“A regrettable situation,” said fierce, smiling, “for the Yuletide merchants who, toward the last there, as I recall, were beginning to put up holly and sing Noel the day before Halloween. With any luck at all this year they might have started on Labor Day!”
Bierce did not continue. He fell forward with a sigh. As he lay upon the ground he had time to say only, “How interesting.” And then, as they all watched, horrified, his body burned into blue dust and charred bone, the ashes of which fled through the air in black tatters.
“His last book gone. Someone on Earth just now burned it.”
“God rest him. Nothing of him left now. For what are we but books, and when those are gone, nothing’s to be seen.”
A rushing sound filled the sky.
They cried out, terrified, and looked up. In the sky, dazzling it with sizzling fire clouds, was the rocket! Around the men on the seashore lanterns bobbed; there was a squealing and a bubbling and an odor of cooked spells. Candle-eyed pumpkins lifted into the cold clear air. Thin fingers clenched into fists and a witch screamed from her withered mouth:
“Ship, ship, break, fall!
Ship, ship, burn all!
Crack, flake, shake, melt!
Mummy dust, cat pelt!”
“Time to go,” murmured Blackwood. “On to Jupiter, on to Saturn or Pluto.”
“Run away?” shouted Poe in the wind. “Never!”
“I’m a tired old man!”
Poe gazed into the old man’s face and believed him. He climbed atop a huge boulder and faced the ten thousand gray shadows and green lights and yellow eyes on the hissing wind.
“The powders!” he shouted.
A thick hot smell of bitter almond, civet, cumin, wormseed and orris!
The rocket came down—steadily down, with the shriek of a damned spirit! Poe raged at it! He flung his fists up and the orchestra of heat and smell and hatred answered in symphony! Like stripped tree fragments, bats flew upward! Burning hearts, flung like missiles, burst in bloody fireworks on the singed air. Down, down, relentlessly down, like a pendulum the rocket came. And Poe howled, furiously, and shrank back with every sweep and sweep of the rocket cutting and ravening the air! All the dead sea seemed a pit in which, trapped, they waited the sinking of the dread machinery, the glistening ax; they were people under the avalanche!
“The snakes!” screamed Poe.
And luminous serpentines of undulant green hurtled toward the rocket. But it came down, a sweep, a fire, a motion, and it lay panting out exhaustions of red plumage on the sand, a mile away.
“At it!” shrieked Poe. “The plan’s changed! Only one chance! Run! At it! At it! Drown them with our bodies! Kill them!”
And as if he had commanded a violent sea to change its course, to suck itself free from primeval beds, the whirls and savage gouts of fire spread and ran like wind and rain and stark lightning over the sea sands, down empty river deltas, shadowing and screaming, whistling and whining, sputtering and coalescing toward the rocket which, extinguished, lay like a clean metal torch in the farthest hollow. As if a great charred caldron of sparkling lava had been overturned, the boiling people and snapping animals churned down the dry fathoms.
“Kill them!” screamed Poe, running.
The rocket men leaped out of their ship, guns ready. They stalked about, sniffing the air like hounds. They saw nothing. They relaxed.
The captain stepped forth last. He gave sharp commands. Wood was gathered, kindled, and a fire leapt up in an instant. The captain beckoned his men into a half circle about him.
“A new world,” he said, forcing himself to speak deliberately, though he glanced nervously, now and again, over his shoulder at the empty sea. “The old world left behind. A new start. What more symbolic than that we here dedicate ourselves all the more firmly to science and progress.” He nodded crisply to his lieutenant. “The books.”
Firelight limned the faded gilt titles:The Willows, The Outsider, Behold, The Dreamer, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Land of Oz, Pellucidar, The Land That Time Forgot A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the monstrous names of Machen and Edgar Allan Poe and Cabell and Dunsany and Blackwood and Lewis Carroll; the names, the old names, the evil names.