⁓The Voice before the Void
Henry S. Whitehead with H.P. Lovecraft
In ten minutes the house nurse fetched in a small tray. On it was a tumbler, a mixing spoon, and a freshly put up eight-ounce bottle containing a reddish colored, pleasant tasting syrup.
Twenty minutes later, Meredith, who had compromised on three teaspoons, was deeply asleep on his bed; and the General, Bothon, in the innermost dungeon chamber of the great citadel of Alu, was standing poised in the center of that dungeon’s smooth stone floor, tensed to leap in any direction; while all about him the rending crashes of thousands of tons of the riven and falling masonry of the citadel itself was deafening him against all other sounds except the incessant and indescribably thunderous fury of the now utterly maddened ocean. The lurid glare of the fires from without had been markedly heightened. Detonation after detonation came to Bothon’s ears at frequent intervals. The Aluans were blowing up this central portion of their great city, in order to check the advance of the conflagration which had raged for days and nights and was utterly beyond control. These detonations seemed actually faint to the alert man in that prison room against the hideous crashing of the sections of the citadel itself, and the sustained roar of the ocean.
Abruptly the crisis for which he had been waiting arrived. The stone flooring beneath his feet buckled and sagged at his right. He whirled about and leaped far in the other direction, pressing himself, hands and arms stretched out above his head, against the wall of the prison-chamber, his heart pounding wildly, his breath coming in great gasps and sobs as the stifling, earthquake-deadened air about him shrank to a sudden and devastating attenuation. Then the solid wall opposite split in a tearing gap from top to bottom, and an even more stifling cloud of white dust sifted abruptly through the room as the ceiling was riven asunder.
Stifling, choking, fighting for breath and life, the General, Bothon, lowered his arms and whirled about again in the direction of this thunderous breakage, and groped his way across the now precarious flooring in the faint hope of discovering an avenue of escape. He struggled up a steep mound of débris through the grey darkness of the hanging dust where a few seconds before there had been a level floor of solid masonry. He groped his way through thicker clouds of the drifting, settling stone-dust, skirted the irregular edges of yawning holes and toiled up and down mounded heaps of rubble, far past the place where the confining wall of his dungeon had stood, onward and forward resolutely towards that vague goal of freedom.
At last, the resources of his mighty body spent, his eyes two tortured red holes, his mouth and throat one searing pain, Bothon emerged across the last hill of rubbish which had been the citadel of Alu and came out upon the corner edge of one of the largest of the city’s great public squares.
For the first time in the course of his progress out of that death trap, Bothon suddenly trod on something soft and yielding. He paused. He could hardly see, and he crouched and felt with his hands, under the thickly mounded dust.
It was the body of a man, in chain mail. Bothon exhaled a painful breath of satisfaction. He rolled the body over, freeing it from the pounds of dust upon it, and slid his hand along the copper-studded leather belt to where a short, heavy, one-handed battle-axe was attached. This he drew from its sheath.
Then from the dead man’s silken tunic he tore off a large section and cleansed his eyes and mouth and wiped the sweat-caked dust from his face.
Finally he took from the corpse a heavy leathern purse. He lay down for a few moments beside the dead soldier on the soft dust for a brief rest. Some ten minutes later he rose, stretched himself, testing the heavy axe with three or four singing strokes through the clearing air, and dusted out and readjusted his garments, finally tightening a loosened sandal thong.
He stood free now in the center of Alu. He was adequately armed. A great gust of energy surged through him. He oriented himself; then he turned with an instinct as sure as a homing bee’s in the direction he had been seeking, and began to march at the unhurrying, space-devouring pace of a Ludektan legionary, straight for the Imperial Palace.
Bothon had thoroughly settled in his mind the answer to a question which, for the first few days of his captivity had puzzled him greatly. Why had he been left alone and undisturbed in that confinement; food and water brought to him at regular intervals in accordance with the ordinary routine of the citadel? Why, to put the matter plainly, having been obviously captured by the Emperor’s retainers while lying unconscious within two squares of the Imperial Palace, had he not been summarily crucified? His keen trained mind had apprised him that the answer was to be found in the hideous turmoil of the raging sea and in the fearful sounds of a disintegrating city. The Emperor had been too greatly occupied by those cataclysms even to command the punishment of this leader of such an armed attack against the world’s metropolis as had not been known in all the long history of the mother continent.
Skirting its enormous outer walls, Bothon came at last to the massive chief entrance-way to the Imperial Palace. This enormous structure, its basic walls eight feet thick, stood massive, magnificent, intact. Without any hesitation he began mounting the many broad steps straight towards the magnificent entrance-gates of copper and gold and porphyry.
Before these gates, in the rigid line and under the command of an officer beneath whose corselet appeared the pale blue tunic of the Emperor’s house-hold-guards, stood a dozen fully armed soldiers. One of these, at a word from the officer, ran down the steps to turn back this intruder. Bothon slew him with a single crashing stroke and continued to mount the steps. At this, a shouted command of the officer sent the entire troop down the steps upon him in close order. Bothon paused, and waiting until the foremost was no more than the space of two of the broad steps above him, leaped lightly to his right. Then as the foremost four of the soldiers passed beyond him under the impetus of their downward charge, Bothon as lightly leaped back again, his heavy axe falling upon the troop’s flank with deadly, short, quick-swinging blows.
