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Title: Thirst of the Living Dead Author: Arthur Leo Zagat * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1304341h.html Language: English Date first posted: July 2013 Most recent update: July 2016 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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Strange, horrible tales were told of the lake that the Iroquois had called the Eye of Evil...but none so strange and horrible as happened that hideous night when Ralph Dean fought, a pain-wracked madman, for his body and his soul—fought the angry gods of an ancient race long dead, and the thirsting Things, dead yet alive, that crept through the howling storm in search of warm red human blood!
THE Iroquois called the lake Eye-of-Evil. They were long vanished and their harsh word was unpronounceable and therefore forgotten by the few leathery-faced mountaineers who had succeeded them in the region. But Lake Wanda's unsavory reputation still clung to it. And indeed, seen from the summit of Mount Toran, whose forest-cloaked thousand feet soared gloomily above it to the west, the sharp-ended oval with its single, round central island did startlingly resemble a great eye. All day, deep-sunk in its socket of encircling hills, that eye was darkly-shadowed, brooding and somehow ominous; but just before dusk it turned a lurid red, glaring balefully at a baleful sky. Then night would rush down Toran's slope, would engulf the lake like black lids closing—and, to believe the old tales, nightmare horror would stalk its shores.
Whether or not those whispered legends were true—of stealthy murder, agonized suicide and drowned men who would not stay in their watery grave—Ralph Dean did not know and did not care. Solitary except for his dog, Scout, in the living-room of the ancient house on Oldun Island, pupil of the Eye-of-Evil, he stared into the flames of the fire that was its sole illumination, and read in it only the tale of his anguished loneliness. He was but dimly aware that the smoked rafters of the huge, dim room shivered under the blows of a howling tempest, that the night outside was cataclysmic with sky-rending lightning and earth-shaking thunder, that the lake was lashed to fury by shrieking wind and torrential rain and the tall trees on the island itself bent almost double by the gale. Another such storm, exploding without warning from a starry sky, had a week ago darkened his life with a desolation so black and abysmal that he thought himself dulled forever to any emotion other than grief.
If he had known what grim terror this new storm was to pluck from the wild night and cast up on his threshold, he might have pulled open the great oaken door bisecting the long, oak-paneled wall behind him and plunged out into chaos—to throw himself into the bottomless depths that had taken his oldest friend, Anton Walder, and Ralph's laughing-eyed, flaxen-haired wife, Myrtle. Even the thought of two-year-old Billy, forgetful already of his mother and sweetly asleep in his crib upstairs, would have lost the power to hold him back...
Now Scout whimpered in his sleep, and Dean's bronzed, big-knuckled hands clenched on his knees. He was reliving that evening, hearing again the words that had condemned Myrtle to death: "You go with them dear; you enjoy night paddling so. I'll stay with Billy. Don't worry, I shan't be lonely. I'll think of you and Anton and Sonia out on the water..."
The wind thudded at the door as if some soft hand were pounding for admittance, moaned through the trees. The dog woke with a start, heaved to its feet. It stood stiff-legged, its hair bristling to a thick ruff around its neck, its livid eyes fastened on the shadows of the arched embrasure wherein the portal hung. Tiny whimperings came from the back of its throat, whimperings of ancestral fear.
Dean's sharp, grief-lined profile turned slowly to the animal, and he watched its antics somberly. Just so had Scout acted when, after a night of frenzied, fruitless searching, the two had found the overturned canoe floating in a cove on the other side of the island, and Sonia Walder's body under it. The clothes had been pounded from her by battering rocks, her head mashed to a pulp. One foot had twisted under a thwart of the frail boat and anchored her there as if the lake were sending to Ralph a mocking token of the others' fate.
"Down, Scout. Down, old boy. There's no one there. Come here, old fellow. You miss her too, don't you?"
Curiously, the Airedale paid no attention to his master's voice. What did he see, there in the dark, what phantasm to which human eyes are blind? Ralph pulled a shaking hand across his own forehead. He had been seeing things too, ever since Lake Wanda had swallowed Myrtle and refused to give her up. The flick of pale garments in forest aisles, a shadowy form moving among the trees just beyond the range of his burning vision. He had heard things, too, wandering aimlessly in the woods; the familiar timbre of Myrtle's voice, her words not quite distinguishable; Anton's guttural rumble. Once there had been a scream, on a moonless night, and he had rushed pell-mell from the house, sure that Myrtle had called for help. He had found no one, of course...
And now he fancied someone was at the door, was begging wordlessly for admittance, for refuge from the tempest. It was against all reason; there was no living thing on the island save the three within the house and the dog, impossible for anyone to have come across the waters through the storm. It was the wind, only the wind. Dean licked dry lips and told himself again that it was only the wind.
Was his loss driving him mad? The natives—Ira Toombs and old Eri Halden—certainly had thought him so when he had insisted on remaining with Billy on the ill-omened island. He wanted to be there, Ralph had said as they ferried what was left of Sonia to the mainland, when Myrtle's body was washed ashore.
They had looked at each other queerly, and then old Eri had drawled: "Ye'll stay here forever then. Ol' Wanda don't ever give up her daid, leastways not their corpses. Mebbe thet's why—"
A warning hiss from Toombs had cut him short, and Ralph, only half-hearing, had forborne to question what the end of the sentence was to be. But later, an obscure fear had peered from Charity Halden's old eyes when he had offered what to her must have been a small fortune to assume the care of Billy and the slight duties of the household. Nor had her excuse, that the frequent storms isolated Oldun Island so that it was impossible to reach the mainland, been sufficient to account for her obdurate refusal—a refusal only abandoned when the curly-headed child had smiled endearingly up at her and snuggled his warm, confiding palm into her work-worn hand.
Charity Halden was upstairs now, asleep in the nursery...Scout's lips pulled back from his black gums and he growled. The wind dropped in a sudden lull—but the fumbling at the door continued. There was a rasp to it, as of feeble nails scratching at the wood, low down. And that—that certainly was a moan, faint, only just audible...
Ralph shook with a sudden chill. The moan came again, burbled, trailed off to silence. The renewed howling of the wind was like the wailing of a lost soul.
There couldn't be anyone there, anyone—human. But suppose there were; suppose...Dean dared not word the thought that came to him. He fought against unreasoning fear, fought himself out of his fireside chair and to the door. The metal of the doorknob was hot to his icy fingers. They closed around it, slowly; turned it, every thirty-second of an inch of movement a new victory over protesting nerves and rigid sinews.
Abruptly the bolt left its socket and something hurled the door inward, knocking Ralph aside, to his knees. The wind raged around the big room, the rain drove in, a solid wall of water. There was something on the threshold; a sodden, shapeless heap. It was a human form, the form of a woman, face down in muddy water that swirled, a foaming flood, across the threshold.
Dean got hands on her soggy garments, dragged her in, heaved erect and launched a battle against the storm to shut it out. It fought him back, shrieking with the voice of a thousand fiends, determined to hold the territory it had gained. Before the door clicked closed Ralph's back-muscles were stabbed with fire, his legs quivering with exhaustion. But he dropped at once to the woman's side, his knees squelching in the soaked rug.
What she wore had lost all identity, so drenched it was, but it covered her completely. And yet—there was something familiar about the hidden lines of the figure beneath it, something...Dean's lips were bloodless, his eyes black flame in a ghastly face. His arm slid under the cold, wet form, turned it over gently, tenderly. His other arm pillowed the lax head. The shawl fell away from the woman's face...
The whimper that broke the tumult-encircled hush of the big room came from his throat. Oh God! Oh merciless God! The bloated, clammy-white, blue-lipped face into which he stared was Myrtle's face. Myrtle's! Changed, horribly distorted, but he could not mistake it. His wife was back. His wife...Lake Wanda, the Eye-of-Evil, had thrown her corpse up, in wanton mockery, on his very doorstep. "Here she is," the storm howled at him. "You waited for her and we give her back to you. This is the face that will haunt your dreams forever now, this horror—instead of the beloved vision that otherwise would have been yours to cherish."
But what of the fumbling at the door, the scratching, the moan—the moan that had not been the voice of the wind?...
Fearfully, not daring yet to hope against the black despair flooding him, Ralph's hand found an opening in the sodden fabric cloaking the limp form, crept within. His hand felt flesh—gelid, clammy flesh that tingled his fingers with the cold feel of death. Bloated flesh that dented to the pressure of his hand—and a vague, dim flutter, a hint of movement where the beating heart should be! A pulse, vague yet perceptible. She lived. Miracle of miracles, she was alive!
Then Ralph, too, came alive. He lifted the flaccid figure, surging to his feet with her in his arms as a new, unfamiliar strength surged within him. In seconds he was across the room, had laid her tenderly on the bearskin rug before the roaring fire, had forced a drop or two of brandy between her lips, and was chafing her arms, her dear hands.
"Myrtle," he babbled. "Myrtle dear...Wake up. Wake up." He mumbled broken, pathetic phrases from out their lexicon of love. Again he felt for her heart. It beat a little more strongly now, but the wax-white lids still hid her eyes, and her flesh was still cold, cold as death itself.
Warmth! She needed warmth, blankets. "Charity," he called. "Charity! Bring blankets down. All we've got!"
Ralph did not think then, did not dare to think, of how Myrtle came to be alive, of where she had been in the week since she was supposed to have drowned, of how she had gotten home at last. He did not think, even, of where Anton might be, of whether he too might not have been saved from the lake. He was absorbed, wholly absorbed, in bringing Myrtle back to consciousness, in fanning the flickering spark of life that was still in her, the spark that threatened momentarily to go out.
Where was that woman? "Charity!" he roared again. "Charity!"
