The Dart of Rasasfa

Clark Ashton Smith

Jon Montrose and his wife Mildred were passing Belaran, a sun obscured to earth-astronomers by a small dense nebula ^many^ [ten] million miles beyond Alpha Centauri. Its existence had been discovered nine years previously by an expedition which had gone by to remoter spatial objectives. Jon and Mildred were the only crew of the space-flier Daedalus in which they had left earth two years before, and were making maximum speed of several light-years a week by atomic power.

In their reflectors Belaran, a white sun similar to our own, displayed a system of seven worlds. The tint was unusual — most suns in proximity to nebulae were blue or red. They were nearest to the fourth world when the trouble began — a sudden and violent veering toward the planet, which lay to starboard. Jon's quick inspection showed that the steering apparatus was in good order. Some obscure magnetic force, not classified by their instruments, was drawing them downward to the unknown world, which soon revealed a conformation of plains and mountains below. The plains broadened, the mountains leapt upward with tops and slopes that assumed color and sharp definitude.

"God! We're going to crash!" Jon cried. He and Mildred watched helplessly as the vessel slanted past the high peaks with no visible snow but a lichen-like purplish vegetation. They dipped into a long steep ravine showing threads of water or other liquid at the bottom, and then landed on a sort of shelf, their prow plunging into soil and rocks deeply enough to hold the ship from sliding further.

Stunned by the impact, the voyagers soon regained full consciousness. They had held instinctively to the steering seat, but were bruised and bleeding. The engines grew silent. Air blowing in their faces drew their attention to the manhole in the slanted wall. It had been forced half open, and their atmosphere was tempered by a cool fresh breeze from outside which seemed to have no deleterious effects but was perhaps a little higher in oxygen than that to which they were accustomed.

Jon examined the atomic engines. They had been turned off automatically by a breakage in the rod which connected them with the steering gear. The rod was made of carborundum and zeronium, the last-named a new element found on the moon and certain other planets. How it had been broken, unless flawed, was a mystery: the alloy was harder than diamond. Unless the break could be mended, they would be powerless to resume their journey.

Jon cursed in a low voice, remembering that they had neglected to bring along any spare parts, and wondering if the local landscape would afford the required materials. If so, they had a furnace for smelting and fusing and could mend the rod, even if rather crudely.

He told Mildred the problem, adding: "There's nothing for us to do except get out and hunt. Otherwise we'll be stuck here till the Second Coming."

He packed a knapsack with food and a thermos bottle of coffee, and gave it to Mildred. Then, carrying slung from his shoulders a pick and shovel and a complicated new instrument for detecting all known minerals and elements up to a depth of ten or more feet, he forced the manhole lid open enough to climb out and descend to the ledge on a crazily slanted ladder. His wife followed, having strapped the knapsack about her neck.

They could see much of the surrounding terrain. Far in the distance of the flat country below, towers or tall buildings glimmered. At their feet a series of rough projections in the stone made feasible their descent to the stream-bed where liquid pools and cascades gurgled between steep walls partly mantled with lichen or other short growth harder to classify.

The climbed down to the stream-bed, testing each of the salients carefully before trusting their full weight upon it. The pools were indistinguishable from common water at close view but might contain poisonous elements. They did not pause to test it but stepped across the stream and began to ascend the opposite side, stopping many times to try the detection instrument, which showed only minerals and metals of ordinary kind, including traces of gold, silver, iron, and mercury.

By slow degrees they worked diagonally toward the plain, crossing several ridges and streams, one of the latter a cataract which they had to circumnavigate laboriously. At last, on a downward slope, they found evidence of carborundum; and, not far away, a small deposit of zeronium. Jon started to dig. He had gone down about five feet and had struck the carborundum, Mildred over beside him, when an interruption occurred. A heavy net of some clinging ropy material dropped over their heads and tightened. Beyond the meshes a group of incredible beings, reptile-headed but upright, bluish in color, with two hands and feet, were standing over them, holding the long handle of the net. One of these beings carried a sharp-pointed spear with which he touched them in turn, pricking through their clothes between the meshes. Unconsciousness quickly followed a spreading numbness at the touch of the spear.

Mildred awoke in a dungeon-like roofed enclosure, lit sparsely by small globes in the walls which had the look of staring violescent eyes. She was lying on a low couch of some soft and colorless material. Beside her on the floor was a flattish bowl containing, she conjectured, some sort of food-stuff. Still dazed and sick, she did not feel tempted to taste it. Anyway, the odor was not appetizing: it suggested stale fish.

She raised herself dizzily on her elbow. The floor seemed to reel, the lights in the walls to dance. Around a corner, swaying with the room's apparent motion, walked three of the bluish reptile-headed beings. One of them strapped an apparatus like an electrode to her forehead and held the other end to his own. She noticed for the first time that his hands were four-fingered. She heard in her brain a weird buzzing which began to shape itself into sounds that she could not recognize as words until after an interval. Presently she surmised that the sounds were a telepathic attempt at translation into English from a radically different tongue, in which many letters were hissed rather than spoken, but in words that were well-nigh unpronounceable by the human mouth-structure.

