Maze of Worlds

House of Doors series (Volume 2 of 2)

Brian Lumley

Tor Books

Chapter One
 
 
In Shantung province, Ki-no Sung yawned, rolled up his reed bed, and took down from the bamboo walls two big bundles of nets. He carried the first armful out into the dawn light flooding from the east across Hwang Hai, the Yellow Sea, and looked down upon the narrow strip of beach separating the jungle from the ocean. As he put the netting down on the boards of his porch, he could see his small boat lolling there as upon the rim of a vast millpond, calm in the gathering light, with barely a ripple to rock it. Except for when the storms came, it was always like this, a scene that never changed.
Moving quietly so as not to disturb his heavily pregnant wife who was still asleep in a small room of her own, Sung went back inside, put on a wide—brimmed hat, took up the second bundle of nets, and carried it outside-and promptly dropped it!
Down the beach, his small boat seemed to have disappeared, to have been swallowed up. And in its place…Ki-no Sung saw a resplendent pagoda! Its uppermost tiers rearing high out of the water, the structure must have been all of a hundred feet tall.
Impossible! He rubbed at his slanted, sleep-filled eyes and looked again. But it was still there. It was real. A wondrous pagoda inlaid with scintillant jade or onyx or both, and the waves of disturbed ocean rolling back against it and foaming ivory-white, as if this—this what, this temple?—had suddenly emerged from the deeps, been thrust up by some earthquake to part the waters. Except the fisherman Ki-no Sung knew that there were no secret deeps here; the waters were shallow and muddy, and this incredible pagoda was clean as if freshly built or sculpted—but by what strange instantaneous builder or sculptor? Because for all that this unbelievable structure was huge, it had neither windows nor doors…
* * *
Stunned, for long seconds Ki-no Sung stood trembling, his eyes taking in what his brain could scarcely accept. But the wash of newborn waves was in his ears, and the sun’s first rays glanced slantingly, blindingly from the pagoda’s scrollwork and exotically carven inlays, and in another moment a seabird landed upon a corner scroll of the penultimate tier, where it perched in a flutter of white plumage. So quite obviously this thing was no mirage; it was real, leaving no room for the peasant fisherman to doubt his own senses.
Real, yes, and yet patently the end result of some colossal magic! Except…
Magic? Ki-no Sung had no use for it. Not far from Qingdao to the south, he had seen rockets rising from secret launching pads in the jungle, curving out over the Yellow Sea on blossoming stems of white smoke, and falling unerringly, devastatingly on target ships, flimsy test vessels, to destroy them in explosive fire and boiling ocean. How could magic compare with that? And what of the telephone, radio, and television? In the village there were three telephones, several radios, even two television sets, yes! So that Ki-no Sung knew well enough that the outside world was full of magics to rival anything out of ancient times.
Forty years ago, Ki-no Sung’s father, a Korean whose real name was Kim (Kim Tsu, the family name coming first), had fought alongside his North Korean countrymen and the Red Chinese army against the South. At the cessation, uprooted, he’d expatriated himself and his family to the Red Chinese mainland, and in Qingdao had told tales of weapons so awesome as to make men’s blood run cold.
“We feared that should we fight on,” he had told his son, “the American dogs might do to North Korea—and perhaps to China itself—what they had done to Japan. Why, they have a bomb that can destroy a city in a single bright flash of light! What is that for an enemy, eh? Your ancestors feared magic. Ah, but this nuclear science is a far more dangerous thing, my son, and it makes cities dangerous places! Now that I have earned Chinese citizenship, the green jungle shall be our protection, and the Yellow Sea our provider.”
Following which he had quit Qingdao and moved his family some thirty miles northeast into the coastal forest, settling for the simple life of a fisherman. He and Ki-no Sung’s mother had lived out their lives there, and Sung—a man now, remembering his father’s words—had kept mainly to himself, and to the house on the rim of the sea and the outskirts of the small village where he had grown up to follow in his father’s footsteps. Or perhaps in his wake, since he was a fisherman.
He had taken a wife, Chinese, whose name meant Lotus, and she was with Child—a boy, Sung prayed, to grow up and learn the secrets of the sea from him. Where now…
Where now there was this new secret to be learned.
The pagoda would be visible from the village harbor, but Sung’s place was closer by a mile. If he was brave enough, he could even be first to set foot upon the tiers of marble steps leading up to…to what? A pagoda with no windows, no doors? He might even—what, lay claim to the place? Hardly that, not if it was something of the scientists’ doing, some governmental thing; some secret preparation—like the rockets in their jungle silos—for the protection of the mainland, or maybe for a renewed Chinese assault upon South Korea over the sea one day. But what if it wasn’t any of these things? And anyway, whatever it was it occupied Ki-no Sung’s patch of ocean, it stood on his watery property. And if he didn’t explore it someone else certainly would.
Perhaps sensing something, Lotus sleepily called out, “Kim Sung, did you speak? Is there something?” When they were alone, she reverted to his Korean name, which was much to his liking. She loved him, yes, but her parents did not, not much. They had standing in the village, while Sung had very little. But to be first out into the Yellow Sea, first up onto the strange pagoda…that would very definitely bolster his prestige.