There was no answering thump of bare feet on the floor above; no querulous, age-thinned voice. Nothing but silence reached him, and the tumult of the storm. She slept too soundly; he must get the blankets himself.
He slid carefully out from under Myrtle, surged to his feet and was running up the broad steps that lifted from the other end of the room. The hall was dark, upstairs, except for a line of dim light under the nursery door. He jerked that open as he passed, yelling "Charity," glanced within. And he stopped abruptly.
The cot where the woman should be was empty! A night-light floated in a glass of oil, and by its vague luminance he could see the white covers thrown back, the mark of her form on the under-sheet and the dent of her head on the pillow. And he could see something else on the pillow. There was a fleck of red on that pillow-case...another, a third...tiny drops of blood still freshly scarlet!
Steel fingers of fear pronged his heart as he whirled within. The baby! But Billy was in his crib, blond locks curling about his white forehead, smiling in sleep disturbed by neither storm nor shouting.
Billy was asleep, but on the floor there were other droplets of blood. Ralph's eyes followed them to the window. Good Lord, the pulled-down shade, the sill, were wet. Wet by rain! And Dean himself had closed that window when he had come up to hear his son's prayer and kiss him good-night, twenty minutes before a drop of rain had fallen!
The fact that only a few drops showed, on pillow and floor, was somehow more fearsome than if the room had been a shambles. There had been no struggle here, no fight. But a vein had opened, somewhere on old Charity's scrawny body, and she had gone—out of the window, out into the storm!
The floor rocked to that storm's buffeting, the dark exploded into blue light; Ralph was deafened by blasting thunder. A cataract pounded down upon the house, streamed across the pane. She couldn't have gone out into that of her own free will!
Dread was a tangible presence in the room, dread of something that threatened the child. He couldn't leave Billy alone here, alone with the tempest and—whatever it was that, had left those crimson drops. But Myrtle was below—restored to him from the dead—needing him. Dean's neck corded and a visible pulse pounded in his temples.
A furry body brushed against his legs. Ralph gasped—jumped back. The Airedale looked up at him, whimpering. Dean gasped again—but with relief. "Scout," he snapped. "Scout! Stay here. On guard, Scout. On guard!"
The dog whimpered again. But he stalked across to the crib, whirled, stood stiff-legged, shaggy lips curled back from white fangs. Nothing human, nothing animal, would get past that faithful sentry to harm the boy. "Guard him, good Scout," Dean said, and knew he was free to get the blankets and minister to the other, below. But as he blundered down the dark hall his brow wrinkled. The dog was afraid—somehow he knew it—was terrified of something in the house that the man could not sense?
DEAN knelt by Myrtle's side. He had gotten her sodden clothing off, had wrapped her in layer upon layer of thick, warm wool. Heat from the fire up-beat on her. Her nostrils vibrated, slightly, with faint breathing. But the gray shadow of death still lay across her cruelly distorted countenance; her brow was still clammy white, her lips still blue. What could he do? What more could he do?
Anxiety, helpless futility, tore at him. And the storm rattled at the windows, howled about the house, seemed to be demanding her back from him. He could hear the roar of the wind-lashed lake, its angry roar..."Ol' Wanda don't never give up her daid..."
"Myrtle," Ralph groaned. "Myrtle darling..."
His pulse pounded. Her eyelids were trembling—were lifting—were open! She was looking up at him...No! She was looking up, but not at him, not at anything! Her eyes, her blue eyes that once had glowed so with love for him, for little Billy, stared unseeingly up at the ceiling. He looked deep into them; they were blue caverns of emptiness, soulless and dead. But under his fingers the pulse in her flaccid wrist beat, beat more and more strongly, and the blankets that covered her rose and fell with her breathing.
Dread—the living dread that had filled the nursery above—seemed to have seeped down into the shadows that waited behind him to quench the firelight, seemed to quiver there and reach out for him with pallid hands...
A scream threaded through the racket of the storm, a thin scream from outside, a woman's scream! It came again—quavering with infinite terror, yet retaining, oddly, the querulous edge of Charity's aged voice. "Help!"
He could not ignore it. Could not, though every fiber of his being clamored to stay here with Myrtle, to bring life back to her dead eyes, to her recovered body. Charity was out there in the storm, was crying to him for help, and he must go. Somehow Dean got to his feet, got to the door, lunged through, battled to get it closed again.
The storm took him, buffeted him. Impenetrable blackness swallowed him, blackness alive with tumult, solid with wind and water that battered him, dazed him with its fury. It was as if the lake had lifted from its bed, had engulfed trees, house, the island itself in a mad effort to destroy them, to have done with them once and for all. And he, he was a pigmy, an unconsidered mote in the grip of cosmic forces...
Blue flame burst the sky, jetted down Mount Toran's precipice, nicked Lake Wanda's foaming surface into being and was gone. But Dean did not hear the world-crashing peal of thunder at all. For he had seen—among the trees silhouetted against the white sheet of the storm-whipped lake—two black, struggling forms. He lunged toward the blackness where they had been. He caromed off an unseen tree-trunk, fought underbrush clogging his plunging legs, distinguished a threshing just ahead that was not the threshing of the tempest. His fists clenched...
Then he sensed someone beside him. He whirled toward it—too late. Something crashed against the side of his head, white flame exploded within his skull! He spun dizzily, staggered, sank to his knees.
Vertigo swirled about him, but through it he heard a mocking laugh and the sound of a heavy body moving away through the underbrush, a sound that merged with the crash of the storm and was gone. His head cleared; he was on his knees in the swimming underbrush. Ahead of him the house he had quitted was a dark bulk, a looming bulk against whose darkness fire-lit oblongs flickered. A single pale rectangle above was the shade-covered nursery window.
Dean's skull throbbed with dull pain, wind-driven leaves whipped across his face, stung sharply. It was difficult to breathe the water-filled air. Yet he could not move; the blow from his unseen assailant seemed to have paralyzed him. He remained kneeling, leaning forward on stiffened arms, hands pressing down into mold, watching the house, waiting for the return of strength enough to lift himself, to get back there to Myrtle and Billy?
And abruptly then he knew that the snatching of Charity from her bed, the scream that had lured him out here and the blow that had been launched at him from the dark were all part of some obscure threat that moved against his curly-haired, sleeping son in the room behind that nursery window!
A formless shadow jogged the edge of the pallid oblong, moved across it and was gone! Terror exploded within Ralph, heaved him to his feet, hurled him toward the house. He reached the door, got his hand on its knob, turned and pushed.
It did not move. It was locked, locked from within! Someone—inside—had shot the bolt that never, since the two couples had rented the house, had been touched...And that someone was upstairs now—in Billy's room!
DEAN pounded the unyielding panels, screamed anathema. The wind howled a taunting answer, battered him against the door; the rain lashed him with its fury. He twisted away, pulled himself along the rough stone of the structure's side to a window, pounded his fists through the glass.
Thunder-roll quenched the crash of the glass, rain-pour washed blood from the jagged cuts on his hands and arms. Ralph heaved himself up to the sill, heaved himself through. The fire roared as the storm gained entrance through the breach he had made, the fire roared and the tempest wailed. But otherwise there was silence, dreadful silence, within the room.
Silence, and emptiness. A frenzied glance showed Dean only a pile of moist, thrown-back blankets where he had left his wife. Nothing more! God! Had the lake taken her back, had she returned to its storm-lashed depths? He pulled a hand across his aching head. It was an insane thought, but everything was insane, mad as the storm itself. Billy! What was happening to Billy?
Ralph started toward the stairs, stopped. He stared at the pitiful little heap that lay at the foot of their broad curve—the contorted, broken-backed form of Scout, the dog he had left on guard. The dog's lips still snarled back, his fangs were still bared in futile defense of his little master; but lips and teeth were scarlet with blood that dripped to a little pool on the floor. Scout was limp and lifeless!
Dean rocked back on his heels. A red mist swam before his eyes, blinding him. Then it had cleared and he was leaping across the floor in great strides, was pounding up those ominous stairs, a sob rasping his tightened throat. He thudded to the top. The hallway was dark, but a bar of light showed the nursery door to be open. And a soft murmur came from that room, the limpid sound of someone talking.
Afterward Ralph Dean could not explain what halted him, what sent him stealing silently, noiselessly down the hall. An instant before he had been hurtling to his son like a thunderbolt of vengeance; now he crept, fighting an inexplicable revulsion, fighting a horrible fear. Not fear for himself, but fear of what he should find in that room, marrow-chilling fear of what that eerie, liquid babble portended.
He got at last to the nursery door. His groping hand closed on the jamb, his lips tightened; and his head thrust slowly past the screening wall. His glance flicked past Charity's still empty cot with its blood-drops, past the little table where the night light flickered, found the crib. And pent breath brushed past his dry lips.
Billy was still asleep. But bending over his little bed, face close to his chubby one and lips pressed just under a shell-pink ear, was the white, nude form of—Myrtle. A warm flood of relief, of thanksgiving, welled up in Dean. Billy was all right, and Myrtle. She had regained her senses while he was out in the storm, had hastened up here to the crib-side of their son, to give him the mother's kiss he had so long been denied!
Both his loved ones were together here, safe. Let the storm howl now, the lake foam along its shore. He had them back...
And then Dean froze with horror. From the spot where his mother's lips were tight against the tiny fellow's flesh, from under those very lips, a filament of blood seeped out. It crawled leisurely down his little neck, reached the white coverlet and stained it a vivid, screaming red!
A steel band constricted Ralph's forehead, a soundless shriek tore at his throat. That was not Myrtle, that was not his wife, that did this evil thing. It was something the lake had sent to him in mockery of his grief; something vile, infinitely vile that it had vomited up from its dark depths.
