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Title: Thirst of the Damned Author: Arthur Leo Zagat * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1304481h.html Language: English Date first posted: Aug 2013 Most recent update: Mar 2018 This eBook was produced by Paul Moulder and Roy Glashan. Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
Garry Moyne would not give up Ellen Faye, though his dying mother threatened to bring down the Curse of Isis on her head... For he could not believe that Stasia Moyne would do a thing so foul—or that his beautiful bride-to-be would be touched by the thirsting, evil sect of the Nile.
"NEVER! You shall never wed him!"
Stasia Moyne's words were all the more virulent, all the more dreadful, because she whispered them and because—that whisper was taking all the strength left in her old body, so wasted and so horribly still under the white sheet of her deathbed.
"You won my son away from me while I lay dying, but before I am in my grave he shall look at you in horror and run from you, loathing your lips that have robbed mine of their last few kisses."
Ellen Faye shuddered, listening to the dying woman's breathed curse, and Garry Moyne's arm pulling her close to his stalwart side, was unable to still that shudder. He pressed her to him, trying to reassure her of his love. But his anguished gaze clung to his mother's seamed countenance, and Ellen felt the spasm of a soundless sob shaking him.
"Mother!" His voice was thick, choked with emotion, when he spoke at last. "You aren't going to die." The girl's throat ached at his pitiful denial of the inevitable. "You are going to get well, and when you learn how sweet and good Ellen is, you will be happy to have her as your daughter."
Stasia Moyne's skin was as yellowed and wrinkled as the parchments to whose study her life had been devoted—as sere and fleshless as a mummy's, and as utterly expressionless, except that the shrinking girl sensed a flood of hatred beating about her that came from beneath the drooped, almost transparent eyelids.
"Sharah is my daughter—not of my body but of my soul. Only Sharah, living or dead."
A stifled moan pulled Ellen's look across the bed to the girl haunched on the floor beyond. Her forehead was bent to her knees in the mourning pose of the immemorial East and she was shrouded and hooded in white so that she was a personification somehow spectral, of grief itself.
"Sharah has remained faithful to me while you abandoned me for this stranger. Go! Till you put her from you, you are not my son. Take her and go!"
"Mother!" Garry's exclamation was a groan. "You are unfair. I've sacrificed my own career to help you. Ever since you returned from Egypt I've lived in this lonely house with you, staying here because you asked it when I should have been making a place for myself in life. And now, just because I love Ellen—"
"Go!" His mother's injunction cut across his bitter protest and halted it, though the syllable was barely audible. Color drained from Garry's cheeks, and he winced as though from a physical blow. Without another word, he turned and went out of the room, and Ellen went with him, aware of the agony that racked him and of the inexplicable hate that followed her.
The door closed on the room where death hovered. Ellen twisted out of the circle of her lover's arm, stood facing him in the dim corridor. "Garry!" she cried. "You should not have brought me here. What she did not know would not have hurt her. Go in to her now, and tell her you have sent me away. Tell her you will never see me again. It will be only for a little while, and—"
"No!" He towered above her, a smoldering, dark fire in his eyes, his nostrils flaring and knotted muscles making a hard ridge along the edge of his jaw. "I shan't lie to her. I will not lie and I will not give you up. I love you, Ellen, and I shall never deny that love."
"Bravely spoken, Sidi Moyne." The sudden voice came from beyond Garry, and Ellen realized that a door had opened, far down the passage, and that a man stood in grey dusk that drifted through the opening.
"Bravely spoken." There was more than the hint of a sneer in the mock approval of his tone. He was a weazened, shrunken figure, and the dark olive of his thin, oddly ageless countenance made startlingly vivid the whiteness of his close cap of tightly curled hair. "But will you speak as bravely when she calls upon Isis to send down upon you and your beloved the curse of Nefer-ka-ptah?"
Garry whirled, his arms stiff at his sides, his hands fisting. "Damn you, Merab!" he grunted. "It is since you came that she has been so—queer. I ought to wring your neck."
Merab shrugged, and his thin lips moved with a secret smile. "You would have done better, sidi, to have burned the papyri from which she read the ancient knowledge of the Book of Thoth, and learned how to summon me from the Fields of Aalu."
Ellen did not understand his meaning, dared not understand. But a cold prickle scampered up her spine as she saw that at Merab's feet there was no shadow...
In that instant he moved out of the drab patch of dying light on the floor, and she could not be certain that she had seen rightly. There was something ominous in the way he glided toward them—in the absolute soundlessness of his walk. He was far shorter than Garry, thin and fragile-seeming in his black, high collared suit, yet Ellen was suddenly afraid for her sweetheart, inexplicably afraid?
"Merab—she wants you." Sharah was suddenly in the door of Stasia's room, her white robe fluttering about her, her hood veiling her face. "Come."
"Keep back," Garry growled. "Keep back. If I can't be with her, neither shall you."
Merab came on, as if he had not heard. Ellen saw cords swell in Garry's neck, saw a small muscle twitch beneath his ear. "Keep back," he flung at the old man again, and the cold anger in his voice was edged by a strange rasp that might be—fear. His big fists lifted...
"Don't," Ellen managed. "Let him pass. What's the difference...?"
Merab was close to Garry. The girl saw his face clearly for a fleeting moment, saw its queerly angular features, straight-nosed and square-chinned as though drawn with a ruler. Then Garry struck at it.
Incredibly there was no thud of fist on flesh. There was no sound at all, and Merab was through the doorway—he was in the room and the door had closed on him and on Sharah. "God!" Garry groaned. "Oh my God!" He swung around to Ellen and stared at her out of an ashen-grey, writhing mask. "I didn't feel anything. Nothing at all."
"He dodged you," the girl cried. "He dodged your blow and got past you." That must be it! It couldn't be possible that...
"I hit him squarely," Garry mouthed. "He was right in front of me and I couldn't have missed. But my fist went through him as though he were thin air."
"That isn't so, darling." Gelid fingers probed Ellen's brain, but she contrived a brave smile, fighting for her sweetheart's sanity and her own. "It can't be so. You're excited, upset by what your mother said."
Garry gnawed at his lip and, confronted by the girl's courage, was a bit shamefaced at his terror. "You're right. I am—overwrought, and his talk about the Fields of Aalu got to me, I guess. He ducked me and got by."
"Of course—Garry! What did he mean by that? What are the Fields of Aalu?"
"The Fields—?" His face seemed to tighten, and his eyes were somber. "That is something from the mythology of the ancient Egyptians. It is what they called their afterworld—their purgatory. He meant that he is not—alive."
"Oh nonsense!" There was a faint scent in the heavy atmosphere of the old house, an odor of dust and of corruption so vague that Ellen was not certain it was real. "He was just trying to scare you."
But why had Merab cast no shadow? Why had there been no sound, no stir in the close air as he moved?
"Who is he, Garry? What is he doing here?"
"I don't—know. Ellen! I told you that we were a strange family. I warned you, even when I told you how I felt for you. I warned you to send me away and forget me."
The girl looked at him from level, grey eyes. "Send you away! I love you." She said it quite simply. "I love you more than life itself. Always remember that, my dear—no matter what happens."
"How can I forget it? You are so sweet, so dear and I need you so."
"I know—but tell me about Merab and Sharah. I have a queer feeling that it is terribly important for me to know."
Garry pulled a knotted fist across his high forehead. "I told you that my father was a famous Egyptologist, and that my mother was his assistant, before he married her and after. They spent most of their time in the desert, digging in the Valley of the Kings and elsewhere along the Nile. The big room downstairs, you haven't seen it yet, is a veritable museum of antiquities. The statue out on the lawn came from the Isle of Koptos where Isis was once worshiped; the scarabs—"
"Never mind that now. You were born here, I know, and—"
"And when I was old enough to leave, my parents put me in a boarding school and went back to their beloved Egypt. I saw very little of them for years. I was a lonely, friendless tyke batting around from pillar to post, until on the day after my graduation from college when Mother suddenly appeared to tell me Father had been killed by a falling column in some temple they had unearthed, and that she had returned to stay.
