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Title: Satan's Handmaiden Author: Arthur Leo Zagat * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1304711h.html Language: English Date first posted: Aug 2013 Most recent update: Dec 2015 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
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The pointing finger said: 3 Miles. Young Harlan Lithow followed it, and deep in the bowels of the earth found agony unspeakable—and fiendish horrors, the memory of which were burned upon his brain for as long as he should live...
PAYTON RANDALL, motoring through the out-of-the-way hamlets of France in search of ancient legends that he might turn into tales for modern magazines, got a story in the Estaminet de la Fraternité at Lussac sur Gironde, but he hasn't written it yet. He probably never will. Even Randall hesitates at putting into other brains the haunting terror that has wrecked at least two lives. It is enough, he thinks, that ever since that night he himself has dreaded sleep and its attendant nightmares.
A fine drizzle, cold and penetrating, had accompanied him all the way from Libourne. Perhaps that was why the dark central plaza of the little town sent a shiver up his spine. But there was a peculiar atmosphere of dread about the place, the only visible lights those seeping somehow furtively through the little stars and crescents cut into the solid wood surfaces of tightly closed window shutters, and the dim luminance outlining the narrow window of the tiny cafe and hotel next the darkened Town Hall. Randall wasted no time getting from his Citroen to the comparatively warm interior of the inn. "Un rhum chaud, vîte," he barked as he entered. Maybe the steaming dynamic drink would warm the cobwebs from his brain.
Queer! At this early evening hour the place should have been crowded with stolid-faced Latins; but beside the aproned innkeeper it had only one other occupant, a powerfully built chap standing up to the zinc-topped bar. Payton couldn't see the man's face, but there was no doubt that he was an American. His gray tweed suit could have been cut nowhere but in New York. No doubt he was staying here for the night. He was hatless and the grimy light tangled in his silky white hair and was somehow strained of its filth.
"Oui, monsieur, tout de suite," the bartender acknowledged Randall's order with a promise of haste, and bustled through an inner door to where could be glimpsed a kettle boiling in a blackened fireplace.
The American turned then, and Payton was startled to see that his broad-planed, square-jawed face was that of a young man, a man not over thirty. Then his eyes pulled Payton's glance to them, sunken pits veiled by a misty curtain behind which tiny flames glowed unsteadily. Oddly enough, they made the writer think of coffin-candles flickering in a breeze.
"Good evening," Randall said, trying to cover his startlement, "I—"
A scream interrupted him, a burbling scream of mortal terror, from somewhere outside! It came again, and as Payton whirled, something crashed against the door. It flew open and a form catapulted within, the shrieking form of a black-smocked farmer, his white face convulsed with terror. The fellow staggered across the sawdust-covered floor, stumbled, and clawed at the bar-edge.
"Pierre!" he screamed. "Pierre! Le diable—the woman of the devil has killed me!"
Randall found himself with an arm around the Frenchman. "What is it that you said?" he snapped, trying to keep the chap from falling. His hand slipped inside the opening of the man's sleazy covering, touched bare flesh, was suddenly wet with warm and viscous liquid. "Good God!" he exclaimed. He pulled the fabric aside, saw a ragged gash in the man's breast pumping blood. "You're wounded!"
The Frenchman's face jerked around. His pupils were rolled up so that only the whites of his eyes showed; his flat nostrils twitched animal-like, and his lips were inhumanly contorted. "She..." he squealed. "She..."
"Dubois!" another voice barked from behind. It was a gendarme, his blue cloak powdered with moisture, his mustached face stern. "Shut up!" The words rang out imperatively. The policeman got a hand on the peasant, pulled him away from Randall! "Come with me," he snapped. "And shut your mouth." He forced him expertly to the door.
"I say," Randall interrupted. "The man's hurt!"
The policeman twisted angrily. "Vous—" He saw who was addressing him and stopped. Then, "Pardon, monsieur l'Americain, a thousand pardons. But we are used to his tricks here, and monsieur need not discommode himself." He kicked the door open, was gone with his prisoner.
Randall stared at the door, looked down at his hand. That was blood in which it was bathed; unmistakably it was blood. He turned, frowning, to find a smoking glass on the zinc. "What—" he started to ask the innkeeper. "What—"
The words died in his throat as he saw the other American. The man's face was white as his starched collar, the blood had drained from his lips, and his hand was fluttering on the edge of the tiny bar.
"Zat ees René Dubois," the bartender answered Payton's unfinished question. "He ees—how you say—enivré, drunk. Often he ees so, and then he sees ghosts, men wizout heads, an' ozzer theengs. Ze devil, for example, like he has seen tonight. It ees nossing, Roual weel take care of heem."
Payton wiped his hand with a handkerchief, slowly. "But he had a knife slash across his chest, pretty deep. He certainly didn't imagine that."
The Frenchman stroked a drooping wing of his black walrus mustache, and shrugged. "Zat ees from Soulange, no doubt. Rene sees le diable, yes—his wife ees herself a fiend. All women are crazee. But that one—" His hands went side-wise in an expressive gesture—"she ees—ze handmaiden of Satan himself! I haf seen—"
"Pierre!" an acidulous feminine voice shrilled from some inner precinct. "Pierre, viens ici. Dépêche-toi! Come here, on the hop!"
The hotel man winced. "Right away, my old potato," he called. "Right away, sweet cabbage." Then, sotto voce to Randall, "You see. They are all crazee. All." He bustled off.
Payton remembered the terror that had been mirrored in his companion's countenance, a terror not quite called for by the little scene. The man was more nearly normal now, but he was still white around the gills. Curious!
"Rather dramatic," Randall offered.
"Dramatic!" the young-old man blurted. "Good God! For a minute I thought they were around here, the devil-worshipers!"
The other smiled superciliously. "Lord, man," he scoffed. "That sort of thing belongs to the African jungle. This is a civilized country."
"Civilized! Yes!" There was a queer excitement in the fellow's tone, a peculiar resentment. "So is the United States civilized, and yet..." He stopped himself, his lips tight-pressed.
"And yet?" Payton repeated softly. He scented a story now and was like a hound on the trail. "Come now, you aren't going to leave me up in the air like that. Finish it, man." He fixed the smoldering eyes with his own. "You've got to finish it."
The other man seemed to come to some difficult decision. "All right," he said, somehow desperately. "All right. I've got to tell someone about it. But you won't believe me. No one could believe that such things could happen in the twentieth century, in America, five miles from one of the country's most respected colleges."
"I shall believe you," Randall said quietly, and he did not lie. "Go ahead."
There was a long silence. Then the man spoke again...
"My name isn't Harlan Lithow, but you can call me that. If you read the sports pages of the newspapers you have seen my real name there, often. One columnist used to say that I carried the ball through a broken field as if ten thousand devils were after me, and that is—almost funny. But I shall never carry a football again.
I was due that fall at—I'll call it Coronal College—a week before school was actually to open so as to start football practice, and even though I was jittery as all get out from the worst hangover I had ever had I was pushing my rattling roadster as fast as she would limp. It was one of those Indian Summer days when the sky is like a red hot copper ball, and all nature seems to pant under a thick blanket of silence, waiting for the sun to drop below the hills and let it breathe again. But this particular late afternoon seemed to have an eerie quality all its own. All the way from Joe Hammond's cabin there had been no one on the road, the few farmhouses had been deserted, their blinds drawn, and even the insects had made no sound. I had seen no living creature, in fact, except a solitary cow standing with bowed head and spread legs in the sparse shadow of a caterpillar-stripped tree. The great eyes of that cow had seemed afraid as I shot by, and they had made me afraid; afraid of the heat, and the silence, and an obscure threat that seemed to be waiting for me somewhere ahead.
Stanton Township, where Coronal is located, is a bone-dry town, you understand. But Horseface Joe Hammond's hideaway up Holton Turnpike offered a very satisfactory oasis, one that I had discovered early in my freshman year. I had spent the past night there—and it had been a large night. Joe's moonshine had never been so mellow and so potent—and for the first time in three years Horseface himself hadn't been in evidence. Which I thought a break, as did Jenny, his daughter. Hell! A fellow, I excused myself, is only young once.
I didn't know, then, how soon my youth was to end...
The highway curved around the flank of Mount Eda, dividing the woods from the parched pasture land on the lower slopes; and just ahead, I knew, a dirt road branched off. I came around a curve and saw the fork. "Whoa Betsy," I grunted, braking hard. The car skidded in the dust, stopped. And I sat there, staring through heat-haze at a signpost that leaned crazily askew in front of me. There were two boards on that post. When last I had been here there had been only one, the one whose eroded legend I knew was meant to read, Stanton— 5 Miles. The new one stabbed a flaring red hand, up the narrow, rutted trail that climbed abruptly to vanish into the gloomy pines cloaking the upper slope of the height.
I could read the emerald inscription clearly; but it didn't make sense. 3 Miles, it said. Nothing more. 3 Miles, in green against flaming scarlet!
My hands tightened on the wheel and unreasoning, hot resentment surged inside my dizzy brain. The sign seemed a personal affront, a grim challenge. I had always wondered where that road went, but no one around Stanton would tell me. There were certain old farmers whose eyes had suddenly gone empty when I asked them about it, whose mouths had become thin, straight lines. Sanctimonious old beggars they were around here, not excepting Horseface, despite his extra-legal occupation...
That reminded me, Jenny had fooled around the door of my car and winked as she said good-bye. Maybe... I fumbled in the pocket there and my fingers felt cold glass. Damn it, the girl wasn't such a bad scout after all. I pulled out the flask, put it to my lips.
The white mule scorched as it went down, exploded in my gullet. I shuddered, but the pounding ache in my skull eased a trifle. What the devil, once what this bottle held was gone it would be three months before I would touch another drop. In the morning I would enter the strict regime of the training table—and I always deliver what I am paid for.
Paid for? Surely you don't think I was attending that sanctimonious, church-ruled institution for my health? You don't think Coronal could assemble its championship teams from the anemic, long-faced lads whose fathers send them there because of the "moral atmosphere and Christian training" its prospectus boasts? Hardly...
The drink steadied me, or so I thought, gave me courage to look at that mysterious sign again. 3 Miles. It was a challenge, a dare. I wasn't going to take it lying down; this time I was going to find out where the road went.
My shoe pounded the starter button. The motor whirred, gears clashed, and Betsy poked her nose uphill. A queer chill went over me, the sort kids used to say meant someone was walking on your grave. I fought an overwhelming impulse to push the gear-lever into reverse, back out, and speed away. God! If only I had yielded to that impulse!
The foliage of the pines met overhead and green dimness was all around me. The roadster rocked and bucked over boulders, but the coolness in here was grateful after the torrid heat of the Turnpike. Balsamic fragrance mingled with earth-smell. I breathed it gratefully.
Lord, but it was quiet in there. There wasn't the slightest breeze to rustle the pine-needles, there wasn't the faintest scutter of a woods-creature. The silence swallowed the rattle and bang of my car, quenched it at the very road-edge. There was something ominous about that silence... But I felt the muscles along the ridge of my jaw harden. I wasn't going to turn back now. I wasn't going to let the woods laugh at me.
Hell! Where did that fool idea come from? How could the trees laugh at me? They weren't alive!
But something was alive off there, to my right, something that was watching me with hostile eyes. I braked suddenly, the din of my progress stopped. Something else stopped too, at the same instant, a sound that I couldn't hear before because of Betsy's noise, that I couldn't hear now because it wasn't being made any more. I bit my lip. I was acting like a two-year-old. There could be nothing there, nothing at all.
Nevertheless, as the roadster started off again, I peered furtively into the gloomy reaches among the tree-trunks. Light-flecks, struggling through thick foliage, were oddly red-tinged like flickering droplets of blood, on the ash-brown carpet of dead needles.