"Ol' Wanda don't never give up her daid," Eri Halden had said. No. But she spewed out other things, unmentionable things, in the guise of the dead she held?
The awful realization shook him; a shout trembled on his lips. He choked it back. If the sharp teeth hidden by those bloated, blue lips clenched and tore once, only once, nothing could save his son!
Billy's heavy-headed croquet mallet leaned just inside the door. Ralph's hand flashed to it, gripped its handle. He was stealing noiselessly, furtively across the floor, taut with fear that—she—might hear him. He was just behind her now. The mallet arched up. One blow it would take to crush the skull of the thing that sucked Billy's blood, to send it back to the unholy death from whence the lake had spewed it. His biceps corded to deal that blow.
But it did not fall! Her maize-colored hair, dry now, coiled in soft tendrils along her neck just where his fingers had delighted to stroke it. The very cant of her head was like, too like, the Myrtle for whom his love had been an ardent, consuming flame. Whatever she had become he could not strike...
"Myrtle," he whispered, in agony. "Myrtle. You'll wake him."
The woman stirred, straightened and turned. Faint color now tinged her cheeks, that had been so terribly white, and her eyes were dreamy, absorbed, but no longer wholly dead. Ralph shuddered as he thought of the reason, but his cold lips said steadily, "Come, Myrtle, come away. You'll see him in the morning."
She followed him as he backed from the room, her once slim legs moving automatically, as if she were walking in her sleep. There was something infinitely horrible in the slow, noiseless way she glided toward the door—something unhuman. Ralph shuddered again. His skin crawled with revulsion as she reached him and he took her icy hand, but he led her away and she came with him, strangely complaisant.
"Come down to the fire again," he said. "You need its heat."
And thus they went down the staircase, past the shattered corpse of the dog that had been faithful to death. They reached the fireplace. At a word from Dean she sank docilely down on the blankets, let him make a cocoon for her, slip a cushion under her head. She sighed, seemed to relax almost at once in sleep.
The wind beat in at the broken window, swirled about the room. Moving dully, his brain clogged by horror, Ralph picked up a small rug, stumbled toward the gaping aperture with some idea of stuffing it against the gale. But as he reached it, the slap of the cold rain across his face woke thought. He remembered Charity, remembered that she had been struggling with someone and that he himself had been attacked, had been brought to his knees by a crashing blow.
What was going on, what had the storm brought to Oldun Island? He was certain there had been no one on the island before it broke. He and Scout had gone all over it just after supper. No boat he knew to be on the lake could have reached it after that. And yet—Myrtle had gotten here somehow, and at least one person else. Icy prickles ran up and down his spine. Had neither of the two needed a boat?
He peered out into the tumultuous dark. Lightning split the sky, and he froze. Someone had moved among the trees, just then, had ducked back out of sight, not quite quickly enough. He had glimpsed a swarthy face, staring eyes. Someone was watching the house, out there in that uproar.
"Who's there?" Dean called sharply. "Who's there?"
Howling crescendo of wind through the vibrant branches of storm-torn trees, snare-drum rattle of rain on leaves and ground and bass roll of thunder, orchestrated the terrific symphony of the tempest; but through it, through the echoing diapason of the gale, a weird ululation rose to shrillness. Dean's scalp tightened as he heard it, and primal terror gripped him. It was like the lamentation of a bodiless phantom in eternal torment, like the wail of an outcast soul riding the black wings of the storm in endless, despairing search for peace forever denied it.
The eerie sound died away. The wind dropped to a sudden lull as if Boreas himself bated his breath in awe at the utter desolation of that cry. Then, out in the darkness, a fiddle-string twanged, and something thudded into the sill alongside the utterly shaken man.
A red finger of light reached out from the fire behind him, reached past the black shadow of Ralph Dean's head, and fumbled at the incredible thing that had catapulted from out of the furious night. It quivered still like a thing alive, a straight shaft of hickory, the feathered tuft at its end a gray blur.
Ralph stared at it, the blood in his veins an icy stream, stared at it and whimpered as Scout had whimpered, afraid of things that were not, that could not be. An arrow, an Indian arrow! Great God in heaven, had the world gone entirely mad?...
CRASH! Dean whirled to the smash of splintered glass behind him. A black, radiating star showed in a window at the other side of the room. The wind whistled through it, and still bounding across the floor was a round object, white, red-flecked. Even as he turned it thudded to rest at his feet and Ralph saw that it was a fist-sized stone, saw that something was twisted around it, a bit of white fabric, blood-stained.
Dean gasped. That white stuff, scarcely wet, was fuzzy, warm-looking. It was like the flannel of which Charity's high-necked, ankle-long nightgowns were made. He bent to the thing, picked it up. The flannel was tied to the stone by a raveling of its own material, and the red on it was strangely like a letter, like the letter S.
Ralph picked at the knot, loosened it. The rag straightened in his shaking hands. Those were letters on it, letters scrawled in blood. An S, a K, a space, then a C and an O. SK—CO! He stared at the gory message. His brow wrinkled, his mouth was a straight, grim gash across his pallid face. What could those cabalistic ciphers mean?
Then suddenly it came to him. On the other side of the island, gouged into its shore, was a tiny bay—the very place where he had made the gruesome find of the shattered canoe and Sonia's battered corpse. When Halden and Toombs had arrived in response to his frantic signals and he had started to describe the spot to them, one of them had interrupted him.
"Yeah," he had said. "We know. That's Skull Cove, where some 'un found an Injun skeleton oncet. That wuz th' last loon crazy enough to live in this house. Th' lake took him too, twenty years ago?"
SK—CO. Skull Cove! Undoubtedly that was what the letters meant. Somehow, by what means he could not fathom, Charity had contrived to get this message to him. Inscribed in blood on a bit torn from the only garment she wore, it was a cry for help, a piteous cry for help...
His eyes lifted from the thing, strayed to the bundled form before the fire, came back across the room and sought the shadowy staircase that led to the room where Billy slept. How could he answer the woman's call for help, how could he go out into the storm and leave the child alone with—the thing his mother had become?
No! Ralph's fingers closed on the rag in his hand, twisted it, flung it from him. No! He would not go. He could not. Charity would have to take her chance alone. Billy came first, helpless little Billy with the blond curls tight around his white brow. Charity's life was nearly run; a year or two more would make no difference...
But he had made her come here, against her fears, against her premonition of danger now all too well fulfilled. She had come for Billy's sake, to mother the motherless child, and Billy had already learned to love her. One faithful friend of the child's lay there, at the foot of those stairs, stiffened now in death that had come to him in the child's defense. The harassed father could not deliberately abandon another to what awful fate he could only guess at, and guessing, shudder. He must go to her. He must...
Fishing paraphernalia lay on a table, disused since tragedy had come to Oldun Island. A reel of strong line...Ralph's hands flew as he lashed Myrtle's sleeping form with it, lashed her so thoroughly that she could by no remotest possibility free herself. A rod—the butt section was heavy, lead-weighted. It was better than no weapon at all. And then, not stopping to think—not daring to think—Dean plunged out into the storm once more.
Head bent, arm thrown up across his face in a pitiable attempt to protect his head from the clubbing blows of the almost solid wind; deafened by the continuous pealing of thunder, by the crash of uprooted forest giants and the piercing shriek of the gale; half-drowned, he ploughed through the tempest-riven woods inch by painful inch. Every step was a torment, every yard a battle won against impossible odds. But he went on, slowly on...
He was not alone in the storm! Nothing he saw, nothing he heard, made him aware of it, but he knew it; knew it by the drying of his throat, by the chill that struck into the marrow of his bones, by the unreasoning terror that was an icy lump at the pit of his stomach. Something—an unseen shadow in the Stygian murk—was following him, was keeping pace with him, was waiting the moment to spring.
A creeper caught his feet; he stumbled, scrambled to keep from falling. One arm swept out aimlessly, touched wetness, wet skin, sinewy muscles rippling beneath it. He twisted to it, saw something loom, black against black. Fingers gripped his out-flung wrist, jerked downward.
And on the instant he was fighting for his life, fighting with a slippery, naked antagonist he could not see; a powerful being whose blows were bone shattering, whose taut muscles were armor against the pounding of his own fists, the blows of his club. A something that snarled bestially, that growled and pressed in and gave no quarter...
FROM the instant that battle in the dark began Dean knew that he stood no chance. His unseen antagonist was gigantic, unbelievably powerful, merciless. Agony seared the wrist that had been grasped in the first onslaught; it felt as though broken, and the hand was paralyzed. Half Ralph's blows with his improvised club were wasted, thudded harmlessly against tree-trunks, bushes, anything but the invisible assailant. Yet he fought on, plunged in again and again to meet the other's attack, his pile-driving jabs, the irresistible impact of his cruel blows. Dean's fist glanced off a bristling jaw, another blow rebounded from a steel-hard abdomen. Then suddenly a sinewy leg was between his own, was jerked back, Ralph crashed down, the sweaty body of the other pounding down atop him.
Dean was pinned helpless in the mud. Hard knees ground into his chest, steely fingers were at his throat, were clamping slowly closed. He couldn't breathe. He pounded at columnar arms, pounded more weakly...His lungs were bursting, and blackness shot with light welled up in his brain. His neck was crushed between those squeezing fingers. Blood was salty in his mouth, his own blood...
The wriggly light-worms inside his head merged into one, into a spinning, mad pin-wheel of coruscating fire that was jagged and lightning-blue. Two faces were limned against the glare of that mad pin-wheel: one, copper-hued, wild-eyed, drooling; the other—the gaunt, black-bearded, gimlet-eyed face of Anton, of his drowned friend, grinning horribly. Then the mountain fell upon him!...