"I had my mother, someone to whom I belonged, at last. I had been offered a position in the saltpeter fields of Chili, but she asked me not to go. We had enough to live on, she said. All the years Father had kept her away from me, she had longed for her son, dreamed of the time we should be together, with none to come between us. I—well I had dreamed of that too, had yearned to know that I belonged to someone and that someone belonged to me. I agreed, stayed here with her and Sharah.
"She told me she had found the girl on one of the earlier expeditions, a child abandoned to die on the banks of the Nile by fellaheen parents too poor to support her. She had brought Sharah up to be her maid and companion, and I noticed at once that there was a strong bond of attachment between them. But that didn't disturb me, and for a time we were quite happy. Mother taught me to read hieroglyphics and Coptic writing, and we were busy classifying the relics that arrived shortly in a great many packing cases, translating inscription, preparing Father's monographs for publication.
"There was one set of papyri, though, that Mother would not let me even look at. It is in a curiously chased gold chest below, and she kept the key to it hung around her neck. But at night, when she thought Sharah and I were safely asleep, she would steal downstairs and open that box. I would hear her pad stealthily along the corridor, and once I stole after her and saw her at it.
"She was reading the old scroll by the light of a primitive oil lamp, and although I could not see her face I knew that she was afire with a hot flame of eagerness. Every line of her shrunken frame, the quivering of her hand, as she turned a page, told me that. Then, quite suddenly, she sprang up.
"Darting away before she could see me, I heard her cry: 'I have it. At last I know the secret of Thoth!' There was triumph in that cry, and there was also a strange awe. I got to my room, but I could not sleep. Long hours passed and still I did not hear her come up to bed, but, just before dawn, I heard voices. I could not make them out, though I knew that she was one speaker and that the other was a man.
"The next morning Merab was here. I had not heard anyone come up the path, nor had I heard the door open. Neither mother nor he gave me any explanation of his presence. He was here, and he stayed, and that was all.
"He did not eat with us. Sharah said that he prepared his meals in his own room; that his religion forbade him to eat with those not of his faith. I don't know—maybe it is so. I never smelled any cooking though, never saw any dishes from which he might have eaten. At any rate, from the night of his arrival, Mother seemed to fail. The tremendous vitality that had been hers despite her age, left her. Her avid interest in her work was gone. She grew older visibly.
"A month ago Professor Petroff of Columbia University wrote asking for a loan of a certain tablet from the tomb of Cheops. We were afraid it would be lost or broken. It was decided that I should take it to him. I went and, coming out of his office, I saw you..."
"I saw you and we each knew that the other was his mate and that there never would be anyone else," interposed Ellen, her eyes shining as she recalled the tall, somewhat gawky young man who had stopped stark still outside Professor Petroff's door and stared at her, as if he were drinking her in. "I came to you and it seemed quite natural that without a word you took me in your arms and kissed me."
"I didn't come back here. You were sweet, so very sweet, and I couldn't bear to leave you. But I didn't tell you, Ellen, that Mother knew why I did not return. How could she know? She sent me frantic telegram after telegram demanding that I leave 'the stranger,' demanding that I return. The last one said that she was very ill?"
"You told me that you had to go and you tried to tell me that you could never see me again. But I wouldn't hear of it, I insisted on coming with you..."
"I should not have permitted it." His voice was suddenly bleak again, in the darkness, and hushed with apprehension. "Her curse—"
A long, low wail from inside the room cut him off. The two turned to the door, the chill of death's presence clotting their blood. After a moment Sharah opened the portal. Her hood had fallen back. Ellen, glimpsing the girl's face for the first time, saw that it was oval, dark, framed by a cascade of lustrous, blue-black hair. Tears beaded Sharah's long, black lashes, rolled down her dusky, down-soft cheeks.
"It is over." Full lips, darkly red, framed the words. "She has passed beyond the veil."
A flickering light came from weirdly blue flames dancing within a golden bowl set atop a silver tripod at the center of the bed. Merab stood stiffly beyond it, his arms crossed on his breast, palms flat, extended fingertips just touching the points of either shoulder. Except for queerly black shadows moving over it, his countenance was utterly immobile, matching with its rigidity and lifelessness Stasia Moyne's withered and skull-like visage, which was somehow vulturine against her white pillow.
Garry started to enter. Sharah's arm stopped him, stretched across the opening. "No," she husked. "The effendi would not wish it. You may not go into this room from which she banished you. Afterwards, when her body has been prepared as she directed, you may come to her below."
The door closed, barring the two lovers from the death- chamber. Somehow Ellen was not surprised that Garry made no protest. The dead woman seemed to belong to the strange being who had been with her at the end, rather than to the son she had driven from her.
He too, it seemed, thought of those last, dreadful phrases. He swept her within his arms. "Ellen," he gulped brokenly. "My own. Nothing will ever separate us—nothing in this world, or in any other." There was desperate defiance in the way he said it, a fierceness somehow very fearful?
ELLEN FAYE'S small hands tightened on the windowsill of the room they had given her, bruising soft flesh against the old wood, as though pain could drive away the dull dread that oppressed her. The chill damp of the night breeze, unimpeded by her single, gossamer garment, stroked the swell of her young breasts and the long curve of her thighs. But it could not assuage the hot throb of her body.
Her eyes ached with dull sleeplessness, staring out at the ancient statue that eerily seemed to portray, in time-eroded marble, the awful curse of the woman who now lay in the room below, rigid and wax-pale in death. Fear was a dark flood in Ellen's veins.
The sculpture on the moon-drenched lawn was of a crouching sphinx, a cat-bodied, woman-faced creature whose one paw was outstretched, as if it had just struck down the pain-contorted girl into the nude flesh of whose back its claws stabbed. But the sphinx's inscrutable look was not on her victim. It was fastened rather on a cloaked youth who fled from the gruesome deed. Attrition of slow ages blurred the carved figures, but the intent of the ancient artisan was still luminous in his work—the gloating triumph of the human-visaged lioness, the girl's anguish and the despairing appeal in the clutch of her twisted fingers on the hem of the man's haste-billowed robe, and the horror that brought his hands up to hide his face within its covering hood.
Stumbling, slow footfalls in the corridor outside, pulled Ellen around, told her that Garry was coming up at last from the precincts below, where Sharah and Merab had laid out his mother. They had called him down there after an eternity of waiting, but Ellen had not gone with him, feeling that he was entitled to be alone with his dead.
Garry hesitated, as if he were about to knock, and Ellen was across the room, had almost flung open the door, before she realized the scantiness of her attire. A hot flush burned her cheeks. She turned to find her dressing robe, but before she could slip it on she heard him pass by. She did not call to him. He needed rest, sleep, more than any consolation she could offer him. His door thudded shut...
Someone else was in the passage, someone whose progress was a barely perceptible whisper. Something stealthy about the sound set a pulse pounding in Ellen's wrist. Was Merab following Garry? Was he planning to...?
Her throat tightened to call out, but she managed to swallow the cry. She would not needlessly alarm Garry. She twisted to the dresser, snatched up a pair of manicure scissors she had put there, turned again and got her hand on the doorknob. She turned it, slowly, slowly, fighting to keep down the noise of metal on metal, fighting for soundlessness as she pulled the portal inward. Finally, the aperture was wide enough for her to peer out. A single, light-bulb illuminated the passage, and there was no one in it, between her room and Garry's. But that soft slither still continued. It came, she realized, from the other direction. She looked that way and saw a flicker of white, just vanishing down the stairwell, at the end of the corridor.
A flicker of white! It was probably Sharah then, descending to where Stasia Moyne's corpse lay, to mourn over the woman who had befriended her. But why was she moving so silently, so stealthily? Reason told Ellen that it was none of her affair, that she should go back into her room, go to sleep if she could. But some instinct drew her out into the hall, sent her padding to the stairs and down them as soundlessly as the other girl had gone.
There was no light in the hushed foyer, but an arched doorway was edged by a hairline of bluish luminance. Black, heavy folds of portieres in the archway finished swaying, came to rest, and Ellen knew that Sharah had passed through them. But beyond there was only brooding silence.