The rustle to the right, just beyond the range of my vision, recommenced. I was certain that I heard it now. The road leveled and I put on speed. That damned sound kept even pace with me. I slowed, it slowed too.
Straight boles, rough-barked, were silhouetted against a shaft of sunlight ahead. I gasped with relief, pressed down on the accelerator pedal. Lurid light quivered in a small clearing, and something was a shapeless black blotch at its very center. Before I could stop, the roadster's radiator almost touched it. I saw a blurred face...
"Damn you!" I yelled. "Why the hell—" And the words choked in my throat! My pupils had accommodated to the glare and I saw more clearly. God!...
I was looking at an enormous head. Where its hair should be was a livid scar, a glistening cap of drying blood. One eye was gone; its socket was an abysmal pit, tunneling deep into blackness within the man's skull. The other, lidless, was bloodshot, bluish white, its pupil a mere pinpoint. And beneath those eyes of horror what I thought at first was a red mask resolved itself into a small-meshed network obliterating nose and mouth; a network of deep cuts, threadlike, that oozed tiny droplets of ruby moistness.
A belly-voice, resonant but edged with thin pain, boomed from the apparition. "Back! Go back before it is too late."
My lips moved, but no sound came out. That awful head was perched atop a voluminous black cloak, and the shape beneath it was—not human. I licked dry lips, managed to force a squeak through my constricted throat. "Why? Who are you? What—what did that to you?"
The Thing did not answer. Its one eye stared at me, menaced me with its baleful glare. It couldn't be real; someone was playing a trick on me. Horror swirled into red rage behind my pounding temples. I twisted, jerked open the car door at my left, lunged out, started forward.
The man was no longer there! In the instant my eyes had been averted from him he had vanished, soundlessly, like some phantasm of my own imagining... I had to steady myself with a hand on the roadster's hot metal before I could get my legs moving to take me out in front. I was afraid to look at the road-mud there. Afraid. Then I managed it.
Stamped in the soft muck were two indentations. Water was oozing from the clean-cut sides of the little pits so that there was no question but that they had just been made. But they were not the prints of human feet. They were the marks of hooves—of cloven hooves!
HOW long I stood there, staring down at those eerie hoofprints, I never knew. Finally I came a little to myself out of the slimy bog of ancestral fears in which I had wandered, lifted my head and looked around.
The road went straight across the opening, plunged into the woods again. Just there a faint path, straggling up from the down-slope on my left, joined it. A red flash against the forest green caught my eye... It was another scarlet signboard, nailed to a pine-trunk, its jagged fingers pointing up the climbing road. And on it, mocking, challenging, defying me, was the legend 2 Miles.
I could have turned the roadster there; I could have pointed it down the mountain and fled. But I didn't. God help me, I didn't. I shook my fist, childishly, at that crimson sign with its letters of green flame, and heaved back to the wheel. I was going to find out what it was all about or die in the attempt. I was to pray for death before long...
The forest silence took me again. Despite the Dutch courage the moonshine had given me my fingers quivered on the steering-wheel rim, and I licked dry lips.
What was it that had stopped me to warn against further adventuring? Human or—? It had suffered fiendish torture. Why? At whose hands? What lay ahead up this dark and narrow road that tunneled through dank, oppressive gloom?
There was that sound again. My head jerked to the right and my aching eyes tried to pierce the close curtain of pine trunks. There was no shadow in there but the unmoving shadows of the eternal trees, nothing to show that anything lived on the mountain steep above me but the faint, ominous rustle of which I could not rid myself.
"Damn you," I shouted at the trees. "Damn you, I won't go back!"
A sudden mood of wild recklessness seized me. The devil himself couldn't stop me from finding the end of the road! I bawled a song, a ribald, obscene chanty that served to drown the whisper of my unseen companion's progress. My brain swirled dizzily, yet I was not drunk—I swear I was not drunk. No one not in possession of all his senses could have held a car on the narrow shelf the road had become, the car-wide ledge pinned to the precipitous loom of Mount Eda by tall dark evergreens that hid both the valley below and the heights above.
Sudden thunder drowned the roar of my song, and the very ground trembled. A gray mass ripped down at me through the tree-trunks. My motions were lightning-swift as I pulled the gear-shift into reverse. Betsy rocked, plunged back, and a huge boulder smashed past within inches of her nose, pounded across and plunged down the hillside.
White-faced, shaking, I stared down at the swathe it cut through the underbrush below. I saw the great stone nestling against the snapped-off bole of a foot-thick pine and shuddered as I realized that with an instant's hesitation in my reflexes I should have been caught between boulder and tree, crushed in the smashed metal of my car. Only a split second had intervened between me and horrible death. Fighting the nausea of belated fright, I pulled my head around and gazed up the brown furrow to my right that marked the big rock's path.
Avalanches, land-slips, must occur often on a slope as steep as this. Yet I knew somehow that this was not the answer. Something, someone, was determined that I should not reach the road-end. A warning, first, then an attack...
My eyes came back to the road. A sapling, smashed down by the plunging rock, dragged green needles in the brown-black mire. And just beyond it, revealed by its downfall, a red board swung from an overreaching bough. A third scarlet sign hung there by shining metal chains, and its inscription glowed taunting in letters of emerald fire. 1 Mile, they said. 1 Mile.
The crackle of underbrush whirled me about. A form flitted through the trees, came steadily down the slope. I caught the glint of sun on metal, half-lifted from my seat, and saw a man step out into a beam of light sweeping horizontally from behind him. Its carmine glow seemed somehow to emanate from the apparition. In that eerie luminance he was gaunt, incredibly tall. The rifle in his hands flashed red fire into my eyes.
"Joe!" I exclaimed. "Joe Hammond!"
"Yeh," he growled, his thin lips hardly moving. "Joe Hammond." His face, long-nosed, long-jawed, was expressionless as ever, but the dark shadows cast by his strangely ascetic features made it saturnine. "Bed in my shack easy on yer frame, Harlan Lithow?"
He knew I had spent the night at his cabin; knew how? Familiar with every inch of the countryside he could have watched every inch of my return to Stanton, himself unseen. Could have cut off miles of the winding Turnpike and far outdistanced me to this spot. The implication fired red wrath in my brain.
"You devil!" I yelled, vaulting over the car's low side to the ground. "It was you that tried to kill me with that rock!" I lunged for him, my fists knotting.
"Stop!" His rifle muzzle jerked up, snouted point-blank at me. My heels dug into road-mud, braked my plunge. "Stop thar, Lithow, 'fore I crash ye down." His brooding eyes narrowed, a muscle twitched in his leathery cheek. I stood rigid, quivering with impotent rage, glaring at him. His posture was taut with threat, and I saw the knuckles of his trigger hand whiten as the firing-lever hung on its final thread. "Ef'n I wanted ter slay ye I wouldn't choose thet way."
"You lie," I flung at him. "You've been trailing me since I started up this road, waiting till I got where you could heave that boulder down at me. You're a killer and a sneak!"
"As ter which on us is the bigger sneak I hev my own thoughts." The shot went home, I felt hot red flush my cheeks. "But killin's ter good fer the likes o' ye." He spat into the mire. "I trailed ye ter make sure ye wouldn't turn back from yer folly."
The mysterious rustle that had gone with me through the woods was explained! At the best my roadster had been able to maintain but a snail's pace on the rough going. Hammond's woodsmanship would easily have enabled him to stay even with me. But...
"What do you mean?" I rasped. "What folly do you mean?"
His eyes flicked to the red sign above him, came back to me. "Ef'n ye want ter find out keep on the way ye're goin'."
There was grim challenge in his tone, the same challenge I had felt back there at the fork. And headstrong idiot that I was, I accepted it. "Damn you," I snarled. "You won't keep me from finding what's at the end of this road, you nor all the devils in hell!"
I whirled around, my back to his gun, lurched for the running-board of the roadster and slid under the wheel. My hand pounded the horn-button, and Betsy's raucous blare woke echoes in the forest aisles. "Get out of my way, you devil, and watch me go."
Joe's equine visage broke into a humorless smile. "Thet's whut I wanted ter hear," he grunted, and moved aside with the lithe tread of the woodsman.
I rattled past him, bumping over the trough made by the plunging stone. The skin of my back puckered for an instant in queasy expectation of a ripping rifle-bullet. But the only projectile that came was verbal. "Drive on," the moonshiner yelled. "Drive on ter hell!"
A curve put trees between us. I chuckled to myself. I had outbluffed Horseface, had faced him down. He hadn't dared to shoot me, hadn't succeeded in frightening me away. I was going on in the way I had started, was going on to uncover the thing that he didn't want me to find.
When I realized at last how cunningly he had tricked me into the very course he desired it was too late... Too late!...
Betsy chugged on up the steep spiral ascent. It must be getting very late, I thought. Where the sun broke through the greenery its beams were almost level. They made a long succession of lurid light-bars in which dust-motes danced endlessly—an uncanny, red grating that seemed always about to bar my passage as I reached and passed through each successive beam.
The air had thinned, was strangely clear, so that each of the myriad dark needles of the tall pines stood out distinct and separate from its brothers. An opening in the woods let me look down to the valley, far below. It was a long bowl filled already with shadow. Stanton and the gray Gothic structures of Coronal lay in a dark pool from which lifted only the slender, knobbed spire of the University chapel. The cross at its peak caught the sun and flamed scarlet—vanished behind the insweeping curtain of the trees. Weirdly, I felt that I had been vouchsafed a farewell glimpse of a world to which I would never return. The soundless gloom of the forest closed around me once more, the road turned...
And ended against a blank, high wall, a cliff towering infinitely above me! The sudden stoppage of my car jarred me against the wheel-rim, and I stared at the looming barrier. Good Lord! Was this the goal toward which I had been fighting?...
I scowled. A profusion of green creepers cloaked the cliff face, but here and there I could see black marble, weathered and mossy, yet still showing straight cleavages that were certainly man-made. This must be a quarry, abandoned long since.
Abandoned?... Then why the recently erected signs pointing the way to this spot, the scarlet boards with their lettering of green? There must be a way around, or through!
Fighting an odd reluctance, I got out of the car, pushed through the rank growth, and the dangling vines ahead. They closed behind, interposing a green curtain between me and the sun. I took another step into the blinding greenery—and my foot found only emptiness! I fell forward, clutching frantically at vines that tore away in my grasp. I knew an instant of terror, thudded to rotted, crumbled stone.
I landed hard, but was stunned only momentarily. Then I realized that I was in the mouth of a hidden tunnel. Green light seeping in showed me the jagged, rocky roof of it, the damp-streaked walls. But that light penetrated only a little way; after that was velvet blackness from which a chill breeze came.
I pulled myself erect. The cold wind around me brought with it a sense of foreboding. I turned to climb out, saw a scarlet glimmer in the leafy shadows right at the portal's edge, looked closer.
It was a freshly painted, scarlet board roughly like a pointing hand! There were no letters on it, but the extended index finger thrust straight past me, straight into the bore from which I was retreating. It stopped me, and I stared at it while a muffled hammer pounded within my skull.
"Oh yes," I growled. "This is the way, is it? In here?" Then—just think of it—then I thumbed my nose at the stabbing finger, thumbed my nose and whirled back to the dank dark of that tunnel, plunged with a curse into its tar-barrel murk!
The crunching floor of the passage pitched downward steeply. It was smooth, easy to descend as Virgil describes the road to Hades, but I went slowly, groping before me with hands I could not see, fearful of some trap.
Every nerve-cell within me gibbered panic, shrieked to me to turn and flee back to the light, to the clean air of the open hillside. The very atmosphere here was redolent of evil, it palpitated all about me, a malevolence unseen, intangible, but all too real. And yet I forged on, endlessly, teeth gritted, lips tightly pressed, the blood in my veins a slow flow of cold dread. I was being driven by some power outside myself, some awful force that flogged me on to doom.