Moments later Ralph weltered up through blackness to consciousness, to pain that seared his throat, to the roar of the storm and the buffeting of rain and wind. He was on his back in mud and water; tempest-torn blackness lay on him like a pall. He was alive—strangely, he was alive!
What then had become of the invisible assailant who had had him down? Why had he relented, why had he not killed him? There had been no doubt at all of the lethal ferocity of his attack, no doubt that he had meant to choke from him all semblance of life. But something had stopped him. Maybe Anton had beaten him off. Maybe—Hold on! Anton was dead, drowned. That wasn't really Anton he had seen, nor was the other an Indian. Those faces had been only delirious visions of his tortured brain.
Ralph was not yet fully conscious; he was dazed, mind-numbed by pain and terror. Had he been in full possession of his senses it is doubtful that he would have had the courage to stagger to his feet, to reel again through the unabated ferocity of the elements toward the inlet that was so grimly named Skull Cove. But he did that very thing, driven still by the purpose with which he had set forth, like a mechanical toy that had once been wound and was not yet run down.
It is doubtful too, that he would have reached the Cove had it not been very near. As it was, he was more dead than alive when he dragged himself out of the thicket into the shelving space that bordered the little bay. He sprawled on the gravelly beach, lay there for long moments, let the wind play with him; let the foam, driven in from the turbulent lake, sting his throbbing temples.
A croaking sound, a sound only half-human, pulled his head up, jerked open his eyes.
The crescent-shaped front of the woods was like the van of a black-horsed Arab squadron, charging the lake pell-mell, threshing spear-points thrust out ahead. In front, their madly careering leader, a lone oak tossed wild arms. And limned against its creaking trunk, a blanched emblazonment on a black shield, was a pallid, straining figure—the white figure of a naked woman, of Charity Halden!
Some power outside himself lifted Ralph to his feet, sent him plunging to her against the moving wall of the wind. A glimmer of more distant lightning aided his sight, showed him that she was lashed to the streaming bole, showed him her gaunt face, her bulging, tortured eyes, her straggly gray hair streaming about that anguished face and lashing its sunken cheeks.
He got to her. She saw him—and her thin lips moved. Somehow her hoarse croak was clearly audible above the shriek of the gale:
"The living-drowned..." The guttural words burbled through water that filled her throat. "From the lake..." Her countenance was a ghastly mask of terror. "They—" And suddenly her eyes were closed, she was hanging limply on the ropes that bound her scrawny body to the tree.
How, working with frantic, bleeding fingers, he loosened those water-soaked knots, how he got the old woman free and onto his shoulder, how he made his way back through the storm, Ralph Dean could never remember. But he accomplished the superhuman task, and the next scene that he remembered in the phantasmagoria of that terrible night was when he eased the flaccid burden against the jamb of the house door and fumbled with rigid, clumsy fingers at its bronze knob.
The portal opened and Dean staggered through. The woman slipped from his shoulders; he was dazed, blinded. Fighting to get the door closed again he was conscious only that he was once more in shelter, that the thick stone walls of the ancient house were about him, making an island of warmth and quiet in a world where all else was turmoil.
He quivered with dull pain, with exhaustion. The storm shut out, he leaned against the stout panel that vibrated under its baffled blows. Then his overtaxed legs buckled, and he started to slide downward. Forehead and palms against the wood, he held himself upright while his brain cleared and he remembered all there was yet to do. He forced himself around.
Black shadows, red-edged, danced in the great room. Charity's crumpled body lay in a watery pool at his feet. He must tend her, get her warmed, get her to the fire. It was so far, so far to the fireplace.
Dogged, flogging his water-weak limbs to the task, he bent, got the bony body in his arms, lifted. His bleared eyes drifted across the room, to measure the distance he would have to carry her. The fire still flamed bravely. Myrtle...Good Lord! She wasn't there! The blankets were there—suddenly clear visioned, he saw their crumpled mass—and the fishing line! But she couldn't have...The line was cut, cut by a keen knife. Myrtle couldn't have done that...
Billy! Like the jagged lightning still splitting the clouds without, terror for the child jabbed lividly through the billowing darkness of his brain. Billy! The old woman still in his arms, Ralph whirled, was plunging across the room and up the stairs. Billy! He didn't feel Charity's weight, he didn't know she was there! But the stairs were high as Mount Toran's steep, the light from the half-open nursery door glimmered at the further end of infinity...
He reached it at last.
A great sob retched from the tight anguish of the father's chest. How could the child lie sleeping there, so peacefully, in the midst of so much terror? One small hand was curled, like a half-open blossom, on the coverlet; a tiny smile touched the cupid's bow of the child's lips. Ralph gained control of himself by a gigantic effort, and slid noiselessly into the room.
Charity's cot came across his vision, and she was suddenly an unsupportable weight in his arms. He put her down on the bed. Her cadaverous head dented the pillow just where minute, browning flecks still stained it. Dean jerked the sheet up to cover her nakedness, and turned to the crib of his son.
He thought he tiptoed silently toward it; but the child sighed and his lids fluttered. Just as Dean bent over the crib-side they opened. Limpid eyes, mistily blue, looked up at him drowsily, and the lad's smile deepened.
"Daddy," he murmured. "Daddy. Unc' Anton ith back. Ith Mummy comin' back too?"
Ralph's scalp tightened; grisly fingers clutched his throat. His hand tightened on the rail till his knuckles showed white. But he contrived to keep his reply in the hushed soporific tone a parent uses to a prematurely awakened babe. "You've been dreaming, big fella. Uncle Anton's too far away to come back."
"But I did tho thee him," Billy insisted. "He talked to me and he kithed me, here." Petal-like fingers came up to the spot, under his ear, that by compromising sanitary precautions and tender affection had been designated his "kissing place." Ralph was shaken anew by a swift vision of blue and bloated lips pressed to the satin skin, of sharp teeth mumbling the life-pulse there. Teeth of the living-drowned! "And then the Injun came an' he went away."
Pent breath whistled from between Ralph's icy lips, gusty with relief. The child had been dreaming, of course; that last statement proved it! "All right, Bunchums," he murmured. "All right. Go to sleep and we'll talk about it in the morning. Go to sleep or there won't be any pancakes and maple syrup for breakfast."
The threat had its customary effect. "I did tho thee Unc' Anton," Billy muttered as his eyes closed again. "I did tho..." His tiny treble trailed off into a long sigh. His father reached down to pull the rumpled cotton blanket more snugly about the child.
And a green leaf slid out of a fold and fluttered to the floor! Only a leaf...but it was still wet with the rain against which the nursery window had been shut for hours...
Terror, quivering dread, black premonition of an unknown, impossible menace, were once more tangible, living presences in the dim room...
Ralph sat bolt upright on a backless stool in the center of the nursery floor. He had done what he could for the old woman. She lay on her cot now, still unconscious, whether asleep or in coma he was not physician enough to know. Billy was quietly asleep in the dim luminance of the night light. But there would be no sleep for him—he must keep awake, taut, on guard against the unnamable evil that prowled the storm-torn night.
He must keep awake—his lacerated fingers tightened around the croquet mallet that was his only weapon—though every exhausted cell in his throbbing body pleaded for sleep, for rest. For rest...Tired lids drooped over aching eyes. He jerked them open, straightening. Rest...The storm must be waning; now its noise was dull, muffled...Tomorrow...
The very blackness that engulfed him was palpitant with evil. Things that he could not see crawled through it, loathsome things from the watery depths where for centuries they had slithered through the slimed sockets of human skulls. Their clammy touch was horrible on his skin. He tried to brush them off, but he was rigid in the unholy paralysis of the nightmare. The Stygian murk swirled into an eye, a world-encompassing eye of evil, the cyclopean eye of Lake Wanda as he had seen it once from the cloud-piercing peak of the mountain. Nausea retched his stomach, vertigo was a giddy whirl in his swooning brain. The eye was drawing him down to it; down, down...The boiling surface was just beneath him, a gigantic arm stabbed out of it, clutching for him...Titanic fingers, flesh-stripped and bony, were closing...And Ralph jerked awake.
He was awake, but the eye was still there, mirroring death in a face that was the gruesome white of decay. Myrtle's face was thrust against his own, her clammy touch was on his neck and her blue lips snarled back from cruel teeth!
The nightmare paralysis held for an instant—then Ralph had struck at her, had leaped backward with the crash of the stool, was lunging to her again to grab her and wring her neck and make an end of terror.
His fingers clutched her arm. She jerked it from his hold. She whirled, was out of the doorway. Dean thudded against the slammed door. As he fumbled for the knob that momentarily evaded his frenzied hand he heard the swift pad of feet moving away to the right. He got the door open, leaped out. White flicked into a room to the right, their room. He threw himself down the passage, flung that door open.
The storm-glow was sufficient to show him every cranny of the familiar room. There was the double bed that had been so cold for a week, there the rough-pine wardrobe, its curtain shoved open and only clothing within. There was the smaller fireplace Myrtle had so loved and the up-ended box that she had frilled with a cretonne skirt for a dresser. Everything was open, wide open to his staring gaze. But nothing moved within. The white form, Myrtle's form, that instantaneously but surely he had seen, flick through the door of that chamber was not within it! The room was empty.
Then indeed, the harassed man went berserk. He plunged, frothing, into the bedroom. In minutes he had torn it apart. Clothing was strewn about the floor, a welter of flying feathers from the ripped mattress filled the air. He had raked, with clawing hands, the very ashes all over the cold hearth. The furious, illogical search had revealed no trace of that which he sought. He straightened, growling as Scout might have growled, and dived out again into the hall.