Before they could collect themselves the officer and five of his men lay dead upon the steps. Leaving the demoralized remainder to gather themselves together as best they might, Bothon leaped up the intervening steps and was through the great entrance-doors, and, with a pair of lightning-like right-and-left strokes of his axe, had disposed of the two men-at-arms stationed just inside the doorway.
His way into the Palace now entirely unobstructed, Bothon sped through well-remembered rooms and along broad corridors into the heart of the Imperial Palace of Alu.
Within thirty seconds he had located the entrance to the brother of the Emperor, Netvis Toldon’s apartments, and had passed through the doorway.
He discovered the family reclining about the horseshoe-shaped table in the refectory, for it was the hour of the evening meal. He paused in the doorway, was met with surprised glances, and bowed low to the Netvis Toldon.
“I beseech you to pardon this intrusion, my Lord Netvis. It would be inexcusable under other circumstances, at a more favorable time.” The nobleman returned no answer, only stared in surprise. Then, the dear lady of his heart, the Netvissa Ledda, rose to her feet from her place at her father’s table, her eyes wide with wonderment. A dawning realization of what this strange invasion might mean, made her lovely face suddenly the hue of the Aluan roses. She looked at this heroically formed lover of hers, her soul in her eyes.
“Come, my lady Ledda” said Bothon quickly, and as lightly as a deer the Netvissa Ledda ran to him.
He took her arm, very quietly, and, before the assembled members of the family of Toldon had recovered from their surprise, the two were hastening along the corridor towards the palace entrance.
From around the first corner before them came then abrupt sounds of armed men. They paused, listening, and Bothon shifted his axe into his right hand and stepped before the lady Ledda, but she laid firm hands upon his left arm. “This way, swiftly,” she whispered, and led him down a narrow passageway at the wide corridor’s left. This they traversed in haste, and had barely negotiated a sharp turn when they heard the guard-troop rush along the main corridor, and a voice, commanding:
“To the apartment of my Lord, the Netvis Toldon!”
The narrow passage-way led them past cook-rooms and scullery-chambers, and ended at a small door which opened upon a narrow court. Rapidly traversing this, they emerged upon a square at the west side of the palace, and well before any pursuit could have traced their course, were indistinguishable among the vast concourse of the people who thronged the wide avenues of Alu.
Bothon now resumed the direction of their course of escape. Leading the way across a larger adjacent square, he reached the secluded corner, mounded about with débris, where he had secured his weapon. It was not yet past the early dusk of a mid-summer evening, and now there was nothing to interfere with his keen vision.
Yes, it was as he had guessed from the quality of that torn fragment of silken tunic with which he had wiped his tortured eyes free of the stone-dust. The dead man was an officer of one of the Imperial Legions.
Seating the Lady Ledda upon a block of granite and requesting her to watch, Bothon knelt swiftly beside the dead body and busied himself upon it.
At the end of two intensive minutes the Netvissa Ledda looked up at his touch upon her shoulder to see her lover apparelled from head to foot in the uniform, armor, and accoutrements of an Elton of the Imperial Legion of the Hawk.
Then they hurried southward, side by side, across the great square with its desolation of shattered buildings, towards one of the few remaining residences of the rich before which four slaves in the livery of their household were lowering an ornamental litter to the ground.
From the luxurious vehicle, as they arrived beside it, there emerged a stout citizen who stared at them inquiringly, his initial fear disappearing at recognition of the Emperor’s niece and the uniform of an Imperial Legion.
“We request the loan of your litter, my lord,” said Bothon.
“Most willingly,” returned the citizen, bowing. Bothon expressed thanks, handed his companion into the litter, distributed a handful of silver among the four slaves, and gave the destination to the slave who stood beside the forward left-hand pole. Then he climbed in himself and drew the red silk curtains together.
The strong litter-poles strained and creaked as the load was hoisted to four brawny shoulders, and then the litter swung away from the residence of its still bowing and smirking owner towards the military enclosure which housed and guarded the flying-vessels of the Aluvian standing army.
“You may have observed how very completely I have entrusted my Imperial person to you,” remarked the Netvissa Ledda, smiling. She was very well aware of the reasons for the Imperial request which had sent Bothon back to Ludekta, and for the first armed invasion against the Aluvian metropolis. “I have not so much as inquired as to our destination!”
“It is my intention to seek safety to the northwest,” answered Bothon gravely. “I am convinced the prediction of Bal, Lord of Fields, as to the destruction of the Mother Continent, is not a mere classic to be learned, as we learned it in our childhood, as a formal exercise in rhetoric: here, all about us, is the evidence. More, my four augurs warned me of the continent’s danger ere I brought my war-galleys up upon the beaches of Alu. The four great forces, they insisted, were in collusion to that end. Do we not see and hear them at work? Fire raging through the land; earth shaking mightily; winds such as never were encountered hitherto upon the planet, else the old records lie! Water, the commotion of which surpasses all experiences;—is it not so, my beloved? Am I not constrained to speak thus to be heard amidst this hellish tumult?”
The Lady Ledda nodded, grave now in her turn.
“There are many deafened in the palace,” she remarked. “Where are we to go for refuge?”
Continued in part 5.