Mildred made out: "To the temple you must go where waits Asasfa {sic} .... Other person not yourself to sacrifice. Will result for us much benefit... much learning."

The sounds changed, becoming more rapid and less distinct, with a tone of stern command. Perhaps a hyponotic suggestion was being administered. At any rate she could not remember its nature or import when the being withdrew the instrument.

Her captors drew her upright. Their clammy touch made her shudder. Mildred's arms were supported while a reptile mask, whitish rather than blue, was fastened over her face. She became aware for the first time that she had been quite naked, when a short pale dress was draped around her. Then they led her from the room through an open doorway and up several flights of coiling steps and along endless dim corridors.

Somewhere the hilt of a stained, blackish, upward-pointing knife was placed in her hand, and her fingers were clasped tightly around it by cold reptile pressure. She could not recall why, or for what purpose, she was to use it. But a strong sense of predestination was upon her, and a feeling that she would be enlightened in due time.

Light opened before her. She was led through a high broad doorway into a vast edifice where a reptile being, taller than any she had yet seen, stood before an open alcove which gave forth a golden glimmering. The alcove's entrance looked like a huge broad keyhole. The being held in his hand a sickle-butted dart. The walls of the alcove behind him seemed inlaid with oblique oblongs of yellow mosaic, and the floor was partly littered with unnameable objects.

Mildred was half-pushed, half-carried, and made to stand on an indented pedestal at the right hand of the armed entity. She faced a deeply bowing silent congregation of reptilians in the nave, which appeared lit by sunlight between pillars at the rear.

Still half dazed, she perceived that a man had entered at the left and had paused in front of the dart-bearer. For a while she failed to recognize that the man was Jon: his features seemed blurred with the faces of others she had known, had liked or disliked in former years. An impulse of sudden hatred made her raise the black knife, and she was about to fling it toward him.

She never knew what checked her. Perhaps the hypnotic command implanted in her mind had suddenly been reversed. She paused, while the dart-bearer lifted his weapon and hurled it violently at Jon, piercing his shirt at the side as he dodged agilely with muscles trained by a multitude of tasks.

Something (perhaps a remaining part of the hypnosis) told her that the dart-bearer was Asasfa[r], priest of an ultraplanetary sect. She leaped from the pedestal and stabbed him deeply in the side. Almost simultaneously, in his convulsive struggles, he scratched her breast with the dart-point before he dropped.

Jon and Mildred both underwent a strange hallucination, identical in all details, which they could never afterward forget. They had the sense of falling immeasurably, plunging through uncharted depths and dimensions, to hang insecurely poised on the verge of an alien hell, from which pointed flames and obscenely writhing monsters, dragon-like creatures with several heads and bodies, reached upward around their feet and sometimes over towered them, breathing a fetid stench in their faces. Not the least horror was the figure of Rasasfa standing close at hand, and thrusting with his dart at the monsters. And they, in turn, seemed to assail him with a special menace and venom, looming far up and lengthening fantastically into the skyless vault. He paid no attention to the humans, apparently oblivious of their presence either as foes or allies.

At last the lurid glow, like ashen embers, dimmed in the depths. The figures grew vaporous, and broke up like wind-blown clouds, trailing and mingling and finally dissolving. Jon and Mildred stood alone on the precipice, which tottered and fell apart.

They awoke in the nave. The crowd had vanished. The reptile had dropped his dart but was still writhing. Pierced in a vital part by Mildred's knife, he was dying very slowly, as snakes die.

They found their way from the edifice, meeting no one. Jon had picked up the dart and carried it. The sun had abandoned the skies, leaving a multitude of stars. Using a small pocket-compass, of which his captors had not deprived him, they left the city. The place lay entirely dark and silent, as if deserted by its inhabitants; and quitting its narrow, tortuous streets, they returned toward the mountains. They surmised that the slaying of Asasfa had wrought profound terror. Doubtless the people had believed him a supernatural or immortal being.

For two days they traveled across a semi-desert land. The sun leaned over them, warm until evening. They followed the compass toward a magnetic pole in what they liked to believe was the north. The air was very cold at night, and they slept a few hours in each other's arms. Fearing pursuit, they peered often backward at the city, which sank gradually on the horizon. Presently they found the tracks of the reptile people going cityward from the mountains, deeply printed because of the weight of the unconscious humans whom they carried. No doubt there were other cities in this world; but Jon and Mildred were glad to forgo any curiosity concerning them. Their one experience had been enough for several lifetimes.

Late in the second afternoon the footsteps led them to the hollow in which Jon had been digging when they were captured by the falling net. Their tools and sacks and thermos lay where they had left them, their captors plainly thinking these appurtenances of no particular account.

The coffee was still warm in the thermos. They gulped some of it down eagerly. Then Jon resumed his digging while Mildred remained on the ridge watching the remote city, which seemed to waver and flicker like a mirage. Jon had filled one of the sacks with crude carborundum and was beginning to uncover the zeronium when he heard Mildred cry out in warning. Hastily he climbed the ridge beside her, taking with him the dart-weapon and a pistol snatched from his pack.