The tremendous weight of the mountain above seemed to weigh me down, to crush me beneath an insupportable load. The tunnel narrowed, scraped my shoulders now and again with its rough rock walls. I had a queer sense that the passage was opening before me as I advanced, that it was closing again behind. Terror seized me that sometime it would fail to open, that I should be caught, entombed forever deep in the bowels of the earth.
I glanced back once; the impenetrable dark behind might well have been solid, unyielding. I did not dare to turn again. My feet thudded interminably, and the dull impact of their tread was the only sound I heard.
A tendril of faint but pungent odor threaded the earthy smell of the passage. It grew stronger, unmistakable. Sulphur-smell, the "brimstone" of the ancients! Natural, I tried to tell myself, so far beneath the surface, coming through invisible chinks from the world's central fires. But my hair bristled, a little, and I was more and more afraid.
My eyes, smarting under the weight of the dark, saw color, a vague red. Now the red was nearer, deeper—it was real, a dull red glow infinitely distant. I was aware of a deep, thrumming sound, just above the lower threshold of hearing. I quickened my movements, began to run. There, ahead, was the end of the trail at last.
The tunnel-floor leveled, slanted upward, slowing me. The wall to my right pressed in, forced me around a curve. Caution came back, and I padded noiselessly around that turn.
A red glare burst on me, blinded me! I dropped to my knees, closed my eyes to shut out the pain of the blaze, was aware that the thrumming I had heard had deepened to a sibilant roar that reverberated in some large and hollow space. My eyes opened.
I was staring into a tremendous cavern filled with vibrant, scarlet light. Its roof was invisible, far above me, but the walls of the vault were a glistening black flashing back red luminance from many facets. A score of feet below me, straight down, was the cave floor, level, smooth as that of any ballroom.
My astonished gaze shot across this to a wide central pit from whose depths great scarlet flames roared and hissed about a huge, square-sided shaft, fashioned apparently of milky glass within which shimmered the black of vault and the red glow of the fire from which it rose. My eyes lifted along the column. It shot straight up, to lose itself in the murk under the cavern top where the firelight could not reach.
But it was not the monumental loom of this weird column that rocked me back on my haunches, that sent cold shivers rippling through me and set me quivering, aghast. Not the shaft, but the slender form perched on a tiny shelf, yards above the leaping flames—the slim girl, unclothed except for one gauzy, revealing garment and the cascade of her golden hair, her taut arms strained back to clutch the smooth side-surfaces of the column, her eyes closed in the small oval of her face that was a mask of agony and despair!
How long it will be till death brings oblivion to me I do not know. But I do know this, though it be delayed a thousand years there will be no moment in all that time that I shall not be able to close my eyes and see Norma Lane again as I saw her then, the white, young curves of her, the full-molded breasts, the clean, sweet line of her slender flanks.
The shelf on which she was poised was barely large enough to hold her tiny feet; if it had not been for her frail hold on the shaft-sides she would surely have plunged into the avid flames that licked from the hell-pit beneath her like great red tongues. A moment's relaxation and she yet would fall. I sensed the tense agony of her pose and my own muscles knotted in sympathy. How long, I wondered, had she been like that, what devils had placed her there? How long could she endure?
I must have made some sound, some whimper must have ripped from the back of my parched throat, for her eyes opened and she saw me.
She was fully fifty feet away, but I looked deep into the brown pools of her eyes and across the gap they spoke to me their message of sudden hope, of desperate appeal, of quivering doubt. Her little mouth, dyed by the red of the flames, moved. I could not hear what she said above the roar of the fire. I lifted to my feet, shouted "Hold on," or some such insensate gibberish.
But how could I help her? Again I looked about me. I was twenty feet above the floor of the cavern. The wall below dropped straight down. Then it was ten feet across the fire-pit to the column on which she was perched, and she was another twenty up on its opalescent surface. Impossible to reach her.
Frantic, I glanced back at her. The look on her face decided me. I turned my back to the cavern, knelt on the very lip of the tunnel-opening, got my fingers on the edge, and slid backwards. I plunged full length, hung an instant, dropped. The impact stung my ankles, jarred the breath from me. I sprawled, rolled to rise.
Something lunged at me from a just-glimpsed aperture in the cavern-wall. The huge form, red-robed, red-hooded, jabbed a trident at my throat—a three-pronged pitchfork, its sharp tines gleaming! I rolled again only just in time, felt the wind of the weapon's passage across my cheek. The girl screamed, thinly. My knees gathered under me, I dived for the swirling red robe in a low, flat tackle.
My outflung arms clutched—nothing! I crashed against stone, whirled, felt pain sear across my chest as the fork jabbed me from where the fellow had leaped to avoid my tackle. Off-balance as he was he had not quite missed me. The wicked tines pulled back, lashed at me again and my grabbing fingers closed about the haft.
I jerked. His grasp held, but the pull helped me surge erect. I kept my grip, got my other hand on the wood. For a panting interval we froze thus, wrestling at yard length for possession of the uncanny weapon. I am no weakling; but he matched my strength. He was taller than I and his eyes glittered blackly through holes in the flaming scarlet of the peaked hood that covered his face. I felt them bore into mine, felt that the struggle between us was far more than physical.
From beginning to end of this weird combat a queer silence enveloped us. Except for that one shrill scream from the girl on the column and the roar of the fire, there was no sound in the cavern. But I knew I fought for my soul—and hers—that I battled against something foul that threatened the world.
I felt my neck swell, tasted blood on my lips. Slowly, inevitably, the wood shaft turned in my hands. In another second—
I thrust the trident aside, let go, leaped for my masked antagonist, my fists flailing. My left thudded where I judged his chin should be, my right drove into his middle. The fork flew from his hand, and he went down like a pole-axed steer.
I leaped for him then, to tear the hood from his face, to see who and what he was. I got my fingers on the fabric—caught a flicker of movement from the corner of my eyes—started to whirl to it... And the world exploded in a burst of white flame...
A PULSATION of rhythmic sound bore me up to consciousness through a welter of dizzy pain. It was a chant, a muffled chant of many voices. I could not make out the words, but there was something vaguely religious about the chorus, and something indescribably evil. I sensed the presence of a great crowd. There was a vile taste in my mouth.
My eyes were open. Two tiny green gleams flickered above me. I saw that they topped a pair of tall black candles. I was on my back, my arms stretched along my sides, and something was holding them there. Vertical black boards angled close to my cheeks so that I seemed to be confined in a narrow, open-topped box.
I tried to sit up. I couldn't move, couldn't so much as wiggle a finger! I was rigid in the grip of a strange paralysis! My scalp tightened and a nameless fear clutched my throat.
The chorus faded, and a single booming voice sounded. It was closer but still it was muffled and came dully to my ears. A bell tinkled, a hand appeared right over my face, a red hand that jerked drops of liquid down at me.
Instinctively I winked, but I did not feel them. They spattered, hovered inches above me, as if they had struck a transparent barrier where they made little lenses that blurred the candle flames. It was a glass plate that had stopped them! A glass window in a narrow box!
The truth burst on me and a soundless shriek tore at my throat. This was a coffin! I lay outstretched in a coffin and those were death-candles that burned above me!
Was I dead? Had I been killed in that cavern just as I triumphed over the scarlet-robed fiend? No! Death is senseless oblivion; and I could hear, feel, see. I was alive. But I was in a coffin and the burial service was being preached over me. The burial service—Oh God Almighty—I was being buried alive!
My living brain sent frantic messages to my dead arms, my immovable legs. "Pound, kick, throw yourselves about, make them know that you are alive, alive, that you are not dead!" But I could not move, could move only my staring eyes, and that red hand hovered above me and that booming voice went on with its funeral speech, went on, stopped...
A head slanted over me, glittering eyes peered through holes in a peaked red hood and looked into mine. I rolled my eyeballs. He saw it—he must have seen my pupils move. I swear he must have seen them, knew I was not dead.
But his eyes laughed—and something slid between them and me—a dark panel slid across my face, atop the glass, shut off light. In the sudden dark I heard the grate of screws driven home.
Every nerve, every cell in my body shrieked protest at the dark, the close-pressing boards, the living death closing down. But I could not move and my screams were soundless. The coffin jolted, the end at my feet lifted, then the head end. Swaying motion told me that the casket was on the shoulders of pall-bearers, that it was being carried off... Already the fetor of the grave seemed to lie heavy in my nostrils...
A murmur of voices beat in to me through the coffin wood, a thin laugh. Queerly, I was indignant that anyone should laugh at my funeral. My funeral!—oh Mother of Mercy! Warm blood coursed in my veins, I was alive—alive and they were burying me! Burying me knowing that I was alive!
It was the ultimate horror, combining all the fears that man can feel. Dread of eternal dark, of hunger, of thirst, fear of death! Terror or madness! Which would take me first? Not the last, oh God, not the last! Even as the incoherent prayer formed in my brain I could feel crazed laughter quivering in my throat.
No! Damn it, I would not let them drive me mad! Think of anything, anything rather than the predicament in which I was. Of Norma Lane, perched on that awful shaft, precarious on a tiny shelf while the fire roared greedily, avid for her white form. Was she still there? Or had tortured muscles given way at last; were her clean limbs, her beautiful body, blackened now and charred?
Odd that I had not noticed before how beautiful she was. I recalled her at Coronal, mouselike, demure, quietly clad in drab clothes. The golden glory of her hair hidden in tight braids. Her lips, that I had last seen parted in agony, primly tight. Her brown eyes shocked as Professor Billy Hayes, daring Prexy Jawley's wrath and the Jovian thunders of trustees, expounded the joys of the pagan life to the children of the pillars of an austere church. There had been almost fanatic fervor in those eyes as she had led the student crusade that had ended in Hayes' dismissal, last Commencement Day. How came she to be stretched on a tall pillar in Mount Eda's entrails, for all the world like one of the Christian martyrs whose lives she had so loved to read?
The casket sank sickeningly, crashed on some hard support. The voice of the red priest boomed briefly. Horror rushed back on me as I waited for the dull thud of the first spadeful of earth that would cover the coffin and hide me forever from the sight of man. Waited, quivering, a prone statue of gelid fear...
It did not come. Silence came instead, the eternal silence of the grave, so utterly without sound that it was almost palpable. The silence, the dark, the paralysis that held me in its clutch weighed me down with their awful dread. My stomach fought nausea, retched bitterness into my throat. I let the acrid fluid dribble from my mouth as grisly horror probed skeleton fingers into my brain. I whimpered...
And I heard the sound I made!
Strange how the tiny victory sent hope surging through me. I curled my fingers, wiggled my toes. The paralysis was gone, I realized, with the expulsion of the fluid that still wet my chin. Some potion, then, administered while I was unconscious, had caused it. Vomited up, I could move again, my muscles were free!
Free—too late. The coffin lid was screwed tight above me; I was clamped within the casket, within the strait jail where I was to rot and die! To die so much more horribly because my limbs were free.
In desperation my hand fisted, drove sideways at the confining wood. Drove again—and the box trembled, rocked!
My heart pounded. I rolled my whole body to the right in the little arc that the compression of my flesh allowed it, rolled to the left, to the right again. The casket swayed with it, swayed more and more as I threshed back and forth. It was swinging pendulum-like, the sweep greater and greater as I found the rhythm of its swing and thrust at each crucial instant.
At last it went way over to the right, did not start back. For a moment it hung breathlessly—then thundered down.
Glass crashed, rained into my face. Light split the dark. My fingers drove into a long rip in the wood, and my muscles bulged with effort.
The split wood tore apart! I heaved up and out of the broken coffin, jerked a frantic glance around me. I was in a smaller cavern hollowed out of black marble. Blue flames flickered from a red bowl atop a spread-legged bronze tripod. To one side was a long line of red coffins on draped trestles; my own lay here in two pieces.
