Jack Odin descended into the cavern or
what Keefe had called the Hole for less
than a hundred yards before his strong flashlight sent
its lancing beam into a stone wall. At his feet
was a crevice which went straight down as though it
had been measured by a giant square. He got to
his knees and looked over. Playing his light
around he detected a few ledges like narrow steps
far below. It was pitch-dark down there, and not
even his strong light could reach to the bottom.
He tried tossing a few pebbles into it; listening
he heard the faint rattle of their fall, but could
not be sure whether they had landed on one of the
ledges or had reached bottom.
Looking about him, he found a weathered
bit of limestone that thrust itself up like a small
table. It did not look very substantial but it
was his only hope. Odin had crammed his ammunition,
food and canteen into a knapsack. Looping the
rope through it and his rifle strap, he lowered them
over until he felt the rope slacken as his gun and
supplies rested upon the first ledge. Releasing
one end of the rope he carefully drew it back.
Now he knotted the rope about the
stone and let the two lengths of it trail down toward
the ledge. He had kept his flashlight which he
thrust into his belt. One other thing, a little
miner’s cap and light, now came into use.
It was warm down there, and as soon as the cap with
its lighted lamp was on his head, sweat began to pour
down his neck. Suddenly he remembered a scene
he had witnessed one morning in West Virginia so
long ago that it should have been forgotten.
His car had stalled in a tiny town one evening.
He had slept in the only hotel, but had got up before
daybreak so he could start an early search for a mechanic.
Looking up toward the hills he had seen a silent procession
of lights going upward to some unknown mine. There
was something grotesque about those climbing lights;
the identity of the men was lost, and this was a crawling
thing up there on the hillside. For a moment
he felt himself feeling infinite pity for all the men
everywhere who spent their days in the dark.
Then he laughed. Better feel
a bit sorry for Jack Odin too. Getting ready
to lower himself over a precipice, and not having the
slightest idea when he would reach bottom. Or
whether there was any bottom at all. The blackness
beat at the little light. A startled bat left
its upside-down perch and fluttered against his face,
clicking its teeth in warning.
Well, one could stay here and think
until doomsday. So, with a shrug of his big shoulders,
he got a firm grip on his doubled rope and slid over
the edge. He went down and down until his shoulders
ached. Once he got his feet down on an outcropping
but dared not brace himself there for fear of loosening
his rope from its unsteady mooring above. Then,
at last, he came to the ledge with only a few feet
of his doubled rope to spare.
After resting the little cap and lamp
in a secure cranny he lay flat on his stomach for
a few minutes, gulping great draughts of air and trying
to rub some feeling back into his aching shoulders.
Then he got up and started looking about for some
anchorage. Some twenty feet away, he found a little
spur of rock.
The second ledge was negotiated in
the same fashion as the first. It was scarcely
four feet in width. Leaning over it, with his
powerful flashlight spraying a beam of light downward,
he saw that there were no more ledges between him
and the floor of the crevice below. Not even
a single out-cropping. The wall was smooth and
glassy as though at one time, for ages and ages, water
had flown down it and had left a glossy coating upon
Moreover, when he awkwardly dangled
his rope into the abyss with one hand, and kept his
light upon it with the other, he found to his disappointment
that not even a single length would reach to the dimly-seen
He sat there for a while, chewing
at a bit of jerked beef, trying to get his strength
back, racking his brains for a plan. But he could
think of nothing except getting back to Opal.
Then, at last, with a sigh and maybe a curse at the
things that happen and maybe a bit of a prayer, he
began to tie a loop, lasso fashion, in his rope.
Finding another spur of rock became a problem.
This ledge was smooth. But in time he found one
and drew his loop tightly about it. Rolling the
knapsack up into a ball and tying it securely, he
threw it over the brink. Listening, he heard it
land and bounce two or three times. The gun was
slung over his shoulder. The miner’s cap
and lamp went back upon his head. He stuffed his
pockets full of ammunition and slid over the edge.
Once he nearly lost his grip on the single strand
and slid downward for a yard or two with the rough
coils taking the hide off his palms. But he held
on. And at last he was dangling at the end of
the rope like a plumb-bob. Carefully he tightened
his grip with his right hand and let go with the left.
His shoulder creaked, and fangs of pain struck at
his wrist and elbow.