A strange, mad figure, wild-eyed and disheveled, he catapulted from room to room of the sprawling structure, tumbled down the stairs and spread desolation below. The thing in woman's form that he had welcomed as his loved one returned from the dead, had vanished, vanished utterly from the house! He raised shaking arms above his head; blasphemy formed on his white and twitching lips—but was not uttered.
The ceiling above him had thudded to the impact of a footfall! The dull sound came again. Faint as it was, it crashed within Dean's reeling brain like the Hammer of Thor on the Anvil of Doom. For an instant, as terror fought with reason for possession of that beleaguered mind, he froze. Then he had twisted again to the stairs, was racing up, heart in mouth, was hurtling through the nursery door.
His foot skidded just within the threshold, skidded on slipperiness, and he sprawled, headlong. The crash stunned him for an instant, then he was aware that he lay in a puddle of warm and viscous liquid, that it was blood, a pool of blood drenching the floor!
He rolled over, heaved erect. Charity's bed swam across his dizzy vision. It was a shambles dripping with gore! One thin hand gripped the encarmined sheet. Ralph's bulging eyes followed the scrawny arm, came to the shoulder, the throat—where the throat should be!
A gaping hole was there, beneath the sharp chin, a gaping hole that had been ripped through aged flesh, through muscle and cartilage and sinew, so that its edges, where the spurting blood left them visible, were jagged and horribly torn. Teeth had done this: long, sharp, cruel teeth. Nothing else could have made just such a wound...
The man's teeth chattered, he mouthed words that made no sound. His hand groped for the door-jamb, gripped it so that he would not fall. An ague shook him as a terrier shakes a rat; his heart pounded as though it would burst its bony cage. Billy's crib was behind him, just behind him. He could see it by turning his head inches, inches only. But he dared not look. He dared not...
He must! He willed his head to move; the muscles of his neck corded, his chin moved slowly through the necessary arc. The foot of the tiny bed came into view, the tousled blanket, the pillow! The pillow where only the depression of a small head was, the pillow from which that head was gone!
Dean spun around and a great cry burst the confines of his constricted throat. The crib was empty! Billy was gone!
THE fury of the storm had redoubled. The bowl of Wanda's valley was filled with the coruscating blaze of its unintermitted lightning, spilled over with the fulmination of its thunders. It battered at the house on Oldun Island as if determined once and for all to sweep all sign of human habitation to oblivion. It howled maledictions down the brick chimneys, thudded ponderous fists against its rock-like walls, set the entire fabric quivering with the fury of its onslaught. Beams creaked and groaned as the gigantic battering ram belabored the centuries-old structure. At any moment, it appeared, the ancient jointures would be driven apart and the mansion collapse in ruin.
In the nursery-room on the second floor, the din of the gale, the sense of imminent destruction was overpowering. But Ralph Dean neither heard the turmoil nor felt the awesome majesty of the raging storm. Minutes had passed, long minutes, and he was still in the very pose that his body had assumed at the moment he had seen that untenanted crib. He stared at it with unseeing eyes, statuesque—petrified by catalepsy of despair, motionless as the bedaubed corpse on its gory cot behind him.
The tiny night light guttered in its glass of oil and the blood dripped from the man's soaked garments and his clawed hands, dripped back to the welling pool whence it had come. The slow, regular spat was like the monotonous tick of some gruesome clock, marking the black, eternal seconds in a sealed sepulcher...
At last the man stirred. Somewhere in the depths of his consciousness a tiny spark of courage had still burned, and now it flared a little more brightly so that its flame was reflected in the glaze of his hopeless eyes. Those eyes drifted from the little, empty bed, drifted to the floor of the room, to a gay-colored grass rug that lay in the middle of the floor. One of its figures was overlaid by a red blur—Dean bent forward, scrutinizing it more closely.
The little hairs at the back of his neck rose, and his throat tightened to a growl. The stain at which he stared was a footmark, the print of a naked foot! He could distinguish the heel, the curiously splayed toes. It was a big foot, too big to be a woman's, too big to be Myrtle's. Not Myrtle's! Strange how the discovery lightened, infinitesimally, the blackness of the pall that enfolded him...
There was another blood-smeared footprint on the bare floor beyond the rug—a third, fainter, at the window. Dean thudded across to it. The sill was wetter than before; the window must have been opened again; and there was a pink tinge to the film of water. He took hold of the sash, flung it up.
The gale howled triumphantly as it swept in and scurried about the nursery; but it might have been a gentle breeze for all the affect it had on Ralph. He thrust head and shoulders through the opening, his hot eyes searching. All of the storm that reached his consciousness was the flickering luminance of its electrical display, and that was because it gave him light by which to see.
Yes, the rough, jutting stone of the house wall offered ample hand and foothold to a climber, an ornamental ledge just beneath the window a firm resting place while prowling hands lifted the unbarred sash. This was certainly the way the killer, the kidnapper had come! Billy was in the hands of someone human—someone he could track down, could kill...
Something glinted on the ledge. Dean reached down, touched metal. He pulled the thing up...
And quivering terror of the supernatural swept over him again!
This that dangled from his icy fingers, this chain of threadlike silver links, its twin was about his own wrist. He and Anton had exchanged them as gifts on the day he had wedded Myrtle, and the two men had sworn never to part with them. They were symbols of their friendship, symbols that Ralph's victory, in the game of love and courtship the two had played for the girl, had not broken the chain of affection that had linked them for years.
Ralph remembered Sonia's passing some laughing jest about the chains just as the trio had shoved off for that fatal canoe trip; was certain, therefore, that Anton's had been on his wrist when he had drowned. And now...Dean had found that chain where only the killer could have lost it, only the one who had stolen Billy from his bed!
"These chains will bring us together again, no matter how far we may be separated," Walder had said, his black eyes glittering, as they had fastened them about each others' wrists. An American would have been shame-faced about the sentiment, but the Russian had been unabashed. And he had been right, the chains had brought them together again—though separated by death! But not as Anton had meant—not as he had meant!
Ralph threw back his head, suddenly, and laughed. The shrillness of that mad laugh merged with the storm's wailing, with the husky roar of the foaming lake that had taken his beloved ones and sent him back in their stead ghouls that prowled the storm and were athirst for blood. Lake Wanda might have been evil for centuries, but never in the long aeons it had glared malevolently at the sky had it contrived so perfect a consummation of its evil!
Ralph laughed till his throat ached and foam flecked his lips. Somehow his laugh was in exact accord with the blood-spattered room, with the mangled corpse, with the insane maelstrom of the gale that laughed too, or chuckled in mindless glee at the destruction that it had wrought.
Then, quite suddenly, Dean's wild cachinnation choked to silence. The doorknob had rattled, behind him. He half-turned to it, half-turned and crouched, saliva dribbling from his mouth, reddened hands opening and closing, as if their gory fingers ached to be at someone's throat. He crouched, and his eyes, lurid with grief and terror and madness, were fixed on the slowly opening door.
The shadow of the portal hid from Ralph that which was moving it. But there was a paleness there, a tall glimmer, the ominous swaying of white fabric—of, it seemed to him, a death shroud. His lips retracted till his teeth were bared in a hideous snarl. He crouched lower, quivering with tenseness.
The black oblong widened, bit by stealthy bit. His sharpened ears heard the faint hiss of furtive breathing; his nostrils flared to a vague odor—the musty, earthy aroma of the grave, that threaded through the thick smell of drying blood. His own blood was an icy stream in his veins, and his scalp a tight cap that squeezed his brains.
Slow as the descent of a glacier, inevitable as Doom, the aperture widened. Now Dean could make out the swaying of the sepulchral drapery that clothed the entering figure, the pallid oval of its face. The door came wholly open, light sifted past its edge, and he was staring at Myrtle!
He saw that the white garment she had donned hung limply, drenched, that her lips were no longer blue, that they were a smear of scarlet across the death-pallor of her countenance. Even as his muscles tautened horror shook him. Oh God! Oh Almighty God! Was she coming from an unholy feast at which she and Anton, had sucked the life-fluid from the body of her own son?
His coiled limbs exploded; he leaped. And a sudden blanket of black swept over him from behind—thick, fuzzy cloth that blinded him, that tangled his legs and flailing arms, that drew tight about him so that he could no longer move, could scarcely breathe. He felt rope wind around the bundle he had become, felt its coils constrict till they cut into him, excruciatingly, even through the mass of the enfolding cloth. A muffled scream came to him. He thudded to the floor, heard muffled pounding as of running feet, bare feet.
He heaved, threw himself about in a desperate effort to free himself, knowing only too well that his writhings were in vain. Hands fumbled at him again; he was lifted, was jounced about on what might have been a shoulder. Water soaked through his blanket wrapping. He was dropped through an unknown distance, banged into softness that squelched and might have been mud. Something thudded again, and once more he was lifted, once more he was being jounced on a powerful shoulder, was being carried—to hell itself for all he knew...
God, oh God! Were they not yet satisfied? Would they not rest content till no living thing was left on Oldun Island? Myrtle and Sonia and Anton had died, days ago. Now Charity was dead, and Billy. He was the last of the group that had come here so joyously for a happy vacation in the isolation their close friendship craved. And he was a prisoner, a helpless, blinded prisoner in the power of Wanda's evil spawn.
Ralph Dean prayed then, prayed for the first time in long years, and he prayed that his death might be swift, that he should not live to feel the teeth of his friend pierce his skin, that he should not know when the lips he had so often kissed sucked the blood from his frozen veins. That which animated them was not, could not be, Anton's soul or Myrtle's, but the bodies were theirs, and he had loved the bodies too.
After a time the bumping, rough progress ceased, and he was thrown down, brutally, on some hard, rough surface. The clamor of the storm, was dulled, fainter, almost as if he were within some enclosed place. But that could not be, for there was no other building on the island. The storm must have lessened then...