As all this flashed on me, running feet thudded behind me. I whirled...
A scarlet figure catapulted through a black doorway, a keen trident swept at me. But I had already left my feet in another flying tackle—and this time I did not miss. My arms clamped around brawny legs under the red fabric, my shoulders twisted.
The fellow yelled, crashed! His fork clanged and skidded away. I jerked free, heaved to my knees, sloughed a thudding fist to the masked face. The demoniac form quivered and was still.
I whipped erect, snatched up the three-pointed weapon from where it lay. I crouched, my eyes flashing to the dark aperture through which its erstwhile wielder had appeared. Would others come, drawn by the crash of my casket as it fell? But the black gallery tunneling into darkness remained vacant, silent. No one came—I had gained a breathing space.
I forced thought through my dazed and aching skull. I was somewhere deep in the subterranean maze. This passage ahead, the only way out, might lead me straight into the hands of the fiends whose bailiwick it was. Yet I could not skulk here forever.
My burning eyes strayed to the flaccid red pile on the ground. I bent, got a hand on the edge of the hood, hesitated. What sort of being did the mask hide? I feared to look.
But I got the thing off. Pent breath hissed from my lips as I saw a face, brutish beneath thick stubble, but human. A face I knew! This was Sam Horn; I had seen him pottering more than once around the hidden clearing where Joe Hammond worked his still.
Suddenly I remembered Horseface Joe's appearance on the road that led to this Hades, his parting shout, "Drive on. Drive on ter hell!" He had been right; I had driven straight to hell itself. He knew what Mount Eda's pine-clad mystery cloaked...
Hammond had always maintained a strange ascendency over his neighbors. Was this the reason? Was he the leader of the weird cult into whose lair I had penetrated? Despite his occupation he was a pillar of the dour, fundamentalist congregation that worshiped at Five Corners. Was that a cloak for this other, shuddersome religion? Would I ever have reached this far if he had not so willed? He had said death was too good for me!
While these thoughts eddied through my mind my hands were busy. In seconds the red cloak hung from my shoulders, the scarlet hood was over my head. I peered through the eye-holes of the mask at my weird surroundings, and my lips twisted with grisly humor. I had taken Horn's covering, why should he not replace me in mine? The less trace I left of my escape the greater my chance to make it good.
It was done! I had reset the trestles, bound Horn hand and foot with strips torn from his filthy shirt, gagged him. The casket had broken cleanly, and now I fitted it together around the man's still unconscious form and placed it atop the draped horses. The eerie blue light from the burning bowl would aid in the grisly deception.
I picked up the pitchfork and entered the passage that led from this strange sepulcher.
It dipped on a slow slant. The black marble through which it was hewn glistened faintly with a vague illumination that was apparently sourceless. I must have made a strange figure, striding steadily down the slope, red-cloaked, red-hooded, gleaming trident across my shoulder.
My skin prickled as the vague thump of chanting voices reached me, the rhythmic chorus that, muffled, I had heard through the walls of my coffin. I halted, straining my ears to make out the direction of the sound. It came nearer, nearer. The shuffle of many feet was a whispering undertone to the chorus—then the voices stopped and I could hear only the shuff, shuff, shuff of oncoming marchers.
Light wavered, lurid light, far down in the direction in which I peered. It outlined the arched exit of the tunnel, glinted from the wall of a cross-passage, deepened. A figure was momentarily framed in the jagged half-oval, a monklike figure in a black robe and hood. A curious tingle tightened my scalp as even at that distance I saw that the great crucifix he bore was inverted, the cross-bar just above his black-gloved hand. He passed across the opening from right to left, and vanished.
For an instant the aperture was blank. Then, at the right, two red flames appeared, high up. They were torches, carried by men in scarlet cloaks and hoods like the ones I wore. They passed across the frame of my vision; another pair followed, another. I counted ten couples, each shuffling silently in that strange procession, each holding his torch steadily aloft. Then there was another gap, but the red light still wavered so that I appeared to be gazing into the open door of a furnace.
And then—I almost cried aloud—another form glided across the archway. A white form cloaked only by long blonde hair. Norma! Norma Lane! Lurid fire played over the rounded beauty of her frame, but she moved as if by some volition outside herself. Her gaze was straight ahead, rapt, intent. Her bent arms held her hands before her, palm to palm, in what would have been an attitude of prayer except that the fingers pointed downward. Her lips moved as if in prayer but I could not hear that any sound came forth.
She passed like that from my sight. I think other scarlet figures followed her, but I cannot be sure. Waves of heat and cold were sweeping over me and my brain was a welter of mixed emotion. Joy that she had not fallen into the fire, horror at the thought of new agonies toward which the fiends of this underground hell were taking her...
The mental turmoil subsided, I could think somewhat more clearly. The ruby illumination ahead was gone, but I could still see the archway vaguely. I walked toward it, slowly, the rubber-soled sneakers on my feet making my progress almost soundless. The hooded marchers had gone to the left, to the right was my best chance for safety. Even if some had been left behind they would be few, would think me one of them, at least till I was close enough to wield the trident I carried. I might be able to get out, find my car, rush down to Stanton and bring a raiding party back...
I reached the cross-passage, hesitated. For I knew that it was cowardice that talked to me. Even if I did manage to reach the open it would be hours before I could return, hours during which the girl would remain here for her captors to do with as they willed. A vision of the tortured Thing that had met me at the second mile-post rose before me and my throat was suddenly dry. I turned to the left...
The dim luminance that had lighted the passage from which I came, seeming to be thrown out by the rocky walls themselves, was absent here. I plunged into black darkness. Dread of what might be ahead clogged my legs as they toiled up a steep slope. I seemed to be wading through a thick, viscous fluid...
My left shoulder brushed stone, then my right. With another step I had to turn sidewise to squeeze through. Then even that was unavailing, there wasn't room to pass. I must have gone by some turn-off in the dark; I must go back.
I sidled in retreat. But the passage did not widen. Now the walls were pinching me tightly. I could barely move. I took another step—and the rock clamped tight! I surged against it, my leg-muscles bulged, aching. I forced another inch...
Good God! The tunnel was narrowing, was slowly closing in upon me! Abruptly then I realized that the walls pressing against me were of metal, not stone, and knew that I was caught in a fiendish trap!
I did not make a sound in that moment; could not, I think. It was the very slowness of the gigantic force that was moving in to crush me, the infinitely slow progression of the peril in whose grip I was, that filled me with a quivering horror transcending all I had felt before...
I got my arms up, palms flat against the flat metal in front of me, my knees bent, my back braced against that behind. All the power that was in me, all the strength I possessed, went into a desperate, hopeless struggle to stop that indomitable closing-in of death. And the silent, hideous pressure increased, squeezed my ribs in against my lungs, stopping my breath. My arms could no longer stand the strain, slid sidewise along the inexorably moving wall.
Then the fingers of my left hand found what seemed a bolt-head, clawed it convulsively. "Oh God," I mumbled. "God help me!"
There was a grating sound! Abruptly I was aware that the increase in the terrible pressure had stopped, that the crushing walls were retreating! I could breathe again.
Then I was released, slumped to the ground, felt under me the hard shaft of the devil's fork. I lay gasping. Returning blood needled through my veins, and I struggled to realize that I was saved, wondered what had saved me. I recalled the tiny bolt at which my fingers had jerked in that final moment. A switch, it must be, or spring that manipulated the devilish trap, that must be touched lest the moving walls be actuated by the weight of one's body on the tunnel floor. No intruder, unaware of the secret, would guess it in the dark. And yet by lucky accident I had found it—just in time.
By accident? Had I not gasped a prayer just then, a half-articulate, wholly despairing prayer, the first that had passed my lips in years? I thought of Professor Billy Hayes and his sly, good-humored mocking of the miracles told about in the Book that was supposed to set the pattern of life at Coronal College. If ever I saw him again I must tell him about this. I wondered if he had remained in Stanton after his dismissal... Strange how one's mind wanders in situations such as mine.
I jerked my head to a minute vibration in the black hush. It sounded again, raising the little hairs across the base of my skull. It was the merest whisper of a moan and it came from the direction in which I had been going. I lifted painfully, leaned on the trident for support, felt strength seep back into me. My body was one huge ache, my lips were dry as dead leaves, fear's fingers were tight around my heart. I knew, as if someone had told me so, that deadly peril awaited me up there. But that might be Norma, whimpering in anguish... I dragged myself toward the sound, taut in expectation of another trap, one from which I should not escape—afraid, deathly afraid.
I did not hear the moan again, but the tunnel leveled, curved, and I saw, far ahead, a hairline glimmer of yellow light, right-angled as though it edged the corner of a door. I neared it slowly.
The tines of the trident scraped along the ground ahead of me, the fingers of my free hand slid lightly along one wall. My finger-tips reached the thread of light, felt wood beyond it. I stopped, listened tensely. Nothing—yes, I heard a flick of sound, like the scrape of a nail on stone, and then a quivering sigh, long drawn, a suspiration of utter terror.
My hand drifted down along the wood, touched a cold, round projection.
The doorknob rattled, and sounds from within answered it. Two sounds—a muffled squeal, unmistakably feminine, and the rattle of metal links. I grasped the knob, pulled it toward me. The door opened.
I SAW Norma first, rigid against the farther wall, slim waist ringed by an iron band from which swung a chain that was anchored to a staple in the vertical rock. Her face was contorted, chalky; her eyes, wide and horror-filled, stared.
Something lunged at me, squealing. I whirled to meet it...
The Amazonian hag I saw was huge, towered over me. Black rags swirled about her scrawny, filth-smeared form as I dodged her and she plunged past me. Her cadaverous countenance, hooked sharp chin and hawk's beak, were that of the legendary witch, but the fury blazing from her piglike eyes was even more demoniac. She sliced at me with the thing in her hand, but I dodged again.
The harridan twisted, venom drooling from her lewd mouth, and launched another blow. I leaped back from it, stifled a scream as I slipped. I threw a hand behind me to save myself, and felt hot metal touch and sear my arm.
The horrid contents of that unholy cell flicked before my eyes. It was a torture-chamber, a den of iniquities too foul to describe. The worst fiends of the Inquisition, the crudest of the Chinese torture-mongers, had never invented devices half so diabolical as these. I knew now how the Thing that had met me in the clearing had come by its awful wounds...
They had saved Norma from the flaming pit only to subject her to new, undreamed of tortures. The woman, the handmaiden of Satan for whose ministrations the golden girl had been chained here, helpless, whipped past me, lightning-swift, was between me and Norma. The glowing iron, with its circular band of sharp hooks intended to close on and to tear a woman's breast, flailed at me as I tried to dodge past her. I sprang back, but the thing caught me, ripped intolerable agony across my chest.
Steel alone could not inflict such pain, those prongs were tipped with something that stung, burned excruciatingly... I choked a scream, jabbed at the female with my trident. It was short, too short; I could not reach her with its sharp tines.
I stepped back warily. The torturess crouched, her obscene head swinging from side to side, her tiny eyes red-blazing. Heat from a fire beat against my left side. I glanced toward it, saw irons glowing white-hot in its coals, their handles a dull red. I snatched at one; my fingers sizzled as they closed on it.
I threw it, saw it strike full on the hag's cheek, saw it slice and burn that cheek away. The stench of burned flesh filled the air, and the woman's mouth opened. But only a strange, vibrant squeal sounded from the dark chasm behind her rotted, yellow fangs, and I saw that she was tongueless, mute! She whirled around to Norma. Terror flared into the girl's face and the fearful weapon arced down...
My lunge with the three-pronged fork was instantaneous. The tines plunged into the woman's side. Sickeningly, blood jetted out. I swear it was black, not red!
