Read CHAPTER VIII - The Darkness of Two Thousand Miles Below , free online book, by Charles Willard Diffin, on ReadCentral.com.

Darkness; and red fires that seemed whirling about him as his body twisted in air. To Dean Rawson, plunging down into the volcano’s maw, each second was an eternity, for, in each single instant, he was expecting crashing death.

Then he knew that long arms were wrapped about him, holding him, supporting him, checking his downward plunge ... and at last the glassy walls, where each bulbous irregularity shone red with reflected light, moved slowly past. And, after more eons of time, a rocky floor rose slowly to meet him.

His body crashed gently; he was sprawled face downward on stone that was smooth and cold. The restraining arms no longer touched him.

He lay motionless for some time, his mind as stunned and uncomprehending as if he had truly crashed to death upon that rocky floor. Then, at last, he forced his reluctant nerves and muscles to turn his body till he lay face upward.

Darkness wrapped him as if it were the soft swathing of some black cocoon. The world about him was at first a place of utter night-time blackness; and then, far above him, there shone a single star ... until that feeble candle-gleam, too, was snuffed out.

A hand was gripping his shoulder; it seemed urging him to arise. He felt each separate finger long, slender, like bands of steel. The nail at each finger-end was more nearly a claw, the whole hand a thin, clutching thing like the foot of some giant ape. And, even as he shrank involuntarily from that touch, Rawson wondered how the creature could reach out and grip him so surely in the dark. But he came to his feet in response to that urging hand.

The night was suddenly sibilant with eery, whistling voices. They came from all sides at once; they threw themselves back and forth in endless echoes. To Rawson it was only a confused medley of conflicting sounds in which no one voice was clear. But the creature that held him must have understood, for he heard him reply in a sharp, piercing tone, half whistle, half shriek.

What had happened? Where was he? What was this thing that pushed him, stumbling, along through the dark? With all his tumultuous questioning he knew only one thing definitely: that it would be of no use to struggle. He was as helpless as any trapped animal.

He was inside the earth, of course; he had fallen he had no least idea how far; and, in some strange manner, this long-armed thing had supported him and eased him gently down. But what it meant or what lay ahead were matters too obscure for him to try to see clearly.

He held his hands protectingly before him while the talons gripping into his shoulder hurried him along. He stumbled awkwardly as his foot struck an obstruction. He would have fallen but for the grip that held him erect.

For that creature, whatever it was, the darkness held no uncertainty. He moved swiftly. His shrill shriek and the jerk of his arm both gave evidence of his astonishment that his captive should walk so blunderingly.

Then it seemed that he must have comprehended Rawson’s blindness. A green line of light passed close behind Dean’s head. It was cold there was no radiant warmth but, when it struck the face of a wall of stone some twenty feet away, the solid rock turned instantly to a mass of glowing yellow-red.

The cold green ray swung back and forth, leaving a path of radiant rock behind it wherever it touched. And the rock was hot! Once the green light held more than an instant in one place, and the rock softened at its touch, then splashed and trickled down to make a fiery pool.

Abruptly Rawson was able to see his surroundings. Also, he knew the source of the red glow that had seemed like volcanic fires. There had been others like his captor; they had been down below, and had played their flames upon the rocks deep in the volcano. It was thus that they made light.

With equal suddenness, and with terrible clearness, Dean found the answer to one of his questions. He wrenched himself about to stare behind him at the creature that held him in its grip. And, for the first time, the wild experience became something more than an unbelievable nightmare; in that one horrifying instant he knew it was true.

Only a few minutes before, he had been walking across the cindery sand of the crater top, walking under the stars and the dark desert sky Dean Rawson, mining engineer, in a sane, believable world. And now...!

He squinted his eyes in the dim light to see more plainly the beastly figure, more horrible for being so nearly human. He had seen them briefly up above; the closer view of this one specimen of a strange race was no more pleasing. For now he saw clearly the cruelty in the face. It was there unmistakably, even though the face itself, under less threatening circumstances, might have been a ludicrous caricature of a man’s.

Red and nearly naked, the creature stood upright, straps of metal about its body. It was about Rawson’s height; its round, staring eyes were about level with his own, and each eye was centered in a circular disk of whitish skin. The light went dim for a moment, and Dean, staring in his turn, saw those other huge eyes enlarge, the white covering of each drawing back like an expanding iris.

Some vague understanding came to him of the beast’s ability to see in the dark. They used these red-hot stones for illumination, but this thing had seemed to see clearly even when the stones had ceased to glow. And again, though indistinctly, Dean knew that those eyes might be sensitive to infra-red radiations they might see plainly by the dark light that continued to flood these rocky chambers, though, to him, the rocks had gone lightless and black.

Even as the quick thoughts flashed through his mind, he was thinking other thoughts, recording other observations.

The rest of the face was red like the body; the head was sharply pointed, and crowned with a mass of thin, clinging locks of hair. The mouth, a round, lipless orifice, contracted or dilated at will; from it came whistling words.

Out of the darkness, giant things were leaping. They clutched at Rawson, while the first captor released his hold and drew back. Taller, these newcomers were, bigger, and different.

In the red light from the hot rocks Dean saw their faces, in which were owl eyes like those of the first one, but yellow, expressionless and stupid. Their great bodies were yellow: their outstretched hands were webbed.

