The Primal City

Clark Ashton Smith

In these after-days, when all things are touched with insoluble doubt, I am not sure of the purpose that had taken us into that little-visited land, I recall, however, that we had found explicit mention, in a volume of which we possessed the one existing copy, of certain vast primordial ruins lying amid the bare plateaus and stark pinnacles of the region. How we had acquired the volume I do not remember: but Sebastian Polder and I had given our youth and manhood to the quest of hidden knowledge; and this book was a compendium of all things that men have forgotten or ignored in their desire to repudiate the inexplicable.

We, being enamoured of mystery, and seeking ever for the clues that material science has disregarded, pondered much upon these pages written in an antique alphabet. The location of the ruins was clearly stated, though in terms of an obsolete geography; and I remember our excitement when we had marked the position on a terrestrial globe. We were consumed by a wild eagerness to visit the alien city. Perhaps we wished to verify a strange and fearful theory which we had formed regarding the nature of the earth's primal inhabitants; perhaps we sought to recover the buried records of a lost science... or perhaps there was some other and darker objective....

I recall nothing of the first stages of our journey, which must have been long and arduous. But I recall distinctly that we travelled for many days amid the bleak, treeless uplands that rose like a many-tiered embankment towards the range of high pyramidal summits guarding the secret city. Our guide was a native of the country, sodden and taciturn, with intelligence little above that of the llamas who carried our supplies. But we had been assured that he knew the way to the ruins, which had long been forgotten by most of his fellow-countrymen. Rare and scant was the local legendry regarding the place and its builders; and, after many queries, we could add nothing to the knowledge gained from the immemorial volume, The city, it seemed, was nameless; and the region about it was untrodden by man.

Desire and curiosity raged within us like a calenture; and we heeded little the hazards and travails of our journey. Over us stood the eternally vacant heavens, matching the vacant landscape. The route steepened; and above us now was a wilderness of cragged and chasmed rock, where nothing dwelt but the sinister wide-winged condors.

Often we lost sight of certain eminent peaks that had served us for landmarks. But it seemed that our guide knew the way, as if led by an instinct more subtle than memory or intelligence; and at no time did he hesitate. At intervals we came to the broken fragments of a paved road that had formerly traversed the whole of this rugged region: broad cyclopean blocks of gneiss, channelled as if by the storms of cycles older than human history. And in some of the deeper chasms we saw the eroded piers of great bridges that had spanned them in other time. These ruins reassured us; for in the primordial volume there was mention of a highway and of mighty bridges, leading to the fabulous city.

Polder and I were exultant; and yet we both shivered with a curious terror when we tried to read certain inscriptions that were still deeply engraved on the worn stones. No living man, though erudite in all the tongues of Earth, could have deciphered those characters; and perhaps it was their very alienage that frightened us. We had sought diligently during many years for all that transcends the dead level of mortality through age or remoteness or strangeness; we had longed for the elder and darker secrets: but such longing was not incompatible with fear. Better than those who had walked always in the common paths, we knew the perils that might attend our exorbitant and solitary researches.

Often we had debated, with variously fantastic conjectures, the enigma of the mountain-builded city. But towards our journey's end, when the vestiges of that pristine people multiplied around us, we fell into long periods of silence, sharing the taciturnity of our stolid guide, Thoughts came to us that were overly strange for utterance; the chill of elder eons entered our hearts from the ruins - and did not depart.

We toiled on between the desolate rocks and the sterile heavens, breathing an air that became thin and painful to the lungs, as if from some admixture of cosmic ether. At high noon we reached an open pass, and saw before us, at the end of a long and vertiginous perspective, the city that had been described as an unnamed ruin in a volmne antedating all other known books.