The iron missed Norma's head, swept round, caught me fearfully across the side. Its hooks ripped upward. Unendurable pain rocked me, but I surged forward, driving my steel into the vitals of that devil's disciple, twisting it. Suddenly she was limp, had toppled to the gory floor, was writhing there in awful agony.
I slumped, unable to move for long moments, racked by such pains as drove thought, reason itself, from my reeling brain. I heard Norma say something, lurched to my feet and started toward her, forcing myself to the problem of how to release her from the chain that was welded around her waist.
Her eyes, fixed on my face, blazed with wrath! Wonderingly, I continued the motion I had started, took a step toward her. Her white arm darted out, her hand struck my cheek in a stinging slap!
Surprise, rather than the force of that astounding blow, staggered me back. "What...!" I blurted. "What the—"
She spat an unprintable epithet at me. Her face was contorted with fury, the beauty gone. It was the twisted countenance of a virago!
I lifted my hand to rub my stinging cheek, felt the cloth of the red hood I still wore, thought I understood. "Norma Lane!" I exclaimed. "Norma! I'm not—I'm Harlan Lithow, of Coronal. I've come to—" She struck at me again. I grabbed her wrist, held it gently as I could. Her terrible experiences, I thought, must have driven reason from her. "Listen, will you? They caught me, too. I got away. Be quiet while I figure out how to get that chain off you, how to get you out of here."
She tried to jerk her arm from my grasp, and suddenly I saw that tears were rolling down her cheeks. "You fool," she sobbed. "You imbecile. You've killed her; you've killed Satan's Handmaiden and now I can never be his bride!"
I was cold all over. They had driven her mad, those devils. Mad! Yet somehow there was no lunacy in her eyes.
"Be quiet," I whispered. "Be quiet, or you'll bring them in here."
"Bring them—" Her head jerked up, a fanatic gleam shone behind the tears. "Help!" she yelled. "Help! Here! Here! Help!"
It was as if someone had crashed a blackjack down upon my skull! She was calling them, calling the scarlet devils who were torturing her!
A confused gabble of distant voices from outside, the pound of running feet, alarmed me. They were coming, would be here in seconds. It was too late to save her, too late, perhaps to save myself.
I hesitated another instant, realized I could do her no good by remaining, whirled about and plunged out of the door.
The rout was coming from the side from which I had approached. I glanced that way, saw a confused shadowy mass rushing pell-mell toward me, heard the clatter of a view-halloo as they caught sight of me in the light from the opened door. I whirled again, dashed into the dark.
I seemed to be spurning a rusted treadmill under my feet, a treadmill that moved slowly, reluctantly. I dared not look back, but I could hear the riot of bloodthirsty sound coming closer, closer. Whimpering, I put on a burst of speed...
Abruptly the ground vanished from beneath me! I seemed to be falling, falling feet first into darkness, into emptiness...
Falling into a pitch-black chasm that took the one terrified shriek ripping from me and rolled it about in its vast, bottomless expanse till a thousand mocking fiends laughed at me in unholy mirth.
It must have been some seconds before I felt friction-heat against my lacerated back and realized that I was not hurtling through empty space, that I was sliding, rather, down a glass-smooth, almost vertical chute. Not that that made my situation better. Chute or chasm, it must end somewhere, and that end would be also mine. Every instant the speed of my descent increased, already the swift uprush of wind was taking the breath from me, was gorging my whirling brain with blood...
I flung an arm out somehow. It struck rock, zipping past. The other arm found the same thing on my other side. This was a tube then, a chimney through solid stone. I flung my arms out again, tried to keep them spread, to brake myself against the stone. Skin ripped from my hands. My legs spread, the rubber sides of my sneaks sucked at the chute-sides. The pressure against my limbs was terrific; but after long seconds, I thought the speed of my fall had lessened.
Then I was sure of it. I gritted my teeth, fought black clouds of unconsciousness that swirled around me, threatening to overwhelm me. But I did slow, more and more; slowed till, by alternately pressing and relaxing with my torn, burned hands, and my feet from which the rubber-soled, canvas shoes had been torn away, I could keep my descent under control...
I must have been delirious, there at the last. For I cannot remember the latter part of that tremendous descent, can only recall waking after an interminable time to find myself on ground that heaved beneath me. My heels were in water, my head pillowed on a mossy rock, gazing up at a vast black vault in which innumerable golden stars twinkled. A cool breeze caressed me, the quiet purl of a flowing brook was a lullaby to my shattered nerves.
Just how bemused I was, how shaken, may be gathered from the fact that I lay thus, unmoving, for many minutes before the meaning of those stars dawned on me. But then my pulses hammered, and I jerked to a sitting posture.
I was no longer beneath Mount Eda! Level fields stretched all about me. I was out in the open! I had escaped the red-cloaked devils whose hell I had invaded. I was free, free! I heaved erect, swayed with the giddiness of pain and exhaustion, steadied, and looked about me.
There was no moon, but starlight glimmered faintly over the landscape. To my right and in front, a brook wound at the edge of gently rolling meadows, a cow-path was a meandering pale ribbon through lush grass, a darkened house was silhouetted against the sky. A house, a human habitation! There were people within who were gentle, kind; who would bind my wounds and give me a place to sleep, a warm, soft bed...
To my left the great dark mass of the mountain loomed, brooding, mysterious. It hung over me like a threatening cloud... I thought of the horrors within... I thought of Norma Lane, chained naked to a rocky wall in its depths... and I knew there was no rest yet for me!
I plunged across the shallow stream, forced myself to a run toward the dark house. I must get help, must rescue Norma before whatever vileness her captors contemplated had been attained, before she was entirely mad.
I barked my shins against the porch steps of the farmhouse, stumbled up to its shadowed door. The blank face of the door swam before my bleared eyes, and a rusted knocker. I had to grab twice at the iron before my fingers closed on it, but then I pounded hard.
The crash was like thunder in my ears. I waited, listening. There was no sound. I pounded again, rapped a long tattoo. From within there was the thump of bare feet, a quavering voice called, "Who's there! Who is it?"
"Open," I gasped. "Let me in."
"Who is it?" sharply.
If I could have talked coherently then, what further agonies I might have been spared! But all I could do was to bang the knocker once again, and say, thickly, "Let me in!"
There was the scratch of a match, light glinted through a crack in the paintless door. A shadow moved across the crack and I sensed an eye upon me. Then—"Git away from here!" the man within yelled. "Git away!" His voice was suddenly thin, shrill with fear.
Anger flared in me, strengthened my own voice. "No!" I shouted. "Open up, you devil, or I'll knock the door down."
"All right! I've warned ye!" The door jerked out against me. Light poured over me as the panel knocked me down. I saw a bearded man in a nightshirt that flapped about his spindly shanks, saw his blazing eyes, saw the shotgun in his gnarled hands arc up.
Crash!... Orange flame shot out, shot over me as I rolled, bumped down the porch steps. Crash! Pellets chunked into wood, one snatched at the peak of my mask, pulled it askew.
I hit the ground heavily. The door banged shut, cut off light, muffled the farmer's voice as he yelled, "Now git off my land quick's ye kin—or I'll pot ye the next time. I'm a patient man but I've had enough from the likes o' ye. Git!"
The venom in his voice lifted me to my feet, set me running. I pulled at the damned hood, pulled it off. Fool that I was, puerile, childish fool! I had forgotten my garb, forgotten that I still wore that devil's masquerade! No wonder the man had shot at me, had warned me off. No chance now to turn and try to explain; he'd shoot without listening...
I burst through a line of bushes. There was a road beyond. Motor roar pounded in my ears, bright light swallowed me, blinding light. Brakes squealed and a figure loomed in the glare. Iron fingers clutched my arm. I struck at them, struck weakly at the vague figure I dimly saw.
"Hold it," a familiar voice said. "Hold it, Harlan."
"Professor!" I grunted I couldn't believe that it was he, of all persons in the world, who had come to my rescue. I pawed at him, said brokenly, "You are Professor Hayes, aren't you?"
The deep resonance of his tones, the hearty humanness in them, was comforting. "Of course I am, my boy, though I'm not entitled to the handle now."
"Oh thank God!" I quivered with the sudden release of the tension.
"Thank Him if you will," the squat, gray man smiled dryly, "though I doubt that He had much to do with my being on this road at this particular early morning moment. But what's happened to you? You look as if you'd come off second best in a tussle with a rock-crusher. Why the red nightgown? Were those shots I just heard fired at you?"
"It's a long story, Professor. I'll tell you about in a minute. But we've got to get to a phone in a hurry, phone Stanton for help. Norma Lane—"
"Norma Lane!" His fingers dug convulsively into my arm. "What do you know about her? Quick, man!"
"She's in there." I gestured to the black loom of Mount Eda. "Inside the mountain. She's the prisoner of a band of fiends..."
"Good Lord!" I could see his lips go white under the bristly mustache he affected. "You've found her, then! She's been missing since yesterday. The whole town's out looking for her. She—"
"Listen, Prof. We've got to hurry. We've got to get her away from them. They're doing horrible things to her. There's a crowd of them and we can't do it alone. A phone..."
"Don't need to telephone," he snapped grimly. "Just where is she, how can we get to her?"
"In a cave up there. It can be reached by an old quarry road that turns off from the Turnpike..." I described the route of the scarlet signboards, wondering why he had declared the phone unnecessary.
"The tunnel entrance is hidden, eh?" he commented. "That's why we drew a blank. Well, we'll get to her now..."
He moved away from me, got to his car, reached in to the dashboard. The headlights dimmed, but another ray flashed out, a narrower, more powerful beam from a spotlight attached to the side frame of the windshield. It wavered, turned straight upward. Then it was blinking a rapid series of dots and dashes, too fast for me to read.
A minute of this, and the light shut off.
"Look," Hayes said, pointing to the mountain's black bulk. "There's the answer."
SOMEWHERE high up a white light stuttered briefly against the dark curtain. Then, miles away it seemed, another blinked. "They've seen my signals, understood them," Hayes said. "They'll meet us at the end of the old road. Come on now, old man, let's get going."
I staggered trying to get into the front seat. Hayes practically lifted me in. He went around the hood of the car, slid under the wheel. Fumbling it out of the side-door pocket next him, he pushed a flask into my hand. "Get some of this inside you," he said. "It will help."
The fiery liquid that poured down my gullet was Horseface Hammond's white mule. It warmed me, cleared my head.
Gears ground, the car jolted back and forth in the narrow road, turning. Evidently it had been headed toward town. Wind roared past the closed windows as it leaped away. For some reason Hayes had left the headlights off, had snapped out the spotlight.
The road was a tunnel of darkness, but inside faint light from the dashboard let me see Hayes' massive head. Tiny wrinkles of good humor were ineradicable at the corners of his eyes and lips, but I thought something bitter had come into his face, a grimness that had not been there when I had seen him last, in June. Outside of Mike Traynor, the coach, Prof. Billy had been the only man at Coronal who had meant anything to me, the only one I had felt was warmly human. Hell, the common-sense talk in his lectures had been a breath of fresh air in the smug atmosphere that deadened the Coronal campus! "Get the most out of life as you live it," had always been his thesis. "Take happiness in your stride, wring ecstasy even out of pain. Sacrifice nothing to an after-life that is, to say the least, problematical. Do unto your neighbors as they do to you..."
"What was it you saw, in there?" he interrupted my thoughts. "What are we up against?"
I told him. Surprising how little time it took to narrate that eternity of horror.
Hayes grunted. "A devil cult in America, in the heart of a religion-ridden community. Well, I'm not surprised. Where one superstition flourishes another will find fertile soil. I—"
Spat! Fine lines rayed out from a tiny hole in the non-shatterable glass of the windshield and something plunked into leather, between the professor and me. My hand flicked out, switched on the headlights.