For one instant, as Rawson’s hand touched his pistol in its holster, a surge of fighting rage swept through him. His whole being was in a spasm of revolt against all this series of happenings that had trapped him; he wanted to lash out regardless of consequences. Then cooler judgment came to his aid.

Other figures, with faces red and ugly, expressive of nameless evil, were gathered beside the one who still played the jet of cold fire upon the walls. Like him they were naked save for a cloth at the waist and the metal straps encircling their bodies. They, too, had flame-throwers he saw the long metal jets and their lava tips. Yet the temptation to fire into that group as fast as he could pull trigger was strong upon him.

Instead he allowed these other giant things to grip him with their webbed hands and lead him away.

The wavering light had shown many passages through the rock. Glazed, all of them. Either they had been blown through molten rock which had then solidified to give the glassy surfaces, or else and this seemed more likely the flame-throwers had done it. Rawson, scanning the labyrinth for some recognizable strata, had a quick vision of these caverns being cut out and enlarged, and of their walls melted just as they were being melted now melted and hardened again innumerable times by succeeding generations of red and yellow-skinned men.

Yes, they were men. He admitted this while he walked unresistingly between two of the giants. Another went before them and lighted the way with the green ray of a flame-thrower on the melting rock. These were men men of a different sort. Evolution, working strange changes underground, had made them half beasts, diggers in the dark, mole-men!

They were passing through a long tunnel that went steadily down. Cross passages loomed blackly; ahead of them the leader was throwing his flame upon the walls of a great vault.

Rawson had ceased to take note of their movements. What use to remember? He could never escape, never retrace his steps.

He tried to whip up a faint flicker of hope at thought of Smithy. Smithy had seen him go, had seen the red mole-men, of course. And he had got away he must have got away! He would go for help....

But, at that, he groaned inwardly. Smithy would go for help, and then what? He would be laughed out of any sheriff’s office; he would be locked up as insane if he persisted. Why should he persist for that matter, why should he go at all? Smithy would not believe for a single minute that Rawson was still alive.

His thoughts ended. Webbed hands, wrapped tightly about his arms, were thrusting him forward into a great room. The green flame had been snapped off. One last hot circle on the high wall showed only a dull red. But before it faded, Dean saw dimly the outlines of a tremendous cavern. He saw also that these walls were unglazed, raw; they had never been melted.

Below the rough and shattered sides heaps of fragments were piled about the room.

Fleetingly he saw the shadowed details; then darkness swallowed even that little he had seen. Clanging metal told of a closing door; a line of red outlined it for an instant to show where it was welded fast. He was a prisoner in a cell whose walls were the living rock.

For a long time he stood motionless, while the heavy darkness pressed heavily in upon his swimming senses; he sank slowly to the floor at last. He was numbed, and his mind was as blank as the black nothingness that spread before his staring eyes. In a condition almost of coma, he had no measure or count of the hours that passed.

Then a fever of impatience possessed him; his thoughts, springing suddenly to life, were too wildly improbable for any sane mind, were driving him mad. He forced himself to move cautiously.

On the floor he had seen burnished gold, shining dully as he entered. There had been a thick vein of yellow in the rock. The floor, at that place, was rough beneath his feet, as if the hot metal had been spilled.

His hands groped before him as he remembered the heaps of rock fragments. Then his feet found one of them stumblingly, and he turned and moved to one side. He remembered having seen a dim shape off there that had made a straight slanting line. His searching hands encountered the object and kept him from walking into it.

The feeling of helplessness that drove him was only being increased by his blind and blundering movements. He told himself that he must wait.

Silently he stood where he had come to a stop, hands resting on the object that barred his way until suddenly, stiflingly, his breath caught in his throat. Some emotion, almost too great to be borne, was suffocating him.

Slowly he moved his hands. Inch by inch he felt his way around the smooth cylinder, so hard, so coldly metallic. Then, with a rush, he let his hands follow up the slanting thing, up to a rounded top, to a heavy ring and a shackle that was on the end of a cable, thin and taut. And, while his hands explored it feverishly, the metal moved!

He clung to the smooth roundness as it slipped through his hands. It was the bailer, part of his own equipment. That slender cable reached up, straight up to the world he knew. And Smithy was there Smithy was hoisting it!

He clung to the cylinder desperately. The bore, at this depth, had been reduced to eight inches; the bailer fitted it loosely. And Rawson cursed frantically the narrow space that would let this inanimate object return but would hold him back, while he wrapped his arms about the cold surface of the metal messenger from another world.

It lifted clear, then settled back. This time it dropped noisily to the floor. And suddenly Dean was tearing at the ring on one of the swollen fingers of his left hand.

It came free at last; it was in his hand as the cable tightened again. Swiftly, surely, he worked in the darkness to jam the ring through the shackle at the bailer’s top. Then the bailer lifted, clanged loudly as it entered the shattered bore in the rocks above, and scraped noisily at the sides. The sound rose to a rasping shriek that went fainter and still fainter till it dwindled into silence.

But Dean Rawson, standing motionless in the darkness of that buried vault, dared once more to let himself think and feel as he stared blindly upward.

Up there Smithy was waiting. Smithy would know. And with Smithy fighting from the outside and he, Rawson, putting up a scrap below.... He smiled almost happily as his hand rested upon his gun.

Hopeless? Of course it was hopeless. No use of really kidding himself he didn’t have the chance of a pink-eyed rabbit.

But he was still smiling toward that dark roof overhead as the outlines of a metal door grew cherry red. They were coming for him! He was ready to meet whatever lay ahead....