Only silence for a moment, and then a low, heartrending moan. Ellen pulled in a paining breath. Sharah's agony was clear to her. Not grief alone inspired that quivering sob. By the death of her benefactress the girl was left alone in an alien land, thousand of miles from her home. She was bewildered, fearful. Ellen's throat ached with sympathy, and she knew that she must go in to her, must assure her that she would always have a home with Garry and herself, must comfort her. But for some inscrutable reason she was afraid to part those curtains, afraid to go into that room where Stasia Moyne lay, the woman who, in her last agony, had laid a curse upon her.
A viscous, invisible fluid seemed to clog her limbs as she moved to the doorway, her progress was the infinitely slow, infinitely dreadful glide of one in the grip of a nightmare... She got to the portiere at last, flogged her reluctant hand to grip it and pull it aside. She was through and the muted swish of the fabric closing behind her was like the shutting of a stygian barrier to cut her off from the world she had known.
She was in a musty, high-ceilinged, dim chamber. Great, bulbous columns rose to obscurity. Their surface, and the surface of the vaguely seen stone walls were scrawled with deeply graven hieroglyphics and with angularly stiff processions of hooded men. Along the walls and between the columns were upright cases roughly shaped to grotesquely human form, and within each was the bandage-swathed, faceless figure of a mummy.
Down an aisle between the columns huge stone tablets bulked, their tops strewn with a heterogeneous motley of amulets, scarabs, vases, dust-covered papyri, all the loot of violated tombs whose builders had thought them sealed for eternity. A greasy, grey dust sheeted everything, and the air itself was thick with it, and with the unfamiliar, exotic tang of unknown herbs, of dead incense and aromatic essences, the secret of whose composition is buried in the dark womb of time.
Shadows shifted on the floor and over the strange contents of the hall, changing black shapes that gruesomely seemed endowed with ominous life. The bluish, oddly unradiant light that gave them birth came from a golden bowl that was either the same as, or similar to, the one Ellen had glimpsed in the death-room above, but here its supporting tripod was hidden from her by a flat stone, midway of the aisle, and by a mummy-case that rested atop it.
That was all. Sharah was nowhere in the room. Ellen was alone with shadows and the dead panoply of a dead past. But she had heard that moan distinctly, coming from in here. Who had moaned? Who had passed through the portieres just before her?
The girl's scalp tightened, prickling. There was no break in the carved walls, no door, no window even out of which Sharah might have gone. Sharah or some other had been in here, a moment before she had entered. Where was she? And where was Stasia Moyne's bier, her coffin? What had they done with the corpse of Garry's mother?
She gazed at the dancing flames and the mummy case below them, and within its bony cage her brain pulsed with a dull throb. The silence here was suddenly oppressive, and the chamber filled with an overpowering, almost tangible threat. Someone had passed along the corridor above. She was certain that someone had come down the stairs and into this room. Someone—or something. She had seen, she remembered, only that ghostly flicker of white, dipping down into darkness, only the final swaying of the portiere animated by its passage.
An incredible speculation trailed its unwelcome slime across her mind—and suddenly the moan sounded again, close by, within the room! The silence quivered with it, and closed in again, and Ellen was staring at the macabre casket resting beneath the light. The groan had come from there, against all reason she knew that it had come from there, and the mummy case seemed to rock, slightly, as though there were something alive within it. Then it was still again, and the flames flickered noiselessly above it, and the shadows drifted across the floor, seeming to close in on her with a mute and horrible threat.
Panic battered at Ellen, trying to wrench a scream from her clamped throat, trying to whirl her around and send her headlong from the unholy room. She fought it, fought the pound of her fluttering heart, knowing somehow that if once she yielded and fled, the spectre of a queasy dread would always be between her and Garry, blighting their love. She was the victim of her own imaginings, she told herself. There was nothing in the mummy- case, nothing alive! If she looked into it she would see nothing...
She got control of her trembling limbs, made them carry her down the aisle and to the ancient coffin. She looked down into it. Gasped. The flickering blue luminance played on the swathed form of a mummy... Not a mummy! Body and limbs were encased in just such a cocoon of white cloth as were the embalmed cadavers exhumed from their ancient sepulchers, but the head was naked to her gaze and it was the yellowed, skull-like head of Stasia Moyne! She saw the fallen-in cheeks, the gaunt jaws, the sunken eye-sockets...
Great God in Heaven! Blue light glinted within those deep pits, and Ellen saw that from their depths eyes glared at her, eyes not glazed in death but alive and virulent with a malignity and a hate that blasted her with a searing cold flame of terror!
Ellen whimpered, unable to tear her own staring eyes from those malevolent orbs. Stasia Moyne was not dead. She was dead but gruesomely alive in death to watch the working of the curse she had laid upon the stranger girl whom her son loved against her will. The chaotic swirl of conflicting thoughts was a dark whirlpool in her soul, a weltering miasma. She rocked, felt herself falling, instinctively threw out a saving hand.
The rough stone of the platform on which the mummy-case lay rasped the skin of Ellen's fingers. The sharp pain, the feel of cold rock, brought her back to sanity and to a realization only a shade less horrible. The woman had not died. She had fallen into a coma simulating death, and if it had not been for this momentary awakening and the chance of Ellen's presence, she would have been buried alive!
Those bandages were tight, terribly tight. No wonder Stasia had moaned, the pain of them must be terrific. First, before she called to Garry, before she aroused the house, she must get them off. Luckily she still had the scissors in her hand that she had snatched up as a makeshift weapon. Shivering with uncontrollable dread, Ellen bent over the coffin and inserted a steel point under a cloth-edge on the woman's breast.
"Ellen! What are you doing?" Garry's shocked voice shouted at her from behind. "What are you up to?" She whirled. Her lover was pounding down the aisle toward her, his face white, his mouth writhing. Beyond him she glimpsed Merab. Garry reached her, grabbed her wrist. "What are you doing to my mother's dead body?"
Ellen choked, spewed words. "Not dead, Garry. She's not dead. She was looking at me just now..."
Garry grunted, pulled her around as he plunged to the odd bier without relaxing his grip. "Looking at you!" he exclaimed. "What on earth...?"
The girl's jaw dropped laxly as she followed his stare. Stasia Moyne's eyes were closed, the skin of her sere face glistened a little with the waxy patina of dissolution. There was no quiver of motion in that seamed countenance.
"Impossible, Sidi Moyne." Merab had come up, the faint sneer again in his low accents. "Her veins hold no blood but only the embalming fluid of the ancients."
"She moaned, horribly. I was standing right there and I am sure. And when I reached here her eyes were open. Garry! Don't look at me like that. Oh, don't. I..."
There was bewilderment in his gaze that was fixed on her face, and something else. A shimmer behind his retina. Was it fear—horror? Tortured questioning? "What were you doing with those scissors?" he husked. "Why were you stabbing them into her heart?"
"I wasn't." Ellen's voice was thin, unnatural. "I was cutting away the bandages because they were so tight."
"You shouldn't have been here at all. Merab woke me and told me you were down here and I called him a liar. But he insisted and I came with him to find you..." Ellen felt his hand on her wrist shiver, and a long shudder ran through his body. "To find you doing that." His tones were hushed, quivering. It was almost as though he were talking in his sleep.
Mother of Mercy! What was it that he was accusing her of, what ghoulish thing? Ellen's throat worked, but she could utter no sound. Merab's dark face hung before her, a vague mocking smile edging his thin, colorless lips. Then he was speaking.
"It is as I said, sidi. As your mother feared. She is of those of whom you have read in the Book of the Dead—of those who drink the fluid from the veins of those whom Ra has called to him. From the veins of the dead they drink immortal life, and from those of the living, immortal youth and undying, lustful beauty. It was against such that the Pharaohs erected their pyramids in which their bodies might be sealed. There is one defense against them, one way to end their loathsome being. This!" And with a single, lithe movement he was around the great stone, had lifted the flaming bowl. "The sacred fire of Isis."
Ellen's terrified gaze saw that there was no fuel within the pot, that it was filled only with a blue swirl of flame. The fire spilled over the bowl's lip as though it were a liquid, dripped in small streamlets down its aureate side. Its hot breath came to her, beat at her cheeks. One of the rivulets reached Merab's fingers, where they held the bowl, licked over them. And did not burn!
"What is it?" Garry gasped. "What do you want to do?"
"Release her, Sidi Moyne. Release her that I may pour the flame over her."