"Good God!" I ejaculated. "Look!" The stab of light had caught a lank gaunt figure far up a long straight stretch of road, glinted from the long rifle he held. He leaped into foliage at the roadside as we hurtled toward him, but not before I recognized him.
"Down!" Hayes grunted, ducking low, pulling me down with him. "He'll try again."
The second bullet hit the car-side, and we were past.
"That was Hammond, Professor," I exclaimed. "Horseface Hammond. He was shooting at me. Now I know he's back of the whole thing."
"Joe Hammond." Billy Hayes' tone was grim. "We'll take care of that bird, later. Got to get Norma out first."
"Yes," I gasped, reminded. "Norma. But when I get my fingers on that fellow's neck... Watch it, Professor! Here's the fork."
The car slewed around, plunged up the steep road. An iron band constricted my chest as the thought of the white-faced, golden-haired girl hammered at my brain. I wondered if I should be able to lead the rescuers through the dark labyrinths centering about the cavern of the fiery pit. I knew so little, after all, of that black maze and its fiendish traps.
The spotlight finger caught the red flash of the 1 Mile sign. A whistle shrilled out of the night. Hayes slowed, slid to a stop. Suddenly there were men all around us, shadowy figures in the forest blackness.
I recognized Rand Adams, chairman of Coronal's Board of Trustees, and Doctor Wayne, dean of women. How different was their appearance now than it must have been when, hard-faced and tight-lipped, they had voted Billy Hayes out of his job. Collarless, shirt-sleeved, their unshaven faces were lined with weariness, their eyes bleared and bloodshot from hours of futile searching. But each was armed with revolver or gun, and I chuckled grimly as I remembered that the only weapons I had seen within the mountain had been the three-pronged pitchforks. If only I could take them to Norma!...
Hayes switched off the light, and someone called, "What's the rush, Professor? Any news?"
My companion jerked open the door on his side. "Yes. Of course. Got her spotted." A babble of excited questions broke out. "But didn't you get my signal?"
He threw an aside at me over his shoulder, "Some mix-up, doesn't matter," turned back to the others. "Quiet!" he snapped. "She's a prisoner in a cave inside this mountain, not far from here—and we daren't let her captors know we're coming. Young Lithow here knows where she is, has just escaped from the devils who are holding her, but we've got to surprise them if we want to save her." Urgency vibrated in his tones.
"What'll we do?" a voice from the dark asked. "Give the word." Amazingly, these men, Hayes' avowed enemies, were accepting his leadership without argument, dominated by the sheer power of his personality.
"The entrance to the cavern is at the end of this road, a quarter-mile from here. I'm leaving the car here. Lithow and I will go ahead, you men follow about twenty feet behind. When we reach the opening, I'll whistle. Like this..." The sound that came from his lips startled me. It was so like the chirp of a night cricket that a real one answered from the hillside.
"Harlan tells me there's a long tunnel going down into the mountain," he continued. "If everything is all right, I'll whistle again, then we'll go on into it and you come after us, keeping the same distance behind. Be quiet and keep your fingers on your triggers."
There was a general murmur of eager assent. Hayes slid from the car, and I after him. Though pain enough still rasped my frame, I was ready for anything. I was fighting alone no longer. Hayes' confidence, his incisive vigor, had brought me new strength. And yet... "Anyone got a gun to spare?" I asked.
"Don't bother about that; you won't need it," the professor snapped. "Come on, Harlan, we're wasting time."
He started off up the road, and I followed perforce. But uneasiness returned to me as we approached the screened opening. Perhaps, I thought, Hayes is underrating the task ahead of us. It isn't going to be as easy as he seems to think...
Neither from the party following on the soft dirt road, nor from the depths of the pines themselves, was there any sound. There was little light. I seemed to be moving through a timeless, unpeopled void not quite of this world. From beginning to end of this strange adventure it was the silence, I think, where there should be the many tiny noises of woods and field creatures, that weighed on me with an eerie oppression somehow more nerve-racking than the screaming horrors through which I passed; the silence and the awful feeling that it was enjoined by an unseen, evil presence undistinguishable by my gross human senses but detected all too surely by the little beings of the wild. That feeling crept back on me now, and I began again to be afraid.
I jumped to the touch of something cold and wet on my face—realized then that it was the leafy curtain through which I had pushed to fall into the dark gallery that led to hell. I reached for Hayes' arm, halting him.
"This is it," I breathed into his ear, and was once more startled by his faithful reproduction of a cricket's chirp. We crouched, straining our ears, our eyes, for some sign that a guard had been posted here. Once I thought I heard the faint scrape of leather on stone. My heart leaped into my mouth. I groped a hand ahead, pulled the vines aside. There was nothing but blackness beyond.
Hayes nudged me forward. We lowered ourselves to the floor of the tunnel, listened again. No slightest indication came that the place was other than deserted.
Queer, I thought, that they should leave the way into their bailiwick so open... This afternoon Hammond had wanted me to go in unimpeded, but he knew now that I was leading someone back here, must suspect that we had picked up the others... Again a prescience of disaster welled within me, ebbed as I thought of the explanation. The searching parties were converging on this point; he must have found it impossible to get back here to warn his fellows.
"Seems to be clear enough." The professor spoke in the low tone that is infinitely less betraying than the far-carrying hiss of a whisper. "Let's get going."
"Oke," I said. "The first part is straight and clear enough. Come on."
Damn it, why hadn't he let me get a gun? I didn't like creeping down into the dark, unarmed; I'd had enough of fighting bare-handed against those sharp-pointed tridents.
I started forward, moving slowly. Were there other traps in this outer passage like the steel walls that crushed me and the almost bottomless abyss into which I had fallen? The enclosed passage carried to me the tramp of the fellows coming on behind. The sound was comforting. But could not they hear it too, those red-garbed fiends whose precincts we were invading? My muscles tautened, chill ripples scampered up my spine. This was going too easily. In seconds now, I was suddenly certain, the break must come...
And it did! Light, yellow light, glared from behind! As I whirled a shriek of fearful agony pierced my eardrums, and I saw a tremendous jet of flame pour from a cleft in the tunnel wall; saw it surge about and engulf the men behind; saw them turn into pillars of fire before my very eyes! Their weapons crashed as the heat detonated their charges, their howls were suddenly muted. They blackened, toppled to the incandescent gallery floor and glowed again with the awful heat still blazing about them. And then—they were gone... completely consumed in that torrid flame... were little heaps of ashes that swirled and blew away...
"Professor!" I croaked, "Professor Hayes!" and twisted to find him.
He wasn't there! The dying light of the murder-fire showed a long straight passage through black rock, but it was empty, desolate...
"Harlan! Help! Har—" It was his voice from a black niche in the wall ten feet ahead. I sprang for it. The light went out. I was in darkness again. I crashed into solid rock where I thought the opening was... clawed at it...
Someone shrieked, then a crazed laugh shrilled through the murk. It was from my own throat the mad cachinnation was tearing—my own throat, and the tunnel echoes took the maniacal sound, multiplied it and flung it back at me till I thought a thousand lunatic fiends were roaring mirth at me. Oh God! Oh almighty God! I had led them there, I had led a dozen men to a fiery death, had led the man who in all the world I most revered to the hands, the merciless, terrible hands of the devils who had ambushed in the dark!
Hands seized my arms, my legs. I felt long claws scratch me. I was hoisted from the ground, was being carried off into blackness. I had no strength to fight...
And all about me rose the weird, monotonous chant of the devil-worshipers, an eerie cadence, malevolent, evil. A voice boomed in some unfamiliar language, intoning a paean of triumph...
A strange thought came to me. Norma! If I could only see Norma once again before I died...
Even then I did not, could not guess that the granting of that wish would be the climactic horror of that terrible night...
STILL in blinding darkness, I hung from steel bands fastened about my wrists. I could relieve the agony in my arms and shoulders by thrusting with the balls of my feet against a metal plate beneath them, but that plate was burning hot, and I could not endure the anguish long. Once I had succeeded in standing thus till the smell of my own scorched flesh stung my nostrils. I had fainted from the pain of it and awakened at once, screaming as a ligament tore in my left shoulder-socket. It was then that I had shrieked aloud, begging them to kill me, and had had only silence for answer; silence and a mocking, hollow laugh, muffled by walls or distance.
The time since they had stripped me, trussed me up thus and left me, seemed as long as all eternity. Afterwards I realized that it could not have been more than half an hour, but it took twenty years from my life...
Nerves can stand just so much punishment and then they go numb. I had now reached that stage; I no longer felt tearing agony. I was, I suppose, barely conscious. But I did feel a mild interest when I noticed that the darkness seemed to be paling. Not that I cared; nothing that could happen to me now, I thought, could be worse than what I had already endured; but it was curious because there didn't seem to be any localized source of the growing light.
It was coming from the walls of the small room that I now saw that I was in—a greenish luminescence like the light that comes from rotting fungus. No, it wasn't a room, it was a cell hewn from the living rock; but the men who worked to make this cave must be long gone, for great conical stalagmites humped from the floor and yard-long stalactites reached down toward them from the low roof. My chains were fastened to two of these latter, and a massive door of rusted iron was a dark oblong in the further wall.
Movement on the ground pulled my eyes to it.
Something was crawling out from behind one of the stalagmites, its eyeless head pointing toward me as if it knew of my presence by some other sense than that of smell. It—oh, Lord, I cannot describe it, cannot find words foul enough to fit that thing! But even in my extremity my stomach turned as I saw it, saw that lewd shape and knew what it portended.
It came straight toward me, the very manner of its motion sickening... I clawed at the chains from which I hung, trying to grasp them with my fingers, trying to pull myself up. My knees jerked up to my quivering belly, and I swung pendulumlike, not thinking, not caring what the spasmodic motion was doing to my wrists, my arms, my only thought to get out of reach of the thing on the floor.
It moved slowly, lethargically, quite sure of itself, in no hurry to carry out the obscenity for which Satan had fashioned it. But now it was close beneath me. Some ripple, some sudden tenseness in its pallid form told me it was about to spring.
I shrieked, threw myself in a last desperate arc. There was a splintering crash! The stalactites that held my chains broke away, my swing became a tangent and I clanged against the iron portal! The thing twisted in mid-air, came for me. I closed my eyes in terror, felt its clammy touch—felt myself skid across the floor as a strong hand closed around my arm and dragged me away, as the door opened and clanged shut again.
The hand loosed me. I heard the thud of running footsteps, got my eyes open to the green-lit dimness of a corridor just in time to see a flick of red disappear around a corner not far off. I lay gasping, quivering with pain and horror; but the stout iron door was between me and the incredible thing whose obscene touch I could still feel on one slime-smeared buttock. That was all that mattered, all that I could think of...
What brought reason back to me was the prodding into my aching side of a wooden stick that proved, when my eyes followed its length to the other end, to be the reversed shaft of a trident. I shuddered with renewed fear as I looked up at yet another figure in the ominous red robe and hood that had grown to hold for me so much of terror. "Arise," a harsh voice grated from behind the mask. "Arise, Harlan Lithow!"
I struggled erect by dint of pulling on the fork-handle, and swayed, my head abjectly bowed, my arms hanging limply along my bloody flanks. Somewhere far back in my skull a tiny spark of resentment seemed still to burn, but it was almost quenched in the dead ashes of my burned-out brain. Dull, dazed dread of whatever new suffering was in store for me held my limbs numbed and powerless, and I cringed, deathly afraid, waiting to be given my orders. To such a pass had I been brought at last.
I felt hidden eyes pass slowly over my nude form. My wrists were gory from the cutting of the steel bands cuffing them; from them the chains curled curiously to the ground where lay the stalactite fragments to which they were still attached. These were fractured cleanly across, almost as if they had been sawed.