Strange. That sounded like the pad of bare feet going away. They were leaving him—his captors—wherever it was they had taken him. Perhaps they were filled, would come back later to drink from his veins. But Charity's blood had spilled, mostly, on the floor and Billy's body was so little, so tiny. They couldn't have drunk enough.
But wait—he had read somewhere, he remembered, that vampires must return to their graves at dawn, that only the night was free for them to prowl. That must be it. The sun was rising, Myrtle and Anton were going back to the lake, were even now sinking beneath its surface. But they would return with the night. He would be here for them, here for their grisly feast.
Would he? He had twelve hours—twelve hours to live. Seven hundred and twenty minutes. Forty-three thousand, two hundred seconds. Thinking of the numbers, calculating them, was giving him a hold on reason, was somehow quieting the swirl of utter madness in his brain. He had forty-three thousand, two hundred seconds, then, in which to defeat them. It was a long time and they couldn't stop him because they would be at the bottom of the lake.
He'd better start now. Some of those precious seconds had gone already, maybe there were only forty-three thousand one hundred and forty-nine left. Forty-eight, it had taken a full second just to think that number. But it was something real, and nothing else was. Nothing that had happened since he had found Myrtle lying outside the door. He was dreaming it all. He had fallen asleep in his chair before the fire and was dreaming all this. Scout was asleep too, on his favorite rug, and Charity was upstairs, asleep. Billy, too. Billy was in his crib. Billy...
Ralph Dean sobbed, felt tears wet his face. He was weak, his vitality drained to the last drop. This was the first pause in the terrific surge of events, the first time he had had a moment to think. Desperate as his situation was, fear for himself was obliterated by the sense of dreadful loss that oppressed him. His grief for Anton, for Myrtle had been redoubled, increased a thousand-fold, by knowledge of what they had become. And his son...insanity would have returned, never to depart, if he had not in that moment closed his mind to speculation as to the child's fate. He must get free first. Get free. And then...
He was enveloped in the clumsy folds of a blanket, roped tightly so that he could move neither arms nor legs. But he could move his whole body, and the surface on which he lay was rough. He could feel a sharp point digging into his aching back. His lashings wound about him spirally. He gritted his teeth and started to writhe, to chafe those ropes against the rough ground. Sooner or later, if he were not interrupted, the fibers must fray, must be worn through and part.
It seemed hours that he had been rubbing back and forth, back and forth, till his muscles shrieked for relief and his head swam with the terrible monotony of the movement. At first he had paused every few moments to strain, to test the bonds, but at length the scraping had become mechanical. For a long time he had not stopped, had not thought of stopping. Had not thought at all, except to concentrate on keeping up that writhing motion. Back and forth, back and forth, scraping, scraping, scraping...
And suddenly, he could move no longer. Overtaxed nature had revolted at last. His muscles stiffened, refused to obey the frantic messages of his brain. Ralph lay gasping, his sinews knotted, terrific cramps racking his exhausted body, his heart pounding a dirge of despair. Pain was a fiery net that meshed his frame, pain was a burning vortex that seared the void within his skull. He was done, he could do no more. He must lie here, bagged like a hen doomed to the slaughter-house, waiting for death, for worse than death.
What was that snuffling sound, that rasp as of claws on stone? They came nearer—faint but ominous. Dean forgot that he was bound, tried to jerk erect—did jerk up to a sitting posture. That sudden jerk had parted the ropes—they had frayed through!
The realization brought back momentary strength. He surged to his feet, fought to cast the clamping folds from him. The blanket clung to him, he was tangled in it, could not get free—and something yowled, close by. The muffled sound was pregnant with threat, with feral menace!
Ralph struck out frenziedly. The sodden wool ripped, gave way. He threw it from him, whirled to the enraged scream of some animal close by in the blackness. Though cold air slapped his cheeks, pulled into his lungs, tar-barrel murk blinded him. But there, there in front of him, not five yards away, twin orbs of green light, level and low, glowed in the sightless dark.
Even as he caught sight of them they moved. That feline scream came again. They leaped at him. A shaggy body struck him, sharp claws ripped down his side, fangs sank into his arm, thrown up instinctively, and he thudded to the rocky ground under the tremendous impact.
The animal pounded down atop him. Its claws flailed, seared across his chest. Fetid breath stank in his nostrils, and the beast's avid snarls were loud in his ears. Dean clutched fur in his desperate hands, felt lithe muscles ripple beneath the pelt, felt a hot, slavering muzzle nose along his bared chest and knew that long fangs would be at his throat in seconds, would sink in, would tear...
His right hand slipped, touched something that felt like a wooden stick, grasped it...The animal winced, yowled. The stick was imbedded in its pelt; where it entered the fur was matted, stiff.
Dean's fist closed about the stick, thrust with it—deep. The stick went in...
The beast's shriek was a scream of mortal pain. It was limp, suddenly, a flaccid weight over him, pinning him down. A warm liquid gushed over Dean's right hand, a viscous warm liquid that he knew was blood. But the beast that had attacked him did not move.
RALPH lay under the animal's warm dead bulk for a moment, himself incapable of movement. Then a modicum of strength came back to him. He heaved, slid out from under the corpse of the beast. As his hand came away from the stick by which he had saved himself, his fingers brushed something that felt like feathers. Feathers at the end of a stick! They struck a chord of memory in him, something seen long ago, overlaid and forgotten by soul-shattering events that intervened. He recalled the fire's red finger touching a gray blur of feathers at the end of a shaft quivering in a window-sill. An Indian arrow. And this, this must be its twin!
Incredible! But incredible or not, the arrow had saved his life. Imbedded in the animal's flesh, painful but not deep enough to do any real damage, accident or fate had led his hand to it and he had thrust it in to reach a vital spot. Dean felt along the beast's flank, trying to find that arrow again. The thing felt like a cat, a gigantic cat...Then Sonia had been right when she had sworn that she had seen a wildcat in the woods!...He found the arrow, tugged at it. It would make a weapon, some kind of weapon, for what lay ahead.
But who had winged that weapon into the cat's flank? Holding the lone arrow, Ralph rocked to the impact of the ugly question. Long years had gone by since the last Iroquois had folded his tepee and departed from the region—leaving the dead ashes of his fire and the bones of his dead. The bones of the dead! Lake Wanda had taken her toll of the redskins that had roamed her shores—were they, too, uneasy in her evil bosom? Did they, too, return to Oldun Island under cover of night's somber pall and wander, the living-drowned, seeking their unholy drink? Were Myrtle and Anton only two of a gruesome band of dead-alive?
Ralph's bleeding lips twisted in a wry, humorless smile. Twelve hours before he would have thought himself insane had such a thought come to him. Now it was his only refuge from conviction that he was mad. How otherwise to explain the abduction and the killing of Charity, the kidnapping of Billy, his own presence here? The others had sated the thirst of the unholy band, but they would return to drink from his living veins...
Not if he knew it!
His fingers clenched on the arrow, his arm swept out. The sharp flint reached the skin over his jugular, pricked it. Ralph held the stroke an instant, savoring the cosmic joke he was playing on his abductors. They would return to find him a corpse, to find the red fluid they had come to imbibe spilled, clotted and useless, on the rocky floor against which he had frayed their ropes. His biceps tensed for the slash...
"Daddy," a tiny voice sobbed. "I want my daddy."
It was faint, faraway, somehow hollow, but it was Billy's voice, unmistakably Billy's voice! Just so had he often sounded when, repentant after punishment for some small misdeed or bemused by some childish nightmare, he had cried for Ralph from out of the night silences. "I'm thcared. Daddy, why don't you come?"
A great wave of exultation surged up within Ralph. He was alive, Billy was still alive! He was near, somewhere in this fetid darkness, and alive! The man peered into the sightless obscurity, trying to see some sign of the child's whereabouts, trying to localize the source of the vague crying, while his pulses beat a tattoo of jubilation in his wrists and temples. They hadn't killed him, they hadn't drunk his blood! "Daddeee!"
"Coming, son." Ralph held his tone low, hoping it would reach the child, hoping those others would not hear it. "Coming." It was hard, terribly hard to be sure of where that tiny wailing cry came from, but it seemed to be from his right. He would have to chance it.
The footing was stone, rough stone but dry; it pitched upward slightly in the direction in which he moved. "Hold on Billy, daddy will be there in a little while." Something crunched under Ralph's feet and somehow the sound was not quite that of a dried twig. Billy's soft weeping was perceptibly nearer. Dean's shoulder brushed against something solid. It was a vertical facing of rock, harsh to his hand but strangely clean.
This must be a cave, somewhere on the island, screened to the casual glance by the omnipresent thick underbrush of the woods; a cave or underground passage through Oldun's rocky foundation. The wildcat had used it as a lair, had returned to it to lick its wound and been enraged at finding its den preempted.
Ralph's toe stubbed against something. He started to fall, reached a hand down to break his fall. It struck something round, something that rolled with an eerie, rattling sound. He was on his knees, scrabbling for the thing that had rolled away. Here it was. He pulled it to him, trying to determine what it was.
It was dry, rusty...His fingers found an orifice, another...There was no doubt about it; this thing he had found was a dried and fleshless skull—a human skull!
The grisly token of someone long dead shook in Ralph's hand. He tried to laugh off the chill prickling along his spine. No need to be afraid of this head—these teeth would never nip skin again.
Billy's sobbing was hushed for the moment, but another sound had replaced it, the distant lapping of water against a stony shore, the voice of the lake! This was a passage then, and it led to the lake. Was it through this tunnel that living-drowned returned to the world they could not leave? Was that why he and Billy had been carried here?