Sung made up his mind. And the sight of his boat, suddenly slewing into view on a wave-washed beach reduced to little more than a shingle strip at the edge of the jungle, seemed to validate his decision. “No, nothing,” he found his voice and called out, lying in answer to his wife’s query—but a white lie, of course. “I’m going fishing. I’m sorry I woke you.”
“It’s all right,” she sighed and he heard her pallet move a little as she turned over. And: “Catch lots of fishes,” Lotus mumbled.
Maybe the biggest you ever imagined, Sung thought, leaving his nets behind and setting off at a lope along the jungle path to his boat…
* * *
Perhaps the pagoda was something of a mirage after all. The seabird up there on the high ornate scrollwork wasn’t able to make up its mind either. It hopped from one webbed foot to the other and seemed quite unable to find its balance. And Ki-no Sung believed he knew why. It was as if the pagoda were only half here. The waters of the Yellow Sea were disturbed around it; they came and went, first sucked in, then repulsed by its presence, which caused shallow, slapping waves about its base. And perhaps the strangest thing of all: from close-up, the pagoda’s outline was very definitely…blurred? Like a radio wavelength that won’t stay tuned in, or a picture on a TV screen that refuses to firm up. During the rainy season, Sung had observed just such atmospheric disturbances. But this thing was three-dimensional, a solid. It displaced water, however erratically. So by definition, how could a “solid” be anything other than firm? The answer seemed simple: it couldn’t.
There was only one other possibility: that Ki-no Sung was mad. But driven mad by what? The loneliness of his fisherman’s existence, perhaps? Not now that Lotus was here. By her family, then; perhaps they had poisoned him! But no, their dislike of him was hardly so great, while their love of Lotus was. They would not hurt someone for whom she cared so much. And anyway, if he was mad, then so was that hopping seabird up there.
Actually, it looked mad, the way it couldn’t seem to settle…
The waves slapped at his shallow boat and made it difficult for Sung to steer up alongside the pagoda’s base. Finally he managed it, and drew his small motor’s long-Stemmed propeller into the stern of his vessel. But how to anchor? The massive steps swam up from yellowy-green water to form this first level platform…the pagoda’s ground floor? Well, that was how it looked. Which begged the question: if this was indeed the ground floor, what was down below on the muddy bed five or six meters deep under the surface? The design of the thing was all wrong—or deliberately tricky?—or maybe this wasn’t the base and the pagoda’s doors were all on the lowest, submerged level.
But where were the windows? And why were there no balconies? Sung lobbed his anchor—more a grapnel—around a fancy curlicue of white stone scrollwork, and used the line for support as he drew himself from his boat onto the first step where it swam in the choppy spray of peculiarly disturbed water. And the water tingled where it washed his hands and soaked through his trousers.
The sensation was like a mild electric shock, so slight indeed that Sung could be mistaken. Or maybe it was the weirdness of his situation: to find himself crouching on something as massive as this, which wasn’t here twenty-odd minutes ago. Little wonder it scarcely felt solid at all!
And there yet again was that doubting niggle in the back of Sung’s mind, about the pagoda’s reality. But Ki-no Sung was real and really here, scrambling up onto the next tier of brand-new steps (the pagoda was brand-new, yes) before the eccentric wavelets could suck him back into the sea again. And his craft was there, rocking in the surging water below him, and the pagoda went up and up, gorgeously into the morning light. It went up gleaming—indeed shimmering—and utterly alien.
Shimmering…
Maybe that had something to do with the sensation of pent electricity. Maybe the tingling was the ultra-rapid vibration of a mild electrical charge. But alien? Where had that thought come from? Not alien as in a creature or thing from some other world—not necessarily, anyway—but as in inexplicable, or perhaps in its defiance of logic.
A word was on the tip of Ki-no Sung’s tongue. And then it slipped out of his mouth: “Imitation!”
A pagoda without windows or doors? Oh, the thing was real, but it wasn’t a real pagoda. It was an imitation! And it wasn’t yet a perfect imitation.
The blurring was stronger now, the vibrations speeding up. Sung saw every facet of the pagoda shimmering, like the gut of a bow when twanged or the wind chimes when he played his flute too close to them. Then from high overhead there came the sudden hiss and crackle of static electricity, or of some kind of energy, anyway. And just as suddenly, the fisherman Ki-no Sung was deadly afraid.
Shielding his face—he didn’t know why or from what—he looked up. From his elevation, where he stood three tall, wide steps up from the agitated water, the shimmering, “unreal” surface of the pagoda climbed a hundred feet. But because each of the levels was set back from the preceding level, pyramidal, he could see all the way to the topmost tier. And staring, he saw blue and white energies snaking and crackling the entire length or height of the now frightening structure. Which was only the start of it.
The steps only a few tiers higher than the level where he stood suddenly rippled-rippled as if they were no more substantial than water. And Sung knew in his instantly hammering heart that this was not simply the effect of some strange heat haze—no earthly heat haze, anyway. And now the word “alien” must surely take on its other meaning.
Sung had seen science fiction films; the Japanese variety frequently found their way onto the village TV screens. But he had seen horror films, too, and various mixtures of the genres.