Afterwards, long afterwards, I realized that it had been no accident that they had broken just at the crucial moment to fling me against the door where someone waited to drag me out of the torture-cell. I was aware of nothing then save the husked command of the scarlet-clothed one as he said, "Come with me," and lifted his trident threateningly.
Meekly, I stumbled in the direction he indicated, dragging the broken stones after me at the end of their clanking chains. I whimpered as the rough footing tortured my charred soles, whimpered like a cruelly punished child. I was a child; manhood was stripped from me, and I was a child not comprehending the suffering it was being called on to endure.
The gallery down which we went seemed endless, a long tunnel eerily lit by the uncanny green light that came from its very walls, endless and untenanted. I reeled onward, half-fainting, clawing at those walls to keep from falling, prodded on by the relentless jabbing of the trident's points. My back became a raw mass of quivering flesh; I could feel streamlets of blood trickling viscously down, and yet I delayed, deliberately, moved even more slowly than my weakness demanded, stopped more often than I needed, courted the knifelike jabs.
Two reasons there were for this: The first was my soul-sapping dread of what lay at the end of the journey. I knew my present agony. What was to follow it was veiled, and I dared not even try to think of what new tortures the devils in whose power I was might devise. But something stronger motivated the halts in my progress that brought the jabs of the fiend behind me. Incredible as it may seem, I was deriving a weird, perverted pleasure from each stab of the trident, each searing piercing of my flesh, a strange ecstasy from pain!
Ecstasy from pain! Where, where had I heard that phrase before? It came to me! Professor Hayes on his dais in the big lecture hall at Coronal, thin face alight with earnestness, grizzled mouth curled in that endearing smile of his, deep voice booming: "Take happiness in your stride. Wring ecstasy out of pain." I was certainly carrying out his precepts, in a manner of which he could not have dreamed...
Recollection swept back on me, then. I remembered the blazing bodies of the men I had led to awful death. I remembered Hayes' voice calling to me for help. Where was he now, what were they doing to him?...
Memory awakened, retraced horror, came back to the room where I had fought Satan's Handmaiden. Norma Lane's white shape danced again before my eyes, chained to the wall in that ghastly cell; walking, dazed, strangely enraptured in that weird procession behind the black-cloaked bearer of an inverted cross; perched on the pillar of the fiery pit. Norma Lane! My fists clenched; all within me was a jelly-like trembling of uttermost despair as I thought of those clean white limbs twisted as mine were twisted, of that sweet face awry with anguish as mine was awry, of those brown eyes mirroring only madness. That was what she must now be like, if she were still alive! For her sake I hoped that she were dead—and suddenly knew that if she were the world would be empty for me, and my own life not worth the living. My own life—I chuckled, bitterly, at the thought. They would not dare to release me after what they had done to me—Hammond would not dare. More than ever I was convinced that he was deeply involved in what was going on here, if he were not the leader. His own words convicted him of guilty knowledge; he had taunted me into coming here by way of gruesome vengeance for that which I had done to him. When I had escaped and was returning he had shot at me. Hammond...
"Here we are, Lithow," the fellow behind me grunted. "Wait."
I became aware of a massive portal of rusted iron, rivet-studded and banded as though for a fortress. My cicerone rattled the steel prongs of his trident against it, peculiarly, as though giving some agreed upon signal. The door opened slowly; I could see no one guiding it and the room beyond was dark. A jab into my rear emphasized a growled "Enter," impelled me through the opening. The door clanged resoundingly behind me, blotted out the faint glow of light from the outer tunnel, shut me into darkness. The metallic reverberations faded, releasing my eardrums from their blasting sound, dying to silence. The absolute blackness of that lightless place seemed to press upon my eyeballs. Terror plucked my heartstrings with icy fingers. He who had conducted me here had not entered. I could see nothing, hear nothing, but I knew that I was not alone.
Minutes passed, minutes stark with freezing terror of an as yet unrevealed threat. God knows I had been taught well the lesson of fear since I first turned Betsy up the mountain road and begun that three-mile ride to hell! But this was different, this was the realization of a presence, of the same presence that had stilled the insects upon Mount Eda and laid a pall of fear over the countryside—but close, now, somewhere close. It seemed to be neither human, nor animal, seemed not material at all, but was manifest around me in an aura of foul, of obscene malevolence that was everywhere and nowhere.
Long minutes flowed thus over me, palpitant with unutterable dread, and a tiny swirl of light appeared somewhere in the dark before me, level with my eyes.
At first it was a mere pin-prick of living luminescence, so small that I could not tell whether it was near or far. But as I stared at the thing it billowed in upon itself, swirling, pulsating like some as yet formless embryo in the womb of nameless evil, and like that embryo it swelled, slowly, yet visibly; grew larger and clearer, its outlines firming, till at last—a gasp rasped my parched throat—it was a face, a weird uncanny face lit by a ghastly light of indescribable color, and floating disembodied in the velvety blackness.
I say it was a face, and so it was, but it was human only as a snake's visage is human, revolting one by its very resemblance to one's own kind, yet utterly, unspeakably evil.
Evil? Yes... and yet there was something almost divine about it too. This, I found myself thinking, might be Lucifer's countenance at the very instant when, still an angel, he first conceived his magnificent, tragic defiance of the Omnipotent One and was for one flaring, transcendant moment out of all eternity himself a god. There was majesty in it, and unspeakable sorrow, fleeting triumph and endless defeat. Studying it I understood at last how it was that, side by side with that of God, the worship of Satan has persisted through the ages...
"My son," a voice sounded in my ears. I thought it came from that awesome face but its lips had not moved. "My son! You are weary, pain-wracked, despairing, but somehow peace has entered into your soul—peace and understanding. Is it not so?"
I realized it was so. Fear had gone from me, I felt terror no longer. A strange peace had come to me, the peace of utter despair, utter hopelessness.
I nodded, unable to speak, and that seemed to be sufficient answer, for the voice went on. "At the apex of pain you have found ecstasy, in the depths of despair you have found contentment. Do you not feel, my son, that you can never again lose this ecstasy, this contentment? They arise from the knowledge that you have endured to the limit of man's capacity to endure, have suffered till anticipation of suffering can hold no more terror for you. You have learned that death itself is not something to fear but a promise and a blessing to be awaited with yearning and embraced with eagerness. In the depths of your inner consciousness are you not assured of this eternal truth?"
The voice was softly persuasive, irresistibly urgent. "Yes," I whispered. "I am convinced." And in the eyes of the face that watched me, coldly impassive till now, a light seemed to flicker and fade. It was as though the being who was revealed only by that august mask had pronounced a benediction upon me.
"Know then, Harlan Lithow, that you have won through the outer ring of the only true religion, the worship of Anti-Jahveh, the cult of Satan. You have acquired freedom from fear through experience of fear, contempt for pain by experience of pain. The choice is now yours. Do you wish to continue along the path on which your feet have been placed—or do you wish to return to that other faith whose honeyed words and rosy phrases seek to banish fear and assuage suffering by false promise of recompense in a life beyond the grave?"
Even then, tortured to within an inch of death, exhausted, dazed, I sensed a flaw in the specious reasoning thus presented. But a sudden light had flashed on me as the majestic voice had dropped its smooth phrases into my brain, a sudden understanding. This was the explanation of what I had seen them doing to Norma Lane, of the way she had flared at me, crying. "Now I can never be Satan's bride!" struck me, and screamed my betrayal. She had been passing through the demoniac initiation of the diabolic cult, the hag whom she had called Satan's Handmaiden had been conducting her novitiate! If I ever wished to see her again I too must join the infernal circle.
The thought passed through my brain with lightning quickness, and my decision was made. May God forgive me—He hasn't yet. I licked dry lips, and croaked the fateful words. "I—I said that I'm convinced. I will join you."
Again the eyes in that bodiless countenance gleamed with brief triumph. "Very well. Then say after me these words..."
I repeated the fearful oath, making the Faustian bargain of the ancient legends. To sell one's soul for love! So romantic in the saying, so simple in the doing—but was there ever one who so dealt with the Arch-Enemy who was not cheated?...
A deep-toned bell clanged somewhere—and the face was gone. I was in pitchy darkness once more, but only for an instant. Then the iron door behind me grated open. I turned wearily to the sound. Silhouetted against the pale luminescence of the outer tunnel a black-robed figure stood, the monklike bearer of the inverted cross whom I had seen lead the torchlit procession ages ago.
"Welcome to our faith, brother," he lisped in sexless accents, and entered. "Come with me and I shall instruct you for the great ceremony that is about to commence."
Innocent enough, his words, but an icy finger seemed to touch my heart. "What ceremony?" I gasped.
"The first lesson of the Brotherhood is unquestioning obedience. Come!"
Somehow the touch of his black-gloved hand on my arm sent a shudder of revulsion through me. But I went with him, to the final scene in the nightmare drama through which I moved, the scene that was to turn my hair white and set upon what was left of my soul the black seal of eternal agony...
HEALING ointments had assuaged my wounds so that their pain was bearable; the clotted blood had been washed from me, and I was clothed in the scarlet habit of the Satanic cult. In my red-gloved hand I held a torch blazing with red flame, beside me another devil-worshiper moved with measured tread; before me, and behind, others paced in a long procession through a winding gallery that pierced Mount Eda's entrails. The tunnel was filled with the sound of a thumping chant, and flung it back at us as though the black marble would have nothing to do with its foul context.
A curve hid the vanguard of the weird procession, where the ebony-cloaked servitor of Satan carried his upended crucifix. His followers snaked around the curve, and as I neared it I heard once more the low bass thrumming that I knew was the voice of the fiery pit in the cavern where I had first found Norma Lane. My nerves, my muscles tautened and my throat was parched. A crisis was at hand.
Born of desperation, a nebulous plan had formed in my aching brain, a wild scheme that had only one chance in a thousand of success. But I must take that chance, I must somehow defeat the appalling threat that this underground gathering portended.
My blood had run cold as I had listened to the emotionless, unhuman voice of the black priest telling with unction of the Satanists' intentions. Already, he had said, Stanton County was permeated with adherents of their cult, but that was only a beginning. Little by little, using the same tactics that had succeeded with me and other recalcitrants—relentless, brain-sapping torture—they would add to their ranks until their rule dominated the state, the country, the world! It would be a slow process, but their lord, Lucifer himself, had waited half eternity till the time was ripe for his conquest of the earth; years, decades were inconsiderable now that his time had come. And the One he had sent as his representative in this grandiose scheme—I had seen that One's face. Did I dream that He could fail?
Despite the colorlessness of his tone I had sensed that the man burned with utter sincerity, with a zeal akin to that of the early Christian martyrs. And the rest must be animated with that same zeal; it was the only way one could explain what they had done, were doing. Sadism, cruelty for its own sake, could not possibly affect so large a number, and for themselves they had nothing to gain.
And I had sensed something else: the entire sect was animated by the driving power of a single individual, of the One concerning whom the black priest had spoken with such reverence, whose remarkable countenance, hanging bodiless in the dark, had so enthralled me—enthralled and appalled. Remove that One and chaos would follow, the cult would fall by its own weight. It was to this realization that my infinitesimal remnant of hope, my desperate scheme, was pinned. If I could manage to destroy that One...
We reached the curve in the tunnel, came around it. The passage dipped to a jagged archway. I followed the pair ahead through it, and I was in the monster cavern of the fiery pit.
The blaze from that leaping central fire quenched the light of our torches, its roar drowned our chant. The great shaft leaping from within the blaze caught up the moving red of our robes and torches as the procession followed the outer circle of the cavern, merged it with the scarlet and yellow and green of the flames, added to these some inner luminescence of its own, and was a great pillar of shimmering, opalescent light.