And then, suddenly, a freezing thought seared him with a fear that transcended all his previous terror, all the agony that had gone before. He whose veins a vampire empties becomes himself one of their kind! Was Billy, was his little, laughing son, one of Those? One of the dead that could not die?
Ralph's revolting soul cried out in an agony of denial, but the fearful thought would not down. There had been blood on Myrtle's lips—whose blood but that of her son? Ralph crouched, his icy lips pulled back from his chattering teeth. He must find Billy at once, and if the awful thing were so he must drive this arrow into the child's wee breast, through its tiny heart. So, and only so, could Billy be saved, only so could he be rescued from eternal anguish.
Dean surged to his feet, stumbled on again, driven now by an agony of haste that shuddered lest it find its goal. The man's sobs mingled with the renewed sobs of the little one, still ahead; the thud of his feet was a condemned man's march to the gallows. If he had driven a pointed stake through Myrtle's heart when first he had found her on his doorstep this other, this greater sacrifice would not now be demanded of him!
The passage curved, leveling out, and there was a red glow ahead, a bar of lurid light in the blackness. Fear that he had found the place where Billy was squeezed Ralph's throat, and he broke into a run.
The light-bar neared, but did not widen. Dean saw his hands and the arrow he clutched, red in the reflection of that uncanny light; saw rock, red-tinged; saw that the scarlet radiance came from a narrow chink in a rocky wall across the passage, a chink too narrow for him to pass!
He skidded to a halt, grabbing the rim of the crevice. He bent over, peered through the aperture. Light from within, red, flickering light, blinded his eyes accustomed for so long to darkness. He could see nothing save that lurid glare. But he heard the voice of his son—there, right there! "Pleathe Dod, thend me my daddy quick."
The prayer in that lisping baby voice cut him to the quick with poignant pity. "Billy!" he choked, "Daddy's here. Daddy's come!"
"Wheah?" As the piping glad little cry cut short the pathetic sobbing, Ralph's eyes accommodated themselves at last. He saw a cave, a stony bubble in the earth, saw a tiny blaze of twigs, saw a pallet of interlaced boughs, leaves uppermost on the cave's gray floor. And he saw Billy!
The child, his nightgown smeared and spattered with dried mud, stood in the center of that other cave. His face was streaked with dirt and tears, his tiny feet were caked with black loam, his hands were still folded in an attitude of prayer. "Wheah are you, big daddy?" His eyes were reddened by weeping, were bewildered and frightened; but they darted about eagerly. The light sparkled in their blue, eager depths, and his still quivering lips were warmly red as ever. Oh God! Oh thank God!
"I want you daddy, I'm thcared."
Ralph made his voice steady, calm and confident. "I'm right here, Billyboy, right here where there's a hole in the wall. Come over here to me; I can't get in to you." Perhaps the crack was wide enough for the child to squeeze through...
The tiny tad seemed bewildered, unable to locate him. "Billy," Dean said more sharply. "Come here! Over here!" How to direct a child to whom right and left were cabalistic terms, a dazed and frightened tot? "Can't you understand, I want you to come over here where I'm talking from." The now frantic father fumbled at the crack in the rock. If he could get his arm through, Billy would see it. "Please Billy. I'm here."
The stony surface rasped the already lacerated skin of his arm, tore the raw flesh. "Billy!" The child had turned, suddenly, turned to the sound of approaching footsteps from somewhere out of Ralph's sight. Billy's face lit up suddenly.
"Unc' Anton!" he cried. "Unc' Anton. Daddy'th here thomewhere. Daddy'th here!"
He was toddling across the floor, suddenly was running with little, clumsy steps, his chubby arms stretched out—running away from where Ralph, pale-faced and horror-struck, was tearing at the obdurate wall with frenzied hands. "He'p me fin' Daddy, Unc' Anton!"
He passed from sight and the footsteps of the other stopped as if the little fellow had reached him, as if he were picking him up! Consternation rocked Ralph, horror stabbed his heart and twisted its reeking knife. He was too late, too late! Anton—the Thing that had Anton's form—had come back for Billy, was taking him away...
"Come sonny," It said, "we'll go call mother. Mother is looking for you..."
"Oh God! Let me through! It's taking my son away! Can't you see that? It's taking my son to that other Thing so that They can suck his blood? Let me through!"
The maddened father hurled himself at the unyielding rock. He fought the granite, bit at it, gouged it. Almost as if it were a thing alive it battered him, slashed his flesh, stripped the skin from his knuckles. At last sheer failure of breath stopped his cries. He heard a tiny voice, far off, "But I want my Daddy," and silence.
Dean whirled, snarling. If God wouldn't help him he would help himself. He would run back to the other end of this tunnel, would head them off.
He plunged into blackness, whizzing through a darkness that was clammy now with horror, that snatched at him with noisome fingers and tried to stop his hurtling passage. But he was going too fast for them, too fast. He laughed triumphantly. Anton couldn't run as fast as this. The devil himself couldn't. He was going to catch Anton, he would snatch Billy from him and then he would tear Anton apart. There wouldn't be anything left of him to prowl the night and steal babies from their cribs, there wouldn't be enough left of him to tell what he had been. Pointed stakes through unresting hearts! Bah! He, Ralph Dean, knew something better than that. An unquiet soul could not use a body that had been ripped to fragments!
And then he'd find Myrtle and do the same to her. Their real souls would thank him, he knew that, would thank him because he had given them rest at last.
He was out of the tunnel, was crashing through the underbrush screen that he had surmised had masked it from discovery, was running blindly through a dripping wood that the storm had left. He was banging into tree-trunks, tripping over creepers, thudding headlong into noisome mud—picking himself up and running again in an unseeing, unfeeling, berserk rush death alone could stop.
Emptied clouds, huge-winged and black, drove across a sky graying with the first cold light of false dawn. Storm-riven trees strove to straighten themselves, groaning, and Lake Wanda muttered around her island, muttered of the destruction she had wrought and the pigmy human she had driven mad. Ralph Dean lunged through the last of the underbrush into the clearing about the old house, staggered, sprawled into a pool of storm water that had not yet seeped away.
Instinctively he pushed himself up out of the frigid puddle, pushed himself up to all fours and stayed like that. The icy douche had quenched the fever in his brain, thought functioned again, though haltingly.
Memory crawled back, horror, and despair. They had Billy, he had been chasing them through the woods, had lost Them. He must find Them, must kill Them and save Billy. But where were They? It was almost dawn. They had to flee from the light, had to be back in Their graves, in the bottomless chasm beneath Lake Wanda's surface, before day broke. Had They taken Billy with Them?
Still looking down at the muddy water, Dean shook his head violently, trying to clear it. The sense of hurry, of imperative demand for haste, swept up in him once more. He lifted to his feet.
The house was before him, silhouetted against the gray-green glimmer of Mount Toran's sky-reaching mass. The downstairs windows still glowed. Strange that the fire had not gone out, he had last thrown a log on it hours ago! Ralph's bleared eyes squinted as he tried to remember when.
Something was moving stealthily in the shadows where wall and ground met!
Now the radiant rectangle of a window was dented at its sill by a black arc. It grew to a semi-circle, to the black profile of a head, peering in. A fisted hand came up, something long and narrow jutted from it, something that came to a point. It looked like a knife; a knife whose edge was cruelly jagged.
Ralph chuckled to himself, soundlessly, and his muddied face twisted in a crafty smile. They hadn't all gone back to the lake yet—that was one of Them. It was one that didn't know Ralph was not in the house and It was looking for him.
There was a little plashing noise as Ralph got out of the puddle, but the prowler at the window was intent on something It saw inside and didn't hear him. After that Ralph made no sound; he stalked his prey as silently as any Indian. He grinned at the thought. The Thing at the window must have the body of an Indian.
Good! The body was very old then, almost worn out, and would be easy to tear apart. Ralph's fingers curled, tingled with anticipation. He could feel them already clutching the rotted flesh, could feel the ancient ligaments pull apart like oil-eaten rubber. The bones would snap brittlely like dead twigs. He was right on top of It, in seconds...
The other grunted, whirled! Startled, Ralph struck at a dark face, between deep-sunk eyes that were like black flames. His knuckles thudded against bone, a stab of pain shot up his arm. The knife glinted redly as it darted at him. Dean dodged; the edge seared his shoulder like hot iron. He managed to grip the wrist before It could strike again. Queer! The flesh he clutched was solid; sinews like whipcord strained within his palm as the other fought to release that knife arm. Perhaps bodies didn't decay while They were using them.
Ralph's other fist pounded at a taut belly, beat an unavailing tattoo on banded muscles resilient as pliant leather. A hand flashed up past his face, clawed for his eyes. Dean caught it just in time. The two swayed, straining, breast to breast, in a back-breaking deadlock. There had been no sound, as yet, except the one surprised grunt It had emitted, the involuntary hiss of their agonized breathing, and the slap of Ralph's fists on the unexpectedly stalwart torso.
Dean's neck corded, sweat poured from his forehead. Sweat and blood, for his wounds had opened. Blood dripped across his eyes so that he could not see. His body was bathed in blood and his muscles were pulling from their sockets. He gritted his teeth and held on.
The other grunted again; the low sound It made was shuddersome in its utter malignity. Sweat oiled the palm with which Ralph clamped Its knife-hand, and the bony wrist was slipping, was twisting and sliding out. Panic clenched Dean's fingers and the slow menacing movement stopped. But he knew he could not hold out much longer. Black mists swirled within his skull, mists of exhaustion, of supernatural fear. He could no longer see his antagonist's malevolent eyes, could see nothing...
But he felt a clammy-cold forehead press against his cheek, felt slobbering lips search his neck—felt pointed teeth nip the skin of his neck! Oh God!