The rippling flowed inward and upward, left the steps to climb the broad central stem of the pagoda. And while the base and steps seemed solid again, the first level or platform some eighteen feet higher started to waver and warp like the flimsy canopy of a sun awning in a sudden brisk gust. It lasted only a moment as the effect moved on and continued to “climb” the pagoda, and each level in turn steamed and crackled with snaking energies and went through the metamorphosis from solid to immaterial and back again.
But it was speeding up; the air was beginning to hum like a dynamo; in a matter of seconds the penultimate, then topmost tiers were briefly obscured in steam and blue and white energy traceries, until the wavelike ripple reversed itself and started back down again. And now it was moving really fast, like a wave in a crowd of people such as Sung had seen televised from the Olympics in Seoul ten years ago. But ahead of the wave, in a mad squawking and a bomb burst of bloody red feathers, something else was falling from on high.
The seabird, thudding to the steps only a few paces away from Sung where he crouched. The bird’s legs were gone, cut off halfway up its thighs, and its right wing had likewise been severed at the first major hinge. Bloodied and squawking in agony, the maimed creature skittered in a small, hopeless circle. And a horrified glance up at the pagoda told Sung that whatever had crippled the bird was about to do the same thing to him!
The jutting, ornately carved (or otherwise created) landing directly overhead was steaming and writhing, sheathed in unearthly energy discharges, and the broad stem or body of the structure was already beginning to warp out of shape. Then, in a single breathless second as Sung stood there paralyzed, this nightmarish metamorphosis descended to his level and came rushing upon him across the melting steps!
In that same moment, ignorant or perhaps not so ignorant peasant that he was, Sung knew; knew that as the pagoda firmed into its final, physical permanency it could only be at the expense of any other reality that happened to be interfacing with it at the time. He knew—albeit without knowing that he knew, in the same way that everyone intuitively knows to avoid oncoming vehicles, stampeding buffaloes, and even other people in a hurry—that no more than one solid object may ever occupy one space at any one time. And it was obvious to him that just like the flopping seabird, he was by far the weaker of the two forces here.
Galvanized, as the effect reached to engulf him and flickering energies formed a web to enclose him, he made a headlong dive for the ocean. His left foot was the last part of Sung to leave the “stone” surface of the steps. He felt a terrible attraction, a tugging, as if his sandal were stuck down; but then he was free, flying like a knife through the throbbing air and a moment later plunging down into the choppy water.
Just how he had managed to clear the pagoda’s “solid” rim he would never know; a superhuman effort seemed the only explanation, but at an angle of some forty-five degrees he went deep into the hissing sea. And the warping, flowing, metamorphosing effect kept pace with him as his dive bore him inches clear of the corners of the submerged tiers of steps, until he shot over the rim of the true base and felt the Yellow Sea open its empty vastness beneath him. Then, in a rush of bubbles, Sung arched his body and outstretched hands to bring himself into a sweeping turn, and looked back.
He was maybe four meters deep and the sea…was blurred. But even as he stared the weird distortion went away. And there behind it was the solid—really solid, finally solid—face of the pagoda only a few meters away. But the structure wasn’t solid through and through, for as Sung now saw there was indeed an entrance, a door of sorts: an oddly angled aperture receding into the core of the false pagoda. And flanking this orifice, a pair of faceted oval crystals like underwater lights set flush with the stone.
Sung saw it, and at once felt the alien threat of it. This secret, submerged, green-lit tunnel, angling back into shifting shadows; this vertical slit of a mouth guarded by crystal eyes. He saw it, and was mortally afraid of it. For the alien pagoda, artifact, lair—or lure?—was fearsome enough on the outside, without him pondering its conjectural interior.
The facets in the oval crystals changed their inclination. It was as if a pair of eyes, real eyes, had blinked and refocused. Focused on Ki-no Sung!
He kicked for the surface—and the Yellow Sea turned red. The crystals glowed red as hellfire, swiveled to catch him in pulsing cross-beams, hauled on him to draw him feetfirst into the yawning slit of the door. Or the mouth?
And as the shadow of the door fell on him and the crystals dulled and blinked out, Sung felt a different force acting upon him. A terrific suction from within the pagoda, a current that drew him irresistibly into darkness. And he daren’t even scream for fear of drowning.
But if he had known where he was going, he might well have screamed and chanced drowning—or gladly drowned—anyway…
* * *
The men from the village found the strap of one of Kino Sung’s sandals floating near what was left of his boat. Just the strap, severed as if by a razor in the three places where it had once joined with the sole. As for his boat:
The rear section was discovered sliced end up, bobbing not too far from the pagoda. The boat’s aft net-storage compartment had trapped sufficient air to remain afloat, and Sung’s grapnel anchor, caught in weeds on the bottom, had prevented the wreckage from running with the current.
When drawn from the sea, the anchor itself was seen to be a blob of fused, blackened metal, with the blunted shape of one tine barely projecting.
And apart from these few things, there was no evidence at all that Ki-no Sung had ever been here…
 
Copyright © 1998 by Brian Lumley