The place was built on an inner peak of the range, surrounded by snowless summits little sterner and loftier than itself. On one side the peak fell in a thousand-foot precipice from the overhanging ramparts; on another, it was terraced with wild cliffs; but the third side, flung towards us, was no more than a steep and broken acclivity. The rock of the whole mountain was strangely ruinous and black; but the city walls, though equally worn and riven, were conspicuous above it at a distance of leagues, being plainly of megalithic vastness.

Polder and I beheld the bourn of our world-wide search with unvoiced thoughts and emotions, The Indian made no comment, pointing impassively towards the far summit with its crown of ruins. We hurried on, wishing to complete our journey by daylight; and, after plunging into an abysmal valley, we began at mid-afternoon the ascent of the slope towards the city.

It was like climbing amid the overthrown and fire-blasted blocks of a titan citadel. Everywhere the slope was rent into huge, obliquely angled masses, often partly vitrified. Plainly, at some former time, it had been subjected to the action of intense heat; and yet there were no volcanic craters in that vicinity. I felt a vague sense of awe and terror, as I recalled. a passage in the old volume, hinting ambiguously at the fate that had long ago destroyed the city's inhabitants:

'For the people of that city had reared its walls and towers too high amid the region of the clouds; and the clouds came down in their anger and smote the city with dreadful fires; and thereafter the place was peopled no more by those primal giants who had built it, but had only the clouds for inhabitants and custodians.'

We had left our three llamas at the slope's bottom, merely taking with us provisions for one night. Thus, unhampered, we made fair progress in spite of the ever-varying obstacles offered by the shattered scarps. After a while we came to the hewn steps of a stairway mounting towards the summit; but the steps had been wrought for the feet of colossi, and, in many places, were part of the heaved and tilted ruin; so they did not greatly facilitate our climbing.

Tbe sun was still high above western pass behind us; and I was surprised, as we went on, by a sudden deepening of the charlike blackness on the rocks. Turning, I saw that several greyish vapoury masses, which might have been either clouds or smoke, were drifting about the summits that overlooked the pass; and one of these masses, rearing like a limbless figure, upright and colossal, had interposed itself between us and the sun.

I called the attention of my companions to this phenomenon; for clouds were almost unheard-of amid those arid mountains in summer; and the presence of smoke would have been equally hard to explain. Moreover, the grey masses were different from any cloud-forms we had ever seen. They possessed a peculiar capacity and sharpness of outline, a baffling suggestion of weight and solidity. Moving sluggishly into the heavens above the pass, they preserved their original contours and their separateness. They seemed to swell and tower, coming towards us on the blue air from which, as yet, no lightest breath of wind had reached us. Floating thus, they maintained the erectness of massive columns or of giants marching on a plain,

I think we all felt an alarm that was none the less urgent for its vagueness. Somehow, from that instant, it seemed that we were penned up by unknown powers and were cut off from all possibility of retreat. All at once, the dim legends of the ancient volume had assumed a menacing reality, We had ventured into a place of hidden peril — and the peril was upon us. In the movement of the clouds there was something alert, deliberate and implacable. Polder spoke with a sort of horror in his voice, uttering the thought that had already occurred to me:

'They are the sentinels who guard this region — and they have espied us!'

We heard a harsh cry from the Indian, who stood gazing and pointing upwards. Several of the unnatural cloud-shapes had appeared on the summit towards which we were climbing, above the megalithic ruins. Some arose half-hidden by the walls, as if from behind a breast-work; others stood, as it were, on the topmost towers and battlements, bulking in portentous menace, like the cumuli of a thunderstorm.

Then, with terrifying swiftness, many more of the cloud-presences towered from the four quarters, emerging from behind the great peaks or assuming sudden visibility in mid-air. With equal and effortless speed, as if convoked by an unheard command, they gathered in converging lines up the eyrie-like ruins. We, the climbers, and the whole slope about us and the valley below, were plunged in a twilight cast by the clouds.