Ellen felt Garry's fingers relaxing on her wrist God, oh God! He was abandoning her to the flame, to Merab's awful intent. Streamers of the blue flame were reaching out for her, were flicking with a tongued avidity as though eager to sweep over her, to consume her. In an instant Merab would hurl the eerie fire at her. Ellen felt its blasting heat already, the searing bite of its flame, smelled the acrid horror of her own charred flesh. There was no help for her. Only Garry could save her, and Garry was betraying her.
"Garry!" she screamed. "By our love, Garry. Don't let him. Don't?"
ELLEN'S cry was like a whiplash across Garry's face, waking him out of some spell. His clutch tightened again, he flung her behind him. Swinging about, he confronted Merab.
"No!" There was resonance in his tones once more, and a driving anger. "You shall not harm her. I love her, and I trust her. She is not what you say. You robbed me of my mother and now you want to take my sweetheart from me. But you won't get away with it. You won't get away with your lies."
A red luminance sparkled from Merab's almond-shaped eyes, and for a single frenzied instant terror suffused Ellen. Would he hurl the pot's burning contents over them both?
Then the inscrutable, secretly mocking smile hovered about his mouth once more, and he was shrugging, was setting the bowl back on its tripod.
"As you say, sidi," he lipped. "The words by which I was called from Aalu subjected me to the commands of her who evoked me and of her brood to the seventh generation. But I may warn you out of my knowledge, that otherwise has been drifted over by the sands of unreckonable time. I may warn you and I do, that unless you free your mind and your heart from the net with which she has enmeshed them, this stranger woman whose beauty is the beauty of evil..."
"By God!" Garry roared. "I had to take that from my mother, but I won't take it from you." He lunged past the stone...
The blue fire blazed high, enveloping him in its blinding glare. Ellen screamed again, the shrill sound tearing her throat. She surged to her feet. The flame died down, and Garry was standing, just beyond the tripod, his arms lifted, his hands fisted. Garry was standing stock still—but Merab was no longer there. He had vanished...
The air was cold, freezing cold, about Ellen. "Garry," she whimpered, "where did he go? What became of him?"
Her lover came around to her. "I don't know," he muttered, his lips white, his eyes wide-pupiled. "Just as I got within reach of him the flame flared up, dazzling me. When I got past it he—was gone."
Ellen's skin was an icy sheath for her quivering body. Was the man what he claimed, a revenant, an incorporeal apparition evoked from some region beyond the grave by some ancient spell Stasia Moyne had rediscovered? Unbelievable! But...
A low chuckling laugh, from her right, where a column's shadow made impenetrable blackness, put a period to her wild thoughts. "There he is," she cried, pointing. "He ducked—off that way. There, Garry."
The youth plunged in the direction she indicated. "I've got you," he yelled. "I've got you." The shadow swallowed him, there were scuffling sounds of a struggle, and...
And silence! A dead, deathly silence.
"Garry," Ellen called. "Garry? Where are you? What happened?"
Her cry echoed hollowly in emptiness, was flung back at her from the invisible ceiling. Then there was the silence again. No reply. No sound to show that she was not alone in this grisly place.
Ellen surged into motion, got past the obscuring pillar. Between her and the solid stone of the wall there was only emptiness. The light flared once more, as if to assure her of the appalling truth, danced bluely across a glaringly vacant floor, brought out in startling relief a carved temple cut into the rock directly opposite, its great entrance portal slightly ajar. Cold fingers squeezed Ellen's heart—and she was staring at the pictograph with affrighted eyes.
In the moment she had seen it, that towering door had closed completely! It was tightly shut now...
It must be only a trick of the dancing light, an illusion... Where was Garry, what had become of him? She twisted to look for him—and the light was gone!
Then darkness smashed in about her.
There seemed to have been a perceptible interval between the going of the light and the completion of the sightless blackness that swallowed her—a grey pulse of time in which the pillars had moved apart and fled from the wall, so that the space between them was instantly a livid vastness. It had been as though the chamber were a bubble, expanding to the in-puff of a gigantic breath... Ellen froze, futilely striving to probe the tar-barrel murk, her blood clotting with a gargantuan fear.
She was alone in a limitless, unpeopled waste that stretched to infinity on all sides, transcending the bounds of the house, of the world itself... Yet she was horribly not alone!
There were suddenly rustlings on every side, muffled thumpings, the scrape of fabric rubbing against fabric, eddies of air that betrayed movement veiled by the darkness. Somewhere there was the creak of rusty hinges, the rasping grate of moving stone, and though the blackness thumbed Ellen's aching eyeballs, so that utterly she was deprived of vision, she knew that a door had opened to pour forth new terrors to the unseen host encompassing her.
It had opened to admit new terrors and to send swirling about her a gust of foulness, a noisome aroma of corruption, of putrescence from a tomb long closed. Ellen retched, breathing it in, closed mouth and nostrils against it. A cold sweat bathed her body, dewed her forehead, and her lungs were convulsed with torment, fighting for the air she denied them. Someone—something was beside her. A touch brushed her arm, fingers slid around it—cold and clammy fingers groping for a hold.
Ellen jerked away, her pent breath exploding, leaped into a frenzied, mad dash away from that which had been about to seize her. A dash into impenetrable darkness that was alive with invisible horrors, with gibbering insanities she could not see, with heatless hands that plucked at her nightgown, her dressing robe, that caught at her ankles, trying to trip her. She pounded into something soft, cloth-covered, flailed out a frantic hand to ward it off.
Her fingers slapped into something loathsome that gave to the impact till she touched a harsh firmness like bone, like a worm- riddled jawbone. The thing went down, she heard the thud of its fall, and she was running on, endlessly on, not knowing where she went, not knowing what lay ahead, knowing only that she was pursued, that behind her, close behind, was always the thump, thump, thump of hounding feet.
Where was the curtained doorway, the exit from this chamber of horror? Did it exist any longer, or had it been obliterated by the thick darkness? She had lost all sense of direction, of time. She could not think, she could only plunge frantically through the stygian gloom, fleeing from the gruesome thing that hunted her, fleeing from perdition. Thump, thump, thump. It was always just behind, always ready to take advantage of her slightest misstep, her slightest hesitation, to seize her, to drag her down to Satan alone knew what awful fate.
Terror knifed her, sliced her whirling brain with an agony like the agony of her bursting lungs. A searing terror like the fear of inevitable death waking one in the night, a terror worse than the fear of death.
Ellen's foot came down on some soft, wriggling thing, and the crunch of its small, furry body sent a thrill of nausea up to the pit of her stomach. It squealed, nipped her bare sole with sharp teeth. She jerked her leg away from the stinging pain. The sudden motion threw her off balance. She stumbled, was falling. A mowing, mad and mindless laugh of triumph cut the air above her as she went down. Blackness swooped down upon her from out of the murky air. Something came down atop her, pinned her to the floor.
She felt its weight pressing her down, felt the rasp of some rough fabric through the sheer web of her nightgown, felt a bony, gelid clutch at her throat. Her muscles refused the desperate message of her brain. The fall had half-stunned her, had robbed her of strength. A noisome stench gusted into her face and the icy clutch on her throat tightened. A black rocket of despair burst within her skull...
Wetness spattered across her face and her body where the incubus did not cover it. Miraculously she pulled breath in through a larynx from which the choking grip was suddenly loosened, pulled in a pungent fragrance with the saving air. A wailing howl of frustration shuddered against her ear-drums, the oppressing weight was gone and it seemed to Ellen that a pallid shape hovered over her. She scrambled to hands and knees, clawed frantically to get moving. Her limbs collapsed beneath her, but the effort she had made threw her forward, hurled her through the swishing velvet of the portieres for which she had been searching, through the doorway she had thought she would never find.
Ellen rolled over. She was in the entrance foyer, and Sharah stood above her in her white robe. A queerly shaped vessel hung from the girl's left hand, suspended by silver chains like a censer, and her other hand dipped into it.
The curtain bellied outward, its dark fold molded by the pressure of some gaunt and gruesome shape. Fingers came through the parting, fingers leaden-hued with the greyness of old, weathered bone!