But he hung on. Playing the flashlight
below him, he saw that the floor of the crevice was
still many yards away. It seemed to be of sand,
but he was not sure. Limestone could be deceiving.
Putting the light back in his belt, he began feeling
along the wall. It was smooth. Finally, reaching
down as far as he could, he found a little hole scarcely
large enough for one hand. There was no time
left to consider. Getting his fingers into it
he turned loose of the rope and dropped down.
It felt as though his left shoulder was tearing loose,
but he held his grip. Kicking about he found a
toe-hold in the wall and finally another
grip for his hand.
In this way, Odin went down for nearly
a dozen yards. But at last he could find neither
a grip for his hands nor a rest for his feet.
He did not care now. The pain in his shoulders
was becoming unbearable. Taking one great gulp
of air, he released his hold on the wall and thrust
his body out into space. The little light in
his cap went out. Odin fell through darkness.
He fell into soft sand, doubling up as his feet touched
it. Odin rolled over and over, losing both flashlight
and gun as he tumbled. Then he came up against
hard rock, with most of the wind knocked out of him,
and lay there gasping, feeling about him with frantic
hands for the light and the gun.
The old terror of the dark swept over
him as he clutched this way and that and found nothing.
Then he got a grip on himself and laughed at his fears remembering
that he had matches in his pockets.
The spurt of a match showed him his
miner’s cap not five feet away. He must
have missed it by inches as he was clutching about
in the dark. He lit it and soon found gun and
Pointing his light upward, he could
faintly see the knotted end of his rope swinging back
and forth up there against the precipice. It was
his only link with the outside world, and it was far
out of reach. He shrugged and played the light
about the cavern into which he had ventured.
The walls of the crevice into which
he had fallen were never over ten feet apart and in
spots were less than three. But the sandy bed
sloped noticeably downward, so downward he went.
Only pausing occasionally to take a mouthful of water
from his canteen or eat a bite or two. His watch
had been broken in that last fall. He threw it
The air grew hotter. So hot at
last that Odin had to pause more often and rest upon
the sand. But it too was hot, as though it had
never known anything but this one temperature.
Stumbling along, his nostrils and
chest burning, and something thumping in his ears,
he finally fell to his knees. Jack Odin lay there
for a long time. But the floor of the cavern
still led downward. So, with nothing else left
in his mind, he got to his knees and crawled on.
That last determination saved him.
A cool breath of air struck him in the face.
He toiled downward and was soon in a wider cavern that
was so cold that he was shivering. He rested
again and then went on. The cold grew worse.
Odin came to a tunnel of ice.
The faint smell of ammonia set him to coughing.
It was nearly as uncomfortable here as the heat had
been a few hours before. But he kept on.
Finally, there was no ice left on the walls about
him. The air grew warmer.
Soon the walls opened out until he
could scarcely see them with his flashlight.
Playing it upward he could only get a faint reflection
from the stalactites hundreds of feet away.
At length Odin came to a vast room
where his light could reach neither walls nor ceiling.
But in the center of it was a tiny pool, rimmed by
white sand and a shell-like lip of limestone.
He got to his knees and tested the water. It
was clean but old and old and old.
Filling his canteen, he opened his knapsack and prepared
a hearty meal. He was dog-tired but before he
slept he walked around the little pool. He had
heard of fish being found in underground caverns or
even the fossils of things that had once been there.
But here Odin found no sign of life. Nothing except
traces of the vast underground river that must have
once swept through here long ago.
It was a desolate feeling to stand
there with his beam of light pushing the dark away.
Alone in a place which apparently had never known the
beat of life before. And then Odin saw it
A footprint. A small footprint
which must have been made by someone who wore moccasins
or sandals. He recognized it at once. He
had seen hundreds of those footprints!
A Neebling had been there. How
long before he did not know. But, certainly,
Odin’s theory had been right. The cavern
led the way to Opal. Jack Odin was not sure how
many times he ate and slept as he toiled his way downward.
The long dead river had carved cunningly and beautifully
upon the walls of the tunnel. And the dripping
waters of centuries had fashioned pedestals, carvings,
and statues that were beautiful indeed. Ordinarily
he would have been interested in these, for Jack Odin
was a man who loved beautiful things, but now he had
but one idea: To go on.
Occasionally he found more footprints.
But always near the scattered pools. The dwarfs
must have kept against the walls and come out upon
the sand only to quench their thirst. He wondered
about that. And a possible answer came to him.
