobi had become desert –nor what were the causes that had changed it into desert. Parts of the Gobi and all the Little Gobi might have been fertile as late as two thousand years ago. Whatever it had been, whatever its causes, and whether operating slowly or quickly, the change gave a perfect reason for the migration led by Odin and the other Aesir which had ended in the colonization of the Scandinavian Peninsula. Admittedly I was a throwback to my mother’s stock of a thousand years ago. There was no reason why I should not also be a throwback in other recognizable ways to the ancient Uighurs–if they actually were the original Norse.

But the practical consideration was that I was headed for trouble. So was every other member of our party. He urgently advised going back to the old camp where we would be among friendly tribes. In conclusion he pointed out that, since we had come to this site, not a single Mongol, Tartar or any other tribesman with whom I had established such pleasant relations had come near us. He sat down with a glare at Fairchild, observing that this was no palmist’s advice but that of a recognized scientist.

Well, Fairchild apologized, of course, but he overruled Barr on returning; we could safely wait a few days longer and see what developed. Barr remarked morosely that as a prophet Fairchild was probably a total loss, but it was also probable that we were being closely watched and would not be allowed to retreat, and therefore it did not matter...

That night we heard drums beating far away, drumming between varying intervals of silence almost until dawn, reporting and answering questions of drums still further off.

The next day, at the same hour, along came the same troop. Their leader made straight for me, ignoring, as before, the others in the camp. He saluted me almost with humility. We walked back together to my tent. Again the cordon was thrown round it, and my second lesson abruptly began. It continued for two hours or more. Thereafter, day after day, for three weeks, the same performance was repeated. There was no desultory conversation, no extraneous questioning, no explanations. These men were there for one definite purpose: to teach me their tongue. They stuck to that admirably. Filled with curiosity, eager to reach the end and learn what it all meant, I interposed no obstacles, stuck as rigorously as they to the matter in hand. This, too, they seemed to take as something expected of me. In three weeks I could carry on a conversation in the Uighur as well as I can in English.

Barr’s uneasiness kept growing. “They’re grooming you for something!” he would say. “I’d give five years of my life to be in your shoes. But I don’t like it. I’m afraid for you. I’m damned afraid!”

One night at the end of this third week, the signalling drums beat until dawn. The next day my instructors did not appear, nor the next day, nor the day after. But our men reported that there were Uighurs all around us, picketing the camp. They were in fear, and no work could be got out of them.

On the afternoon of the fourth day we saw a cloud of dust drifting rapidly down upon us from the north. Soon we heard the sound of the Uighur drums. Then out of the dust emerged a troop of horsemen. There were two or three hundred of them, spears glinting, many of them with good rifles. They drew up in a wide semi-circle before the camp. The cold-eyed leader who had been my chief instructor dismounted and came forward leading a magnificent black stallion. A big horse, a strong horse, unlike the rangy horses that carried them; a horse that could bear my weight with ease.

The Uighur dropped on one knee, handing me the stallion’s reins, I took them, automatically. The horse looked me over, sniffed at me, and rested its nose on my shoulder. At once the troop raised their spears, shouting some word I could not catch, then dropped from their mounts and stood waiting.

The leader arose. He drew from his tunic a small cube of ancient jade. He sank again upon his knee, handed me the cube. It seemed solid, but as I pressed it flew open. Within, was a ring. It was of heavy gold, thick and wide. Set in it was a yellow, translucent stone about an inch and a half square. And within this stone was the shape of a black octopus.

Its tentacles spread out fan-wise from its body. They had the effect of reaching forward through the yellow stone. I could even see upon their nearer tips the sucking discs. The body was not so clearly defined. It was nebulous, seeming to reach into far distance. The black octopus had not been cut upon the jewel. It was within it.

I was aware of a curious mingling of feelings–repulsion and a peculiar sense of familiarity, like the trick of the mind that causes what we call double memory, the sensation of having experienced the same thing before. Without thinking. I slipped the ring over my thumb which it fitted perfectly, and held it up to the sun to catch the light through the stone. Instantly every man of the troop threw himself down upon his belly, prostrating himself before it.

The Uighur captain spoke to me. I had been subconsciously aware that from the moment of handing me the jade he had been watching me closely. I thought that now there was awe in his eyes.

“Your horse is ready–“ again he used the unfamiliar word with which the troop had saluted me. “Show me what you wish to take with you, and your men shall carry it.”

“Where do we go–and for how long?” I asked.

“To a holy man of your people,” he answered. “For how long–he alone can answer.”

I felt a momentary irritation at the casualness with which I was being disposed of. Also I wondered why he spoke of his men and his people as mine.

“Why does he not come to me?” I asked.

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