Ellen's throat was rasped with an abortive scream. Strange, guttural words spurted from Sharah's lips, and her hand came up out of the censer, sprayed glistening silvery drops at the portieres. They spattered the skeleton digits and the fingers were no longer there. Sharah dashed another gout of the aromatic liquid at the portieres, and another, repeating each time her cabalistic utterance in a language Ellen had never heard. Slowly the curtains fell inward, with a fearful slowness, till at last they hung straight down.
Sharah wet the doorway's threshold, its frame. Then, and not till then, her quick, purposeful gestures ceased. Ellen pushed shaking hands against the floor, managed to get to her feet. She swayed, put out a hand to grasp the Egyptian's robe, to keep herself from falling.
The white-cloaked girl pulled away. "You fool," she blurted. "You white-faced fool. You have released all the powers of Eblis within there. Ra alone can chain them now. If I had not heard..."
"Sharah!" Ellen's voice was a tight-throated squeak. "Garry! Garry is in there somewhere. They've got Garry!"
The other stiffened. "You lie. No one human was within there save you."
"Garry was there! Just before the flame went out. He was there I tell you. He's in there now."
"He is not!" Sharah almost spat it at her. "I would know." Then she checked herself. "Unless... Tell me. Tell me quickly. Did the door of the temple of Thoth open!"
"The temple?" Ellen was puzzled, then she remembered. "The one carved on the wall to the right, with a headless cat as the keystone of its arch?"
"That is it." Sharah's form seemed to shake with a strange excitement. "Was that door open at any time?"
"Yes. I saw it closing. I thought I imagined..."
"Oh holy Father Nile! Thoth has claimed him, as payment for the secret the Effendi Stasia wrung from his secret book." Sharah's right arm flung up over her head, throwing her hood back. "The doom of Thoth has claimed him and he is lost forever." Her face was contorted, quivering. Horror stared from her lustrous eyes.
"The doom?" Ellen gulped. "Sharah! He is her son, the son of the woman you loved. He is the man I love. Together we can save him. We must save him."
What it was from which Garry must be saved, she did not know. The foyer was whirling about her. She was shaking with a terrible fear the more devastating because she did not know what it was she feared. What weird forces had suddenly made this house a place of madness and gibbering terror. But she clung to the fact that in the last awful moment, when those forces had triumphed over her and she knew herself irretrievably lost, this girl had appeared to save her. Surely Sharah could save him too, if she were willing.
"There must be a way," she shrilled. "That stuff you have there..."
"Wait," Sharah interrupted. "Wait!" Her eyelids narrowed. "There is a chance, one chance. But you would not have the courage..."
"Courage!" Ellen's mouth twisted with a short and bitter laugh. "Great God above! I have courage for anything, anything at all, if it is for Garry."
"Then listen!" Sharah's gaze fastened on her with a glittering, almost hypnotic stare. "In this alembic is a decoction in water of the Nile of the lotus flower that grows on its banks. The effendi brought it with her for use in the researches she planned to make into the secrets of the ancients. I know little about it, but I know that while it is of avail against the fiends of Eblis your intrusion unloosed, it is useless against Thoth himself and the priests of Thoth. But it may be strengthened."
"How? What are you waiting for? Tell me how."
Ellen laughed again, humorlessly. "Is that all?" She clawed at the neck of her nightgown, ripped it away from her heaving breasts. "Here. Take it. Get a knife and take it."
Sharah shook her head. "No. Yours will not serve. It must be the blood of a daughter of the Nile. It must be my bloods. And that means that it must be you who go through those curtains and into that chamber, where the imps of Hades run rampant. It must be you who pass among them, sprinkling the fluid about you, driving them back. And it must be you who knock at the door of the temple of Thoth, demanding admittance. Have you the courage?"
Ellen shuddered, remembering the terror from which just now she had escaped. Dared she go in there again? Yes! A thousand times yes! For Garry...
"Where is the knife?" she asked quietly.
Again Sharah signaled negation. "The touch of steel would destroy the spell. A golden bodkin would do, but we have none. And so your teeth must take the potion." And again there was that fling of taunting challenge. "Have you the courage?"
"Have you?" Ellen snapped back. "I dare do anything for the sake of my lover, but you... for only the memory of a woman..."
"...who was kinder, more merciful to me than my own mother... who exposed me on the bank of the Nile to die. Here..." Sharah thrust the chains of the urn into Ellen's hand, pulled hack the flowing sleeve from her wrist. "Take it."
A wave of repulsion shivered over Ellen. To sink her teeth into living, human flesh, to feel the warm blood gushing over her chin, dripping down into the censer...
It must be done. She bent, her lips sucked skin that was queerly cold, her teeth nipped in. There was a salty, viscid taste in her mouth...
Sharah screamed, buffeted Ellen's head with her free hand, but kept her bitten wrist tight-pressed against the girl's mouth. She screamed again, there was the pound of running feet. Hands seized Ellen's shoulders, jerked her away. She twisted, was staring into Garry's enraged, purple-engorged face. He slung her away from him, sent her spinning across the floor. She crashed into the newel-post of the stairs, clung to it.
"God in Heaven!" Garry raged. "A desecrator of the dead. A drinker of blood from the living!" His features twisted. "The girl I thought I loved. Merab was right."
He was laughing, laughing horribly, laughing with a shrill, toneless cachinnation indescribably terrible...
THE floor rocked under Ellen, the post to which she clung seemed to sway like the mast of a storm-tossed ship. She pulled a hand across her lips to wipe away the thick warm wetness, stared wide-eyed, horrified, at the red stain on her palm.
Sharah was a white heap at Garry's feet. The edge of her cloak dabbled in spilled liquid from the censer-like pot Ellen had dropped.
Ellen moaned. "It was for you, Garry. She said I must do it to save you..."
Garry stopped laughing, looked at her as if she were some loathsome creature spewed from some forbidden place. "To save me!" he gritted. "From the pit into which I fell when I went where you pointed? If Merab hadn't pulled me out... No! My eyes are open now, I know you for what you are..."
The girl pushed herself away from the post. "What do you mean? Oh Garry, what do you mean?" Her arms flung out in front of her, appealing.
He backed away from her approach. "No. It won't work. Your eyes, your arms, even your white breasts, they have no meaning for me now. No meaning except horror. Keep away from me!" His voice rose shrill-edged with terror. "Keep away. I know you now. I tell you I know you— temptress—vampire—Lilith!"
The epithets sliced through Ellen, each one a separate stab of cutting soul-agony. They stopped her. She stood still, her arms still outstretched, yearning, pitiful. It was useless. Anything she might say was useless. He hated her now, loathed her...
The dying woman's curse came back to her. "...he will look at you in horror and run from you, loathing your lips..." Stasia Moyne was not yet in her grave and already it was fulfilled!
Garry's back was against the velvet curtains now, the curtains behind which lurked the darkness-shrouded incarnations of terror from which she had barely escaped. The heavy folds swayed back with the pressure. Their edges were parting, were almost parting. He was breaking the seal Sharah had placed there...
She must stop him. Oh God, she must stop him before he let them loose again, the grisly phantoms within who waited, cruel- fanged and cruel-clawed, within there. Another inch, another half-inch of his shuddering retreat and they would leap upon them, upon Garry first, would tear him down... If she moved he would go back that inch...
"Garry. You said that nothing could kill your love for me—remember—nothing in this world or any other." She threw all she had of pathos into the sentence, all the quivering hurt of her spurned love, all the anguish of her flayed soul.
It held him. It held him motionless at least, while doubt, indecision, struggled visibly in his face. The hem of the curtain had lifted a little and beneath it Ellen saw a lurking shadow. For a long minute the curtain did not move any further, did not lift, did not drop.
Sharah stirred a little, moaned. "Garry," Ellen tried again. "You have held me in your arms, you have kissed my lips. You don't believe that I am what you called me. You can't believe it. You would have felt something, the shadow of some doubt, the chill of some instinctive warning if I were—that. There wasn't anything. I know that, and you know that. Our lives, our loves, fit into each other perfectly, we are complements of each other. Apart we are incomplete, lacking. Together we are one whole, one as we were meant to be one since the world began."