Supernal terror galvanized Ralph with new strength. His taut body snapped like an uncoiled, gigantic spring, lifted the Thing that sought his blood and soul clear of the ground and crashed It against the house-wall!
Then Dean whirled and ran. The black and dripping woods received his plunging, gore-spattered, fear-winged form. He thudded into a rough-barked tree trunk, bounced off, lunged on—unfeeling, unseeing, knowing only terror and the desperate need for escape.
Interlaced leaves of the forest roofed his path, shutting out the sky that was a kaleidoscope of gray and rushing black. From behind him an eerie cry keened through the blackness. Thunderous pursuit drowned the crash of his own passage.
Dean hazarded one harried backward glance, saw a lithe form slipping through the trees, saw an arm upraised and a jagged knife silhouetted against a momentary opening of the tree-screen. He leaped to impossible speed, twisting between the thick boles of the forest, fighting the myriad tendrils of the underbrush that slashed his body and his face with their wicked thorns.
Then a pallid shape glimmered ahead of him, just ahead! He could not stop; impenetrable brush kept him from swerving to avoid it. Light broke through a thinning of the arboreal canopy, brushed the white form's face. It was Myrtle!
A scream came from her bloated lips, the shriek of a damned soul, and a huge club lifted in her little hands. It arched down at Ralph's head!
He left his feet in a frantic dive that took him under the sweep of the cudgel. His flailing fist thudded into soft flesh and he crashed atop the woman-Thing's down-crashing form. He twisted instantaneously to scramble up and resume his flight.
A dark figure loomed above him! The light was a nimbus about its head and Dean saw a wan countenance, a pointed black beard and glittering eyes. "Anton!" he screamed. "Oh God! Anton!"
The underbrush crashed somewhere as the third of the living-drowned arrived. Walder made a swift movement. Blinding light exploded within Dean's skull and a single thought slid through Ralph's brain. "They've got me. They've got me at last!"
Anton's face danced in front of his eyes, blue lips pulled back from pointed teeth. Then merciful oblivion engulfed the broken man.
THEIR voices were uncannily hollow, reverberant. But of course, they were dead for only a week and the Things that had taken possession of their corpses had probably not yet learned to use them with ease. The one that was using Myrtle's voice seemed to be angry. "No!" It said. "I won't leave them. Not while the blood is still in their bodies."
She wasn't satisfied, Ralph thought dazedly. Queer. When Myrtle was alive she ate very little but her corpse seemed to require more than the others. Now it was Anton, whose appetite had always been gargantuan, who was arguing with her. "We've got to go, Myrtle. I can't wait any longer. You've got to come with me!"
Returning consciousness brought full realization, and tingling horror swept Dean's recumbent form. He was bound, helpless. He lay on something soft and his eyes were closed. He was weak, terribly weak from exhaustion, from loss of blood.
From the theft of his blood by that unholy pair who disputed now as to whether they should consummate their grisly banquet!
"I tell you I cannot wait any longer. I've waited too long already. I've gone through too much for you to leave you now. The sun is rising; it will be too late soon, you must come with me or..."
A wave of nausea took Dean, blotting out the end of the sentence. What would happen to Them, he wondered, if They did not get back to their graves before day broke?
"What have you gone through for me?" the woman flung out, bitterly
"What have I...! Hell itself! Look at this! The Indian did this. Look at it!"
They'd been fighting among themselves! There wasn't enough blood for all of Them in the living left on the island and They were fighting over the nepenthe in his veins, his and Billy's.
Billy! Where was Billy, what had become of him? Was the youngster still alive?
"You didn't get that for me. He attacked you and you fought over Ralph's body. If I hadn't come to and tripped him just as his knife started to tear you, you would be lying out there and not he. I shouldn't have done that. I should have deserted you and saved myself as you deserted Sonia..."
"For you. I couldn't get you both loose from the canoe..."
"So you chose me!" The hysterical voice broke into a shrill, demoniac laugh. "Out of the goodness of your heart you preserved my body and killed my soul! You ghoul! You vampire! You..."
Ralph forced his eyes open. The chamber seemed oddly familiar. He turned his head and saw that he was in his own bedroom, on his own bed! The debris of his chaotic search still strewed the room, but it was empty; beside himself nothing else moved here. Yet he still heard the boom of those disputing voices.
"That is not true, Myrtle! It was the Indian! He took you away, he made you drink that devil's potion of his and..."
The words came from right beside him, yet he could see no one! Were They phantasms after all, had the coming day made Their stolen bodies invisible, left only their voices to betray their presence? Could they hold him if that were so?
Ralph sat up. He was not bound! These strips of white cloth that wound his legs, his arms, his neck and his head till he must look like a mummy were blood-stained bandages! They had wanted to preserve his life-fluid for their sucking lips and had stanched its flow, but they had not thought to bind him! Ralph stifled a grim laugh, swung his legs to the floor, tensed to meet an attack from his phantom captors. And nothing happened.
Anton's voice was still sepulchral, but its accents had taken on the foreign flavor they assumed only under the stress of the strongest excitement. "By the ikon of St. Pavel, Myrtle, you push, me too far." Ralph's skin crawled as the bodiless speech seemed to come from beneath his very feet "I know how to make you come. You'll follow if I take Beelee weeth me..."
"Not again, Anton. Not again." Her laugh was wire-thin, mad, but triumphant. "I've put him where you can't find him. You won't do that again!"
The thick rug that had always lain here was a shredded heap in a corner and the floor was strangely warm to Ralph's soles. "You she-devil, you haven't..."
Their talk went on, the talk of those ghastly presences, and did not halt at Ralph's movements. They could see him, then, no more than he could see them. Yet he felt eyes watching him, hostile eyes, and his scalp tightened. His own eyes searched the room for a weapon, saw a poker peeping out from under the bed, where he had thrown it. He started to bend to it, slowly.
"No! Billy is alive and he is in the house, but he is where you cannot lay your filthy hands on him. He..."
Ralph stiffened. Billy was alive and he was in the house! Oh God! Oh good God! If he could find him, get him out of here—he'd get to the mainland somehow, if he had to fight a host of vampires and swim the mile-wide, frigid strait.
Where was Billy, where could he have been hidden? Dean's aching eyes searched fearfully. That venomous gaze was still on him; some sixth sense warned him its owner was waiting for his chance to pounce. Who was it, who could it be?
A vague scratching sounded, too faint for Ralph to tell its source. It came again...
Ralph dipped quickly, snatched, still without looking, at where he thought the poker was. His fingers touched metal, flat metal; it was not the round shaft of the implement he sought.
"Then I'll carry you, by God, I'll carry you away with me," Anton shouted.
A scream ripped the air, a scream of sheer terror, and sounds of a fierce scuffle were all about Dean. A blow thudded and he dodged it involuntarily, though it was incorporeal as the voices themselves.
The movement brought his eyes in line with the window. A face peered in at him, distorted, mad eyes gleaming from a gory mask—and a bloody palm was pressed flat against the pane!
Ralph looked down, grabbed up the poker frantically, hurled it at that fearsome visage. Glass crashed, and the face was gone. Dean started toward the aperture; but something that he had seen while he stabbed for the poker stopped him, pulled his glance back to the spot where he had been standing.
A flat plate, pierced, was sunk into the floor there, where it had been covered by the rug, a convoluted grating of wrought iron, ancient as the house itself. Its meaning flashed on him. The floor was pierced to let warm air rise from the room below—those voices were coming from that room—the big living-room! Myrtle and Anton were not up here, were not invisible. They were down below, and the sounds of struggle were coming from there.
"Help, Ralph! Help!"
That was Myrtle screaming. Myrtle! Dean twisted to the door, started for it. Stopped. It wasn't Myrtle, it was something else in Myrtle's body. The other Thing that looked like Anton was fighting with It and It was calling him because It thought to use him to defeat Anton. Then It would turn on him...
"Oh God! Ralph!"
The man's hands fisted and he bit his lips. A new thought came through the maelstrom of his mind. Whatever she was, she knew where Billy was hidden! If Anton won, took her away, or destroyed her, the child would be lost forever. He started for the door again, got his hand on its knob...
And he froze as a tiny voice cried, "Muwer. Don't hurt my muwer!"
That was Billy's voice. Billy's! But it hadn't come from down below. It had been muffled, not clear and distinct as were the sounds from the living-room striking up through the old register. Ralph jerked open the door, yelled "Billy" into the hall. "Billy! Where are you?"
"Daddy! Daddy! Someone's hurtin'muwer." The response came from behind him. Dean whirled. The room was empty, stark, staring empty! And yet..."Daddee!" Ralph pulled a shaking hand across his eyes. Dulled as it was, that frightened appeal of his son's had come from within the room itself!
"Billy! Billy!" Oh God! "Billy, where are you? Tell daddy where you are."
Smashing furniture below drowned whatever answer there might have been, furniture smashing, the growls of an infuriated man, and Myrtle's scream, "Ralph! Save me!" Dean shook his bewildered head as if to shake the sounds from his ears. He licked dry lips with parched tongue and called again:
"Billy! Son! Daddy hears you but can't find you!" Then, with a memory of childish games: "I give up. Come out, come out, wherever you are."
A ripple of gleeful laughter. It seemed to come from the very wall itself, from the fireplace. "I'm here Daddy, but I can't come out. I don't know how."
What was that depression in the ashes on the coal hearth? Dean's head thrust out, peering. Surely—it was the mark of a bare foot, a small foot that could be only Myrtle's! Suddenly Ralph recalled the flicking of a white form into this very room, and its vanishment. A long stride brought him to the brick-lined and blackened mantle. "Son," he called, excitement quivering in his voice. "Son. Call again."
"Daddy! You're warm. You're hot."
That was right here, right behind the wall itself! A great light burst on