A half-dozen of the reptile-men, climbing noiselessly, were hard upon them. All were armed with darts. They paused when Jon brandished Rasasfa's weapon, as if realizing its weird powers and superiority to their own. Then they resumed their advance. Jon dropped two of them with the pistol, which was a sort of flame-thrower, and short-ranged. The others fell back and concealed themselves behind boulders. They had estimated closely the range of the flame-thrower.

"Take over while I get the zeronium," Jon instructed, giving Mildred the pistol. She obeyed while Jon finished laying bare the needed element and partly filled the other sack . He attached the tools and sacks to his shoulder-band, and telling Mildred to follow, began to escalade toward the space-flier.

It was a close race. He heard the snap and hiss of the pistol and Mildred's cry of triumph as at least one of their pursuers fell back. Then he was climbing the flier's ladder and pushing his loads through the manhole. Hanging at one side, he made sure that Mildred preceded him, snatching the pistol from her hand as she went past. One of the reptile-men was starting to climb the ladder, but fell into the ravine when Jon fired. Jon went through the manhole and made fast the outer and inner lids.

They worked on their repairs for much of the night, hearing the baffled cries of the reptiles and the futile crash of their weapons against the hull and windows.

The furnaces had done their fusing, and the rod was welded and left to cool.

At earliest morning they took off and regained the outer skies.

Notes to the Text

"The Dart of Rasasfa" was Smith's last story, completed July 21, 1961, some three weeks before his death. The tale had been written around a cover illustration by George Barr for an upcoming issue of Fantastic Stories of Imagination, whose editor, Cele Goldsmith, commissioned Smith to produce the tale. Upon examination of the story, the magazine chose not to accept it. The illustration was eventually used for the April 1962 cover of Fantastic Stories, but differs somewhat from Smith's description of it, and his interpretation of the events depicted therein is questionable.

Regarding the story's rather hackneyed, Gernsback-era flavor, Carol Jones Smith has written, "I know his intent was ironic. RAH {Rah Hoffman} questioned the name 'Muriel' for the heroine. I think he was so fed up with American 'shit-ilization' as we called it for years, that the last story contained his disgust—which didn't come off as irony, in a pulp mag." (Taken from a memoir in manuscript, held at the John Hay Library of Brown University. "Shit-ilization" was a Smith jab at "civilization." Note that in the surviving draft of "The Dart of Rasasfa," the heroine's name is Mildred.)

The synopsis for this story reads as follows:

"Bluish reptile-headed being stands in key-shaped doorway, a sickle-butted dart in his right hand. A female stands at his left on an indented pedestal. Female is also lizard-headed and carries a black knife, pointed upward, in her right hand. Pale body and short pale-gold skirt. Behind male is alcove with walls that seem inlaid with mosaic, and partly littered floor. Dart is aimed at someone or something to the ^left^ [right], not shown in picture (by Geo. Barr).

"Scene is on fourth of the seven planets of Bellatrix. An earth-man and his wife, voyaging beyond in their space-flier, have been drawn by an obscure magnetic force and wrecked in a mountainous region of the planet. They leave their ship, which needs repair, and follow streams, rapids and cataracts toward a dim plain far below. Air and gravity are similar enough to those of the earth. They are captured by reptile beings with two arms and legs, and stunned into unconsciousness. Waking, they find themselves separated and without knowledge of their whereabouts, except that they are in dungeon-like roofed enclosures, neither knowing what has happened to the other. They are fed with tasteless and probably synthetic materials. After an indefinite period the woman is attired in a reptile mask and short skirt, a knife is thrust into her hand and she is led upward through dark corridors and placed in the position described at beginning, beside the reptile with poised sickle-butted dart. She has been drugged or hypnotized, and fails to recognize her husband, at whom dart is aimed. He, however, knows the woman in spite of her disguise which perhaps makes her more pleasing to the reptiles. Both notice, mechanically, that an assembly of reptiles, bowing deeply, fills the nave-like structure.

"The bearer of the dart flings it suddenly at the man, who dodges but is slightly wounded in the side. A moment later, the drug (or hypnosis) wears off and the woman leaps at the dart-bearer and stabs him deeply. I n his convulsive struggles he scratches her with the dart-point before he drops.

"A strange hallucination is undergone by the man and woman. T hey seem to fall immeasurably, plunging through uncharted depths and dimensions, to hang insecurely poised on the verge of an ultramundane hell, from which pointed flames, many-headed dragons and other obscene monsters reach upward around their feet.

"At last the scene dims and they awaken in the nave with the slain reptile still writhing and dying slowly. Otherwise the place is deserted. They find their way from the edifice, meeting no one. By starlight and a small pocket-compass, they quit the city and return to the mountains where they had been captured. None follows them, though the trip requires two days. Apparently the death of the reptile-headed being has wrought profound terror. They find the space-flier and have finished roughly their repairs when more of the reptilian beings appear, and they take off unsteadily, quitting the world of Bellatrix."

^xxx^ xxx was added by Smith.
[xxx] xxx was deleted by Smith.
{July 21, 1961}

Bibliographic Citation

Top of Page