She was repeating his own words, words that he had whispered to her, shyly, stumblingly, one unforgettable night while the moon rode high in a velvety sky and its silver light glinted on the rolling waters of the Hudson. Deliberately she was quoting him, fighting to recreate the spell of that magic hour, fighting to use that spell against the black magic which had come in between them, the ancient magic that had changed his love to loathing. Fighting to save him from the horror at his back.
But it was not enough. He still swayed there, wavering. He still swayed, and there was still horror in his eyes, though it seemed to be fading, and still a terrible fear of her. And beneath the curtain hem Ellen could see that patient, waiting shadow.
It pulled her gaze from Garry's tortured face. The portiere- edge lifted minutely. She thought that the shadow edged forward a tiny bit, so that light from the swinging lamp overhead just touched it to show the yellowed round of bandaged foot—of feet bandaged as the mummies were swathed, as Stasia Moyne had been dressed for the grave. Against the heavy fold of the curtain there was the barely perceptible outline of a grisly form...
A pulse throbbed at the sides of her neck, each swell cutting off her breath, choking her. If she cried out to him to warn him he would turn, and in that turning break Sharah's seal, to loose upon himself the dreadful thing that was behind him. Her throat was dry, her lips burning. She licked them and the thick taste of blood was salty-sweet on her tongue. Suddenly she knew what she had to say, knew the terrible hazard upon which she must stake Garry's fate and the fate of them all...
"Garry," she husked. "Garry. Don't you see it? Don't you understand? It's your mother's curse that makes me seem to you what I am not. Your mother's curse that you swore to me you would defy, against which you swore you would defend me."
His groan seemed torn from the very foundations of his soul. For another infinitely long instant he was spellbound, moving neither forward nor back. Then the quivering indecision of his countenance firmed and he was coming to her, his arms lifting to meet her own, his lips writhing, spurting unintelligible words. He reached her, and his arms were about her, and hers about him. For a while nothing mattered save the sweet pain of her breasts crushed against his heaving chest and the hot burn of his lips upon hers.
"Effendi!" Sharah's voice broke in upon them. "I am sorry that I screamed and struck you." Ellen pulled away from Garry. She realized how her torn nightdress exposed her. Hastily she pulled the gossamer fabric together as a blush burned her face. "The biting of your teeth hurt so, and my senses were leaving me. I could not help it."
Sharah was on her feet. There were splotches of red on her sleeve, down the front of her cloak, but she had pulled the hood back over her head so that she was again a shapeless figure in mysterious white.
"Even as the darkness swallowed me," she went on, "I was sick with distress that I had failed the son of the Effendi Stasia. But as the blackness lifted from me I heard his voice and yours, and I knew that he was saved."
"I—I don't understand," Garry faltered, looking from one to the other. "What were you two about?"
Ellen was still strangely reluctant to speak of her own incredible adventure. She countered with another question. "What happened to you, Garry? You went after Merab, and suddenly you disappeared."
"Something gave under me and I went down into a black hole. I fell pretty hard. I guess I was stunned for a while. When I came to I was in pitch darkness, but I could hear rats scuttering and squealing in the darkness. I groped around, felt stone walls all around me and realized that I was in some kind of well I never knew was under the museum room. I was scared for a minute, I tell you.
"But almost at once there was light overhead and Merab was looking down at me. He reached down and pulled me up into a sort of passageway between the real walls of that room and the stones Father brought here long ago from Egypt. Just as I got up there I heard a scream. He said. 'Go. See what she is.' I ran down the passage and out into a little hall that goes back to the kitchen. A second scream pulled me out here and I saw..." He stopped, shuddering.
"We thought that you..." Ellen checked herself. Somehow a trapdoor into the cellar had come unbolted and Garry had fallen through. That was all there was to his appalling disappearance. Might not there be as realistic an explanation for the things that had happened to her? She dared not reawaken the mood of dark mystery. There was danger that it would again arouse his doubts in her. But she had to say something. "There's something wrong in there, Garry. Someone attacked me..." She stopped at a swishing sound from the curtains, whirled to them.
Unseen hands were pulling them apart. A dark form was visible in the vertical, inverted V between them, was coming through. Terror lightninged through Ellen's brain that the potent liquid had dried to let out the horror. Before she could make a sound the apparition was in the light—and it was Merab!
Merab, with that lurking, faint sneer playing about his thin lips. Had it been Merab who had pursued her in the darkness? How long had Garry been unconscious...?
"There is no one here, sidi." He must have been listening then to their talk. "I have searched. There is only a mummy that has been overturned."
He pulled the portieres wide. A swathed cadaver lay crumpled near the threshold, though the case from which it had fallen was still erect. Merab reached out to the doorjamb, clicked on a switch. Light fell from the high ceiling, showed the long, pillared museum room just as it had been when Ellen first saw it, showed the flat stones with their displayed relics and that other one, midway of the aisle, where all that was mortal of Stasia Moyne rested.
Ellen's aching glance came back to the prostrate mummy. Had she collided with its casket, unknowingly, toppled it down on herself? Had her hysterical imagination created the rest, the fingers clutching at her throat, the thump of padded feet pursuing her? The small animal on which she had stepped might have been a rat escaped from the pit as Garry fell into it.
It was pat. Too pat. It was no illusion that Merab had lifted the golden bowl to throw its flaming contents at her. Merab had brought Garry down here just in time to see her slicing at Stasia Moyne's bandages with the scissors. Merab had sent Garry out to find her sucking Sharah's blood. Merab had underlined the dying woman's dreadful words for Garry, making them something other than delirious ravings.
Ellen's instinctive revulsion for the dark-visaged man crystallized into quivering fear. For some obscure purpose of his own he was driving a wedge between the lovers, was slyly, cunningly working to make Garry hate and loathe her. Everything that had happened had been a trick of his to that end. He had almost succeeded. If they remained here he would yet succeed. She could not again call upon the strength of their love to defeat him. In this last awful trial it had almost failed.
"Garry," she said. "I am afraid here, dreadfully afraid." The reality of this was evident in the rasp that made her voice harsh, in the flare of her thin-walled nostrils. "Take me away. Take me home. Now. Right now. You can come back in the morning."
Garry stared at her, his brow furrowing. Ellen thought she heard Sharah gasp. But it was Merab who spoke.
"I had thought the place of a son was at his mother's side, at least till the door of her tomb is sealed." That secret smile came and went. "But you took him from her while she still lived. Surely she cannot hold him now that life has departed from her, even to pay the last fitting honor to her memory."
Ellen knew that she was defeated even before Garry's stifled tones answered her. "I can't leave her, my dear. I can't..."
"I understand." The girl tried to smile, although dread was a leaden weight at the pit of her stomach. "Then I will stay here, too... We ought to go up and get some sleep, if we can. I know I am dead for want of it." She turned and made for the stairs, started climbing.
Perhaps, she thought, she was wrong. Perhaps everything that had happened was a compound of accident, of hysteria induced by Stasia Moyne's farewell and the heritage of superstition that was Sharah's and Merab's. Perhaps it was over now and Garry would come to her in the morning to laugh with her over it all.
But she locked the door of her room when she had entered it...
ELLEN FAYE locked the door of her room and moved wearily across the thick-napped rug to her bed. She stood there, looking down at the inviting softness of its sheets that were dimly visible in the moon-glow. Sounds from the passage told her that Garry was following her example, and Sharah. But she could not hear Merab. How could she hear Merab through the door when, with nothing intervening, his feet made no sound?
She put aside the thought of him. That way lay madness, and what she needed now was utter sanity to grapple with the problems confronting her. Queer how the cloying, bitter-sweet taste of Sharah's blood remained in her mouth. It made her thirsty—but not for water. Water would not assuage that thirst. She wanted... Good Lord! What was she thinking?
She recoiled from this new terror, from this new fear she dared not even acknowledge. She was down on her knees, against the edge of the bed, and her hand was slipping across the cool sheet, under the pillow, to find and grip a small ivory cross she had placed there hours ago.
God! She was praying.
"Help me, dear God. Help me to keep Garry's love. Don't let them take it away from me. Don't let them make him hate me. I've never been very bad. I've never been cruel, or mean, or—or impure. I've never asked you for anything before. I wouldn't ask you now only I love him so, and I'm so terribly afraid. Afraid of them and afraid of myself. I need him so, he is a part of me. The very dearest part of me, so that without him life wouldn't be worth living. Why did you let me find it out? Why did you bring him to me if you were going to let him be taken away again? You won't be so cruel, God. You won't—you won't let me be—changed so that he will hate me again and be right in hating me. Please, God! Kill me first. If those gods down below are stronger than you, kill me before they make Garry loathe me."