They had been there without a light feeling
their way, almost although he knew that
they could see in the dark to a certain extent.
He wondered at their courage. Here, with two lights,
the staring darkness and the silent empty spaces were
making him shaky.
The descent became sharper. At
times he slid down long grades of limestone.
Now and then he came to sharp drops where little waterfalls
had once been. But there was usually sand below
and he was able to leap down without much harm, other
than a jolt or two.
But once he came to one of these drops
that must have measured a hundred feet. He found
a few rocky steps where the little precipice met the
wall and clambered down, but it was rough going, and
he had to make a jump for it at the last.
Picking himself up and dusting the
sand from his clothes he thought he saw a white gleam
over against the wall. His light found a squat
skeleton sitting there grimacing at him. He touched
the skull and it fell to powder. Here was one
of the dwarfs a Neebling but
the bones did not belong to this age; the poor fellow
must have lain there for centuries.
Doctor Jack Odin was never able to
get all of his medical training out of his mind.
Examining the skeleton he found that both legs had
been broken. Apparently, the little man had been
climbing up or down the precipice Odin had just negotiated
and had slipped and fallen. His legs shattered,
and infection setting in, the Neebling had crawled
against the wall to die. Odin could imagine him
doing that last task silently. They were akin
to the animals that they loved, the Neeblings.
They did not complain.
Hours and hours later, as Odin toiled
his way downward, he became aware of a growing stench
in the stale air. Even this was welcome, for he
was becoming obsessed with the idea that the cavern
had not changed since the long-ago river had died,
and that nothing in it could change. It was an
odor of rottenness. Where there was decay, life
had also been.
By the time he reached the next pool
the putrescence which hung on the stale air was almost
sickening. There he made his second discovery.
A saurian of some sort, with squat legs and long,
fanged mouth, had died there. Half-decayed, it
made a little phosphor glowing in the dark and its
long teeth flashed as he played a beam of light over
Noisome as it was, the sight of it
made his heart quicken, for here was one of the things
of Opal. It must have crawled up here from that
silent sea. Then a feeling of gloom and dread
swept over him. What had happened down there
to make this thing leave its home and crawl here to
Odin went on and on, and the smell
of the thing behind him slowly faded from the air.
Then, as he rounded a corner, Odin
blinked his eyes. Far ahead of him was a red
glow. Taking a deep breath, he thought he smelled
smoke. Or was it sulphur? He had never been
able to get one grim possibility out of his mind.
What if some of the fires and lava streams of inner
earth should lie between him and the world of Opal?
He had gone too far to turn back.
So Odin went on cautiously. As he neared the
red glow, he saw that it was only a campfire dying
down to coals. But from the darkness came such
a clamoring of hisses, groans, and screeches that
he could feel goose-pimples popping out on his arms.
His rifle held a clamp for his flash.
Making gun and light ready, he advanced cautiously,
still unable to determine what was happening except
that one hell of a fight was going on. Then a
coal burst into quick flame and he could see the struggle.
A broad-shouldered man, stripped to the waist, was
fighting with one of the saurians. He had closed
its long mouth with a huge hand and was striking again
and again at the white throat with a broad-bladed
knife. The thing was screeching and clawing at
the man’s arm. Its razored tail was lashing
forward and the man was dodging it as he
kept backing in a circle and thrusting the head upward
and backwards. Both brute and man were streaming
blood. The man made no sound other than an occasional
savage grunt as his blade struck deep through the horny
hide of the thing. The Saurian became wilder
with each blow.
It was a long shot. But Jack
Odin made it. Both man and reptile quickened
into momentary stone as his light centered its beam
upon them. Odin aimed and fired. The heavy
bullet shattered the top of the saurian’s head.
Then Odin was running forward, calling
out in the language of Opal. The broad-shouldered
man kicked the wriggling carcass of the thing out of
the way and threw a few sticks upon the coals.
They flamed up. The man sat down calmly, though
still gasping for breath, and began to wipe the blade
of his knife upon his thigh.
He had regained some of his breath
when Odin reached him. Rubbing a gashed forearm
and smiling as though such a meeting were an every-day
occurrence he called out cheerfully.
“Ho, Nors-King. I knew
you would come. Sooner or later you would be here
and we would go hunting together.”
The man was Gunnar, successor to Jul,
and Chief of the Neeblings!