As I gazed, thus enchanted, a cold hand touched my own.
'Hush!' whispered Ayesha, from the black veil, against which the rays of the caldron fell blunt, and absorbed into Dark. 'Behind us, the light of the circle is extinct; but there, we are guarded from all save the brutal and soulless destroyers. But, before!---- but, before!----see, two of the lamps have died out!----see the blank of the gap in the ring! Guard that breach----there the demons will enter.'
'Not a drop is there left in this vessel by which to replenish the lamps on the ring.'
'Advance, then; thou hast still the light of the soul, and the demons may recoil before a soul that is dauntless and guiltless. If not, Three are lost!----as it is, One is doomed.'
Thus adjured, silently, involuntarily, I passed from the Veiled Woman's side, over the sear lines on the turf which had been traced by the triangles of light long since extinguished, and toward the verge of the circle. As I advanced, overhead rushed a dark cloud of wings----birds dislodged from the forest on fire, and screaming, in dissonant terror, as they flew toward the farthermost mountains; close by my feet hissed and glided the snakes, driven forth from their blazing coverts, and glancing through the ring, unscared by its waning lamps; all undulating by me, bright-eyed, and hissing, all made innocuous by fear----even the terrible Death-adder, which I trampled on as I halted at the verge of the circle, did not turn to bite, but crept harmless away. I halted at the gap between the two dead lamps, and bowed my head to look again into the crystal vessel. Were there, indeed, no lingering drops yet left, if but to recruit the lamps for some priceless minutes more? As I thus stood, right into the gap between the two dead lamps strode a gigantic Foot. All the rest of the form was unseen; only, as volume after volume of smoke poured on from the burning land behind, it seemed as if one great column of vapor, eddying round, settled itself aloft from the circle, and that out from that column strode the giant Foot. And, as strode the Foot, so with it came, like the sound of its tread, a roll of muttered thunder.
I recoiled, with a cry that rang loud through the lurid air.
'Courage!' said the voice of Ayesha. 'Trembling soul, yield not an inch to the demon!'
At the charm, the wonderful charm, in the tone of the Veiled Woman's voice, my will seemed to take a force more sublime than its own. I folded my arms on my breast, and stood as if rooted to the spot, confronting the column of smoke and the stride of the giant Foot. And the Foot halted, mute.
Again, in the momentary hush of that suspense, I heard a voice----it was Margrave's.
'The last hour expires----the work is accomplished! Come! come! Aid me to take the caldron from the fire; and, quick!----or a drop may be wasted in vapor----the Elixir of Life from the caldron!'
At that cry I receded, and the Foot advanced.
And at that moment, suddenly, unawares, from behind, I was stricken down. Over me, as I lay, swept a whirlwind of trampling hoofs and glancing horns. The herds, in their flight from the burning pastures, had rushed over the bed of the water course, scaled the slopes of the banks. Snorting and bellowing, they plunged their blind way to the mountains. One cry alone, more wild than their own savage blare, pierced the reek through which the Brute Hurricane swept. At that cry of wrath and despair I struggled to rise, again dashed to earth by the hoofs and the horns. But was it the dreamlike deceit of my reeling senses, or did I see that giant Foot stride past through the close-serried ranks of the maddening herds? Did I hear, distinct through all the huge uproar of animal terror, the roll of low thunder which followed the stride of that Foot?