It wasn't any use. Her prayer wasn't reaching God. There was a shell enveloping the house, a shell of ancient evil that wouldn't let her prayer get out to Him. And her thirst had grown to a fearful torture. The dryness in the back of her throat that she knew water wouldn't quench. Not water... Where was Sharah's room, she wondered. Could she get to it without Garry's hearing her? When Sharah's hood was thrown back there was a soft, pulsing place in her throat...
There was that same little slither of sound in the hall outside, like that before when Sharah had gone downstairs and she had followed her. It was just outside her door. But it wasn't going on this time. It had stopped there. It had stopped right there—and the knob rattled, tinily. Sharah wanted to come in, and Ellen wanted her to come in. But Sharah didn't know why Ellen wanted her. She would run away if she did. She would go away anyway, in a moment, because the door was locked.
A force outside of herself lifted Ellen to her feet. A force against which some vestige of her normal self fought, even as it propelled her to that door, even as it knotted her fingers about the key to turn it and let Sharah in. The old Ellen fought not to turn the key, but she wasn't strong enough. All her strength had been used up in those awful minutes downstairs, when she had squeezed her soul dry to save Garry from the fear behind the curtains. The real Ellen's strength was gone, but there was enough left of her to shriek with soundless horror at that which the new one meant to do when the lock clicked open and she stepped back to let Sharah come in.
The door started to open, but it moved slowly. Very slowly, as though Sharah had some warning of what awaited her and was afraid. Ellen hoped that she would be afraid enough not to finish opening the door, and at the same time her fingers worked with eagerness, curling like claws, and her upper lip pulled back from her teeth to bare the sharp teeth that had drawn blood once and would draw it again. The black space between the edge of the door and its frame widened. Its blankness was filled by a pallid, wraithlike shape...
That wasn't Sharah! Ellen saw who it was, and searing terror pronged her, and she started forward to repel the intruder. But it was too late. Stasia Moyne glided through, and shut the door behind her, and her black, dead lips writhed away from her yellow fangs in dreadful simulation of a smile.
She was wrapped, feet to leathery neck, in the cerements of a mummy. But there was no carved mask over her face, such as the priests of ancient Egypt used to hide the awful visage of death. Her countenance was a grinning, hairless skull, fleshless beneath the wrinkled tightness of its parchment skin. Only her eyes were alive, her awful eyes, staring with implacable malevolence out of their dark pits as they had stared at Ellen from under the blue flicker of the flame in the golden bowl.
That baleful glare seemed to suck at the girl's very soul. It stripped clothes, and flesh and bones from her, and laid her inmost being bare, to quiver with ancestral fear. A nightmare paralysis gripped Ellen, robbed her of all power for movement, jammed in her larynx the scream of uttermost terror that had risen to it. The luminous darkness lifted and fell about her, a swelling sea of unutterable fear.
Something rose and fell on that billowing tide. It was a cross, a small ivory cross. Ellen was aware that it was her own cross, still clenched in her hand. It was her own cross, and by some reflex she had thrust it out before her at the sight of that ghastly apparition, and she knew now that it was keeping the specter from her. This, at least, remained of the eternal verities. The sign of His suffering still had power even here to make a barrier against the evil of a time, before He made himself manifest to man.
The realization gave her back her speech. "What do you want from me? What do you want?"
The grim visage contorted with a spasmodic effort, as though the dead cords had already forgotten their function. "You." The voice that came at last from the mirthless grin of that unmoving mouth was hollow, intonationless. "I have come to take you with me. It is only so that the toils which bind you to my son and him to you may be broken. Come."
Ellen scraped the bottom of her courage for strength to reply. "No. Why should I? We are alive and we love each other. Why should you come back from death to part us? If you loved him as a mother should love her son, even after death you would want him to be happy."
"I love him more than you can know. That is why I cannot rest in death. That is why He-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed has permitted me to return to make one last effort to save him."
"To save him?" Ellen fought her indignation down. "From what? From whom?"
"From me! What is there about me that is so terrible? I am no different from other girls..."
"You are. I was told so before I passed through the veil, and now that I have bought knowledge of all things with the coin of my outworn body, I know it. And you know it too."
"I? What do you mean...?"
"There is a thirst at the back of your throat, a thirst that is not for water. There is a salty sweet taste in your mouth, and your teeth are sharp and avid for human flesh. You may fight it now, you may conquer it for a time. But some night, if you wed Garry, you will wake with that raging thirst and that torturing hunger, and you will turn and see him sleeping beside you and you will see the soft pulsing place in his throat where his sweet blood runs near the surface, and your sharp teeth..."
"No-o-o" Ellen moaned. "Mother in Heaven, I wouldn't do that to him. Not to Garry. I love him too much..."
"You will not be able to help yourself. Could you help yourself just now, when that thirst was torturing you, and you thought of her whose blood you have already tasted, and every nerve and every aching cell in your body drove you to seek her...?"
Ellen's fear of her sepulchral visitant was swallowed in a greater, more heart-stopping fear. Fear of herself, of the awful desire that had been awakened in her during this mad night, of the loathsome other self that had lifted her from her knees, from the very knees on which she had prayed to a God who had abandoned her, that she might slake the unnatural thirst that tortured her even now. And then a great light burst on her. This was the answer to her prayer. This was the deliverance her appeal had wrung from Him of Whom she had asked it... Deliverance not for her, but from her of the man she loved. Whatever fate, whatever awful doom to which the specter of Stasia Moyne called her, she must embrace it... If her love for Garry was great enough...
The cross that her nerveless fingers could no longer hold, thudded on the floor. "Take me," she moaned. "I will go with you. I will do whatever you say."
Greater love hath no man than this...
"Come then," the specter of Stasia Moyne intoned. "Come with me to where burns the fire of Isis that alone can purge the world of you."
Even then Ellen knew that the cross, lying on the floor as it was, still shielded her. She cringed for a single, soul- shattering moment. Life was just beginning for her, and it was sweet, so sweet. She wouldn't go with Stasia Moyne. She would run away from Garry, far away, and hide from him somewhere where he would never find her. She could live somewhere...
Where at night she would steal forth, cloaked in darkness, her face veiled from the sight of man. She would peer into windows, marking down her prey. She would pick them out carefully, men, women, little children perhaps, whose bodies were hale and strong, whose cheeks were ruddy with health, so that she would know their blood was hot and strongly pulsed. Then she would crouch in the shadows, waiting, waiting till the ones she had selected should come past alone. She would leap out then, and her teeth would sink into their throats, and her too-red lips would suck their salty blood...!
She plunged blindly past the cross, putting it behind her. "Lead, and I follow."
IT SEEMED to Ellen that the door had not opened. But it must have, because she was in the dark hush of the corridor. The thick darkness clotted around her, and ahead of her there drifted a soundless paleness that she knew was the lifeless body of Stasia Moyne—the body that should have been lifeless, but hideously had had gruesome animation lent to it for a little while, so that it could come for her. For just a little while, but after that Ellen also would be dead, and her body...
Of her there would not even be left this slim, silky, skinned body that she had been taught to tend so carefully that it might be sound, and fragrant, and lovely for the lover who one day would come to her. In moments the blue flame of Isis would pour over it—and would eat into it. Of her flesh there would be left only a pungent odor, and of her bones only a little pile of ashes. But most terrible of all was that the fire would devour her soul too, so that of that there would be nothing left, nothing at all.
The pallid wraith, which was all she could see of the corpse she followed, drifted downward. It had reached the stairs and was descending. Strange that it could move so silently, so swiftly, when it was so tightly bound...
Most horrible of all it was that her soul would be extinguished in the fire, so that for her, death would be utter, eternal oblivion. For her there would be no waiting, however long, no reunion beyond the veil...
Her foot found the first stair. She turned, to send Garry an unspoken farewell, a farewell more real, more poignant than any since the world began. Her heart thumped with a pulse of fear as she thought she saw a blacker clotting in the blackness, as some obscure instinct seemed to warn her of watching, unthinkable eyes upon her. Then her lips twisted in a wry smile. What had she to fear any more? That, at least, was behind her.