The long line of votaries was wholly within the great space, had halted and faced inward so that the cavern wall was completely ringed with a double circle of scarlet figures. They were mysterious, awesome as they stood in statuesque silence, holding their torches aloft while a strange hush brooded in the sub-mountain hollow. An expectant hush it was, infiltrated with a peculiar dread, like nothing so much as that which the outer world feels while brazen clouds gather for a summer storm. Emphasizing this resemblance, was the persistent rolling thunder of the flames...
Standing thus, waiting tensely for the next act in the nightmare drama of which I was so unwillingly a part, my eyes, veiled by the peaked red hood of the evil cult, searched those long, curving ranks in a futile effort to penetrate their disguises. Somewhere here, I was convinced, she must be, the girl for whose sake I had endured so much. Somewhere here, perhaps, was the gray-haired, kindly professor whom I had unwittingly betrayed to these human demons. Billy Hayes! Had he been able to withstand the fiendish tortures that had conquered me? Had he found the strength to repel their insidious philosophy that was so queerly like his own: distorted, befouled by evil minds, yet so very like?...
The Devil's monk had left the ranks. He was pacing slowly, his inverted crucifix upheld before him, toward the cavern's center. His long shadow followed him, a flickering, blacker pool on the polished black floor of Lucifer's temple.
I searched for another, too. Joe Hammond. Horseface Hammond. Was he here, one of these, or was his part another in the obscene rites that were about to begin? Was he perchance the One whose advent we were so evidently awaiting? The face I had seen was not his, but that face had been so placid, with only its eyes alive, that it might have been a mask.
That was it, it must be a cunning mask, designed by some master artist! The thought brought its own confirmation. Was the countenance beneath it that of the man who had subtly directed me here, who had tried to halt Hayes and myself with winged death?
Of all the natives in this vicinity, he, and only he, might be possessed of cunning enough to have conceived the foulness that eventuated here. But he was not capable of the underlying philosophy! Suddenly I remembered how, half-maudlin on the products of his still, I had so often maundered to him of Billy Hayes' preachings. He had listened avidly; had he taken those teachings, smeared them with his own foulness? Of course! Now I was utterly convinced. Joe Hammond was the One on whom all this rested. Joe Hammond was the One whom I must kill!
The deep-toned bell, that I had heard before, sounded again. The priest had approached as near to the great shaft as the pit would permit, was motionless now, apparently watching an aperture in the wall almost directly across from me. Just above it was another hole, that must be the one from which I had dropped to gain entrance here...
The light in the cavern was diminishing; I noticed that the flames were dying down. They faded rapidly. Almost at once dimness invested the huge cave. The upheld torches around the wall were now the only light, the shaft at the center a column glowing dully red. From somewhere a feminine voice began a song, its accents almost unbearably sweet, throbbing with yearning, with longing about to be fulfilled.
Again the deep bong of that unseen bell! At once the torches swept downward, mine too as I had been instructed, and were doused against the stone underfoot. Thick blackness invested the cavern, relieved only by the glowing shaft out there. It was a pillar of angry light, incarnadined, a column of fire that held its luminescence within its surfaces, leaving all else in darkness.
Far up, in the hitherto hidden upper reaches of the cave, a glowing cloud formed, swirled downward. It reached our level, thinned. A dozen shapes were revealed, six stalwart, bronzed youths, naked save for white masks over their faces; an equal number of slender, long-limbed maidens, similarly masked, about whose lithe forms diaphanous draperies swirled, phosphorescent, revealing more than they concealed of those rounded, perfect shapes. The voice of the unseen singer lilted into a fast pulse-throbbing dance, and the twelve took up the measure...
Oh God! That such idolatrousness could be so beautiful! In the pagan world of ancient Greece, in the most sacred precincts of the Eleusinian mysteries, never could there have been a dance like this. Pan himself must have fled, burning with shame, from that erotic spectacle. And yet, I could not tear my eyes from that unholy posturing and my blood ran hotly through my veins...
The orgy reached its incredible climax—was blotted out by a sudden return of darkness. I found that my fingernails had dug into my palms, I had bitten my lip almost through. A sigh burst from my dry lips...
That sigh seemed to run around the cavern wall, to change into a murmur. A radiant nimbus was forming around the entrance opposite me that the monk had been watching, a radiance like a huge mass of white-glowing vapor. It swirled, drew in upon itself. It was the face of the One I had determined to kill; but now a shadowy form was palely visible beneath it. His unfathomable eyes circled the gathered host, reached me. I thought they paused, knew a moment of terror as they seemed to probe into my very soul, to tear my secret from me. But they passed on.
My throat tightened. What was to happen now I did not know, but I knew that the moment for which I had planned was fast approaching.
I slid soundlessly out of the ranks in which I stood, taking the chance that in the impenetrable darkness, in their intense concentration upon the apparition of their leader, my absence would not be noticed. I fell to my knees, slithered noiselessly toward the center of the cavern floor. Instinctively I knew that the One must come there, that he would come to where I planned to await him.
He was coming, now, was gliding eerily to the border of the now dark pit. As he approached it the shaft seemed to glow more brightly, its color to deepen; but I held my place. I must appear, I felt sure, as a mere dark pool of shadow on the shadowed floor, would not be noticed if I kept very still.
He was very near now. My muscles tightened. My plan was simple. In another instant, as soon as he got between me and the well, I should leap for him, crash against him, seize him. Together we should go over the brink, down into the pit from which the great shaft lifted! Unless he were actually the Devil himself neither of us would be alive after that plunge.
No, I was not being heroic. Remember, it was he himself who had taught me not to fear death.
But he had not taught me to withstand that which now occurred! A beam of white light shot out from the top of the column. Like a searchlight it reached and found the aperture where he had first appeared. The monk's thin voice rang out, quivering with a strange excitement. "Behold!" he cried. "Behold, the anointed bride appeareth!"
Another form was visible in the aperture, a woman's form, white clad. "He who calls Himself Omnipotent created male and female through whom to work his will," the priest went on. "Male and female we are now about to join together to defeat that will. Advance, chosen bride of the One who is vicar upon Earth of Lucifer, our Lord!"
My tortured eyes clung to the figure coming forward to meet the One, to her flower-entwined hair, her white face. It was Norma—Norma Lane! Her eyes were alight with exaltation, her features irradiated with an unholy fervor, she quivered with eagerness for that evil union. I was incapable of movement, struck powerless with quivering horror at the sight.
My palsy lasted only an instant. I jerked my head back to find the man whom I had added reason now to kill. But my chance was lost!
The black monk was between us; I should have to brush him aside to reach the other, and the success of my plan demanded instantaneous action. I started to shift to get a clearer path...
"Light!" the monk shouted. "Let there be light!" And the flames leaped up again around the tall column, revealing me to the sight of all.
A great howl signaled that I had been seen, my intention evident. The red ranks broke; I saw them surge toward me. I twisted, searching for the One. Perhaps I yet had chance to snatch victory from defeat. There he was...
I lifted to tackle him; but hands seized me from behind. I was struggling in the grasp of a hundred hands. Fists mauled at me, thudded on my face, my body.
"To the pit," someone screamed. "To the pit with him! Into the flames!" Rage-shrilled screams echoed that shout. "Burn the heretic! Kill him!" I was being dragged toward the flaming well!
Crack! The sharp explosion of a rifle echoed through the cavern. Someone screamed in sudden agony. Crack! Another shot sounded. I heard it plunk into flesh, very near me. Those who had hold of me, pulling me to that awful death, stopped, fell away, milling in confusion.
I jerked free from the hands that still held me. The One was sprawled on the cavern floor, a great red stain marring his white robes. "Hold still, everyone!" a stentorian voice shouted from somewhere above. "Or ye'll all git the same dose!"
I looked up, searching for the source of that voice. It came from the upper archway. There a tall, gaunt figure stood framed, smoking rifle in his bony hands.
Joe Hammond! By all that was holy, Horseface Hammond stood there, poised threateningly, his long gun ready. Then who—in God's name—who was the One whose brain had conceived this hell?
"All right, men," Hammond said quietly. "Go in and take them."
Feet trampled, down here, and a half-dozen grim-faced men came out of each of the two lower portals. Shaggy-haired, weather-beaten, I recognized the farmer who had shot at me down below, others of his kind. Men with rugged honesty and the clean healthfulness of the soil stamped on their faces. God-fearing men!...
I twisted then to a scream, Norma's scream! She was running across the floor to the One's prostrate body, tears streaming from her eyes! One of the farmers snatched at her, but she evaded him, reached that recumbent form. Her white arms slid under his shoulder, lifted him.
I saw the mask I had suspected pull slightly away from his face, knew that Norma had seen beneath it. She pushed it swiftly back in place, glanced around. Furtively, as if to note whether anyone else could have recognized the One...
Somehow I was the only one near them; there was no one between her and the pit. She was on her feet suddenly, was dragging the One toward that blazing abyss. Horror peered from her eyes, her mouth was twisted in agony. I guessed her intention, leaped for her, stumbled on the slippery footing that was making her task easy—too easy.
She had reached the brink of the pit, was pushing the One's body over. Just as it toppled the mask fell off, and I, too, knew who it was. I snatched at Norma, caught the silken folds of her garment.
They held, but the impetus of her fall pulled me down. I sprawled, was half over the edge, Norma dangling from my one extended arm. Far below I saw a seething lake of boiling lava, a blackened figure bobbing momentarily atop a bubble that burst into flame, and then disappearing forever. I was slipping, slipping... In another moment I too should be over the edge, Norma with me...
Strong hands clamped my legs, held me. Long arms reached down past me, took the girl's weight from my failing grasp. I saw them lift her up; black smoke eddied up about me and the smell of burned flesh was acrid in the cavern.
I guess that's about all. Anyway, I awoke, days later, in the hospital at Stanton to find that a voluntary censorship had been thrown about the events on Mount Eda. They don't talk about it in Stanton, and you are the first of the world outside to have heard the story. Of course, all the names have been changed, of places and people, including my own. You'll never find out just where this happened. But it did happen, I swear it...
PAYTON RANDALL picked up the glass that had been set before him—how long ago? It was cold now, but he gulped its contents. Then he asked, "Who was the One?"
Lithow opened his eyes, that had closed with exhaustion at the end of his narrative. The death-candles flickered in their depths. "Professor Billy Hayes, of course. Who else could it have been?"
Randall's fingers clenched, and the glass splintered between them. He did not notice that, nor the blood that dripped from the cuts the shards made. "I see," he said slowly. "The shock of his dismissal unbalanced him. He was insane."
The white-polled young man shook his head. "No. He was quite sane. He merely set out to prove to the sanctimonious rulers of Coronal that his philosophy was stronger and better than the religion they pretended to serve. Most of his converts were found to be students at the college, sons and daughters of the most bigoted of the townspeople.
"He proselyted these first because it appealed to him as a subtle revenge, and because he thought the farmers would be easier. But that is where he was wrong. Those farmers are the real Christians. Even Joe Hammond, who sees nothing wrong in violating a man-made law. Hammond had suspected what was going on for a long time, and his suspicions were confirmed when he saw Hayes come out of the cavern mouth and drive lickety-split down to where he knew I must land after my fall.
"The Satanist wanted to make sure I had been killed. I might have noticed that he had come from the direction of the fork... His spotlight signals were to the members of his cult, of course, as were those whistles of his that were so much like the chirping of crickets."
Silence brooded in the dim cafe. It was Lithow who ended it. "Well, that's the story. You will never see us again, I suppose. We're going on in the morning—where, only God knows."
Randall arched his eyebrows questioningly. "We?"
"Norma and I. She was in the hospital for a long, long time and I—just hung around. She says that I saved not only her life but her reason. We've kept going ever since, all over the face of the globe, fleeing from remembrance. But..."
His big shoulders shrugged and he drew a vague hand across his forehead. "Goodnight." He turned and walked stumblingly across to a staircase in a shadowed recess that Randall had not noticed.
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