The air was still windless, but it weighed upon us as if burdened with the wings of a thousand evil demons. We were overwhelmingly conscious of our exposed position, for we had paused on a wide landing of the mountain-hewn steps. We could have concealed ourselves amid the huge fragments on the slope; but, for the nonce, we were too exhausted to be capable of the simplest movement, The rarity of the air had left us weak and gasping. And the chill of altitude crept into us,

In a close-ranged army, the clouds mustered above and around us. They rose into the very zenith, swelling to insuperable vastness, and darkening like Tartarean gods. The sun had disappeared, leaving no faintest beam to prove that it still hung unfallen and undestroyed in the heavens.

I felt that I was crushed into the very stone by the eyeless regard of that awful assemblage, judging and condemning us. We had, I thought, trespassed upon a region conquered long ago by strange elemental entities and forbidden henceforward to man, We had approached their very citadel; and now we must meet the doom our rashness had invited. Such thoughts, like a black lightning, flared in my brain, even as my logic tried to analyse the reason for the thoughts,

Now, for the first time, I became aware of sound, if the word can be applied to a sensation so anomalous. It was as if the oppression that weighed upon me had become audible; as if palpable thunders poured over and past me. I felt and heard them in every nerve, and they roared through my brain like torrents from the opened floodgates of some tremendous weir in a world of genii.

Downwards upon us, with limbless Atlantean stridings, there swept the cloudy cohorts. Their swiftness was that of mountain-sweeping winds. The air was riven as if by the tumult of a thousand tempests, was rife with an unmeasured elemental malignity. recall but partially the events that ensued; but the impression of insufferable darkness, of demonic clamour and trampling, and the pressure of thunderous onset, remains forever indelible. Also, there were voices that called out with the stridour of clarions in a war of gods, uttering ominous syllables, that man's ear could never seize.

Before those vengeful shapes, we could not stand for an instant. We hurled ourselves madly down the shadowed steps of the giant stairs. Polder and the guide were a little ahead of me, and I saw them in that baleful twilight through sheets of sudden rain, on the verge of a deep chasm, which, in our ascent, had compelled us to much circumambulation. I saw than fall together — and yet I swear that they did not fall into the chasm: for one of the clouds was upon them, whirling over them, even as they fell. There was a fusion as of forms beheld in delirium. For an instant the two men were like vapours that swelled and swirled, towering high as the cloud that had covered them; and the cloud itself was a misty Janus, with two heads and bodies, melting into its column...

After that I remember nothing more except the sense of vertiginous falling. By some miracle I must have reached the edge of the chasm and flung myself into its depths without being overtaken as the others had been. How I escaped is forevermore an enigma. When I returned to awareness, stars were peering down like chill incurious eyes between black and jagged lips of rock. The air had turned sharp with nightfall in a mountain land. My body ached with a hundred bruises and my right forearm was limp and useless when I tried to raise myself. A dark mist of horror stifled my thoughts. Struggling to my feet with pain-racked effort, I called aloud, though I knew that none would answer me. Then, striking match after match, I searched the chasm and found myself, as I had expected, alone. Nowhere was there any trace of my companions: they had vanished utterly as clouds vanish

Somehow, by night, with a broken arm, I climbed from the steep fissure. I must have made my way down the frightful mountainside and out of that namelessly haunted and guarded land. I remember that the sky was clear, that the stars were undimmed by any semblance of cloud; and that somewhere in the valley I found one of our llamas, still laden with its stock of provisions.

Plainly I was not pursued by the clouds. Perhaps they were concerned only with the warding of that mysterious primal city from human intrusion. Some day I shall learn their true nature and entity, and the secret of those ruinous walls and crumbling keeps, and the fate of my companions. But still, through my nightly dreams and diurnal visions, the dark shapes move with the tumult and thunder of a thousand storms; my soul is crushed into the earth with the burden of fear, and they pass over me with the speed and vastness of vengeful gods; and I hear their voices calling like clarions in the sky, with ominous, world-shaking syllables that the ear can never seize.

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Printed on: October 31, 2020