She went down. The stairs twisted and she saw the flickering hairlines of bluish light that marked the entrance to the place of her immolation. They were blotted out, and then the curtains were parted, and she could see the mummy-shape of Stasia Moyne holding them open and waiting for her, and beyond she could see the long, grisly reach of the museum chamber, and the stiff ranks of the swathed mummies, and the flaring, avid flames of the fire of Isis.
The flames leaped high and hungry, licking almost to the ceiling, and Ellen knew that it was for her that they hungered—for her body and for her smirched soul whose sin had forfeited immortality. A faint whisper came from that blue pillar of flame. Its hiss was a sibilant voice within her skull.
"I am death for you and worse than death," it seemed to say. "I am that uttermost dread from which the mind of man has fled shrieking through the ages. Against me he placed his dead in the treetops. Against me he made mummies of them and hid them in the depths of monumental pyramids whose labyrinthine mazes he hoped I could not thread. For terror of me, his tombs and his graves bear the signs of the star, the crescent or the cross, that I may not violate them. For fear of me, he dreamed his gods and they fashioned for him his Aalu, his Valhalla, his Olympus, his Happy Hunting Ground, and his Heaven. Rather than that I embrace him, he sought the eternal torments of his Hades and his Hell.
"I am nothingness. I am eternal stoppage, eternal non-being. I am the outer darkness where nothing is. Come."
Ellen saw nothing any more but the swirl of that awful fire into which she must plunge. The hall, its procession of cased and swathed cadavers, the terrible presence of that which once had been Stasia Moyne, vanished. The blue whirlpool filled her whole vision as the full enormity of that which she was about to do pronged her writhing brain with the jagged-edged blades of humanity's ultimate horror. She was moving—somehow she knew she was moving—across the foyer floor, through the curtains...
"Hurry." Stasia Moyne's hollow accents bit into her brain. "Hurry."
If she did not hasten and get it over with, she could not do it. Ellen leaped into a frantic dash... Her feet thumped against a crackling mass on the floor. They went out from under and she pounded down. Her hand went into a crunching, brittle object, crashed through it. Her sight cleared and she saw that her arm was thrust into the maw of a crushed and horrible face whose sere skin was black and tattered, whose bones split and fell into powder at her frantic effort to get free. Someone was screaming, loud and horribly, very near.
It was she who was screaming. But the shout that racketed through did not come from her throat...
"Ellen," Garry yelled. "Ellen! Wait! Don't do it!"
Garry was coming. Garry, the man she loved—the man whom she had bid a last farewell. "Hurry!" Stasia Moyne cried. "Hurry."
It was the mummy, Ellen realized, upon which she had fallen. The mummy that she had thrown down when she had fought so hard to escape her unseen pursuer. It had saved her now. Awakened by her scream, Garry was coming to save her. She heard the thump of his footfalls on the stairs.
He must not reach her. Remembrance seared through her. If he reached her, if she saw his dear face, she would not be able to do that which she must—and then... She jerked her hand out of the corpse's crumbling mouth, got hands and knees under her, surged erect. She plunged toward the blue light...
Started to plunge... A hand clutched her arm, stopped her. It swung her around and she saw Merab's black-clad figure, his olive countenance. But he was not smiling now; his eyes were blazing with fury. "No!" he yelled. "You must not!"
She struck at him. He was her enemy and Garry's. Her fist slammed on his mouth that had sneered at them, and his teeth gashed her knuckles. But his fingers held their steely grip. A white-clad arm came in between them, a white hand tugged at Merab's wrist. Ellen jerked, got free, whirled...
"Run," Sharah shrieked in her ear. "Run. I can't hold him."
She was running. She was running down the long aisle between the bulbous pillars to where the blue fire blazed. Its heat was all around her, its terrible heart into which she must plunge. She leaped on toward the stone where Stasia Moyne's empty mummy case rested, gathered herself for the final dive into the flame, sprang... into the arms that came up out of nowhere to catch her, to hurl her backwards, away from the Isis fire's torrid blast.
She had a momentary vision of Garry's face, contorted, eyes staring, mouth open with a shout that somehow she could not hear. Then she could see nothing at all, not even the blue blaze, and she was falling down, down into weltering oblivion...
ELLEN was lying on something soft. Her body was one huge ache, and within her skull there was only throbbing emptiness. Her head was like the inside of an oven in which a fire had raged that now was only glowing, hot embers...
"Why, mother?" Garry's tortured voice was saying. "Why did you do this to me? Why...?"
"I—I don't know." Stasia Moyne's voice was again a thin, dry cackle, but it was oddly bemused, dazed-sounding, as though she were waking from sleep. "It—it seemed to me that I had to do it, that if I didn't you would be lost to me forever. That she would take you away from me, and that I would never see you again. And I thought that Sharah would not leave me and that you two..."
Queer, Ellen though, that she should be talking to Garry. She was dead. Then Garry must be dead too. They all were dead. The flame...
"Sharah! It was always Sharah." This was Merab. "It was Sharah who told me your love was of the foul undead..." Of course Merab was here, too. Merab never had been really alive.
"But you told me it was impossible that mother lived." Garry seemed to have turned on Merab. "You told me that her veins had been drained!"
"I had prepared the embalming fluid of the ancients. But by the age-old rites only those of the same sex may be present when the dead are prepared for eternal sleep. I left the room until Sharah called me back to tell me it had been done. I did not dream she lied."
Ellen fought to get her eyelids open. They were heavy, too heavy, but at last she managed it. She was still in the museum. Merab stood above her, and Garry. Stasia Moyne, still in her wrappings of the dead, was walking across to where Sharah, white- cloaked and white-hooded, sat on a stone. Walking! Ellen saw that the swathing about Stasia's legs had been cunningly managed so that, although they appeared to be tight about both limbs, when they were held together she yet could walk freely—or run, pursuing a terrified girl in the dark!
"Mother!" Garry stopped her. "It was an awful thing you were about. If Merab hadn't heard your talk with her and, waking at last to Ellen's real nobility, called me, I would not have reached her in time and she would have thrown herself into the flame..."
"That was what I wanted," Sharah said in a hushed, dull monotone of despair. "She stole you from me, whom I loved from the moment I first saw you. She stole you from me, and I was determined to have you back. There were secrets I too have learned from the ancient writings, secrets of how to gain ascendancy over another's mind and warp it to my will. Your mind was too strong for mine, and hers, but the effendi's I could sway, and I did. With the effendi's tongue and the effendi's deeds I planned to make you loathe this white-faced stealer of your love. Her spell, the spell in which she had you enmeshed, was too strong for me, and so I played upon her love for you to make her kill herself. If I had it to do over again, I should do the same—and I should succeed."
Ellen was sorry now that it had not been Sharah who had come into her room, that it had not been Sharah, so that she could have overborne her and bitten into her throat... Oh, Mother in Heaven! That dreadful thirst was still upon her! It still tortured her... Sharah, lying, had yet voiced an awful truth. She groaned?
Garry whirled, was coming toward her, was bending to her. "Ellen," he whispered. "My love..."
Ellen's hand flailed at him. "Away. Go away from me." She screamed. "You mustn't touch me. You mustn't come near me. I am that which they called me. I am a—"
Garry's fingers caught her wrists, held her. "No. Listen to me, you foolish little dear. Your thirst isn't what you think. Sharah gave it to you. She smeared something on her wrists, some drug that gave you an almost unquenchable thirst. That's all it is. It will pass after awhile."
He pulled her up by her wrists, bending at the same time, and her lips were crushed against his. Ellen forgot everything in the sweetness of that kiss. But it could not last forever. After awhile she could see again.
Stasia Moyne was looking at them, and the old eyes were moist with tears. Sharah's head was averted, she was moaning... But Merab was gone.
He never returned. Even when the dreadful night was long past, and Garry was her husband at last and some measure of consolation had come to Sharah, and Stasia Moyne's love for her son included also his wife, Ellen never dared ask where he had gone or whence he had come. It was enough that at last it had been he who had brought sanity back into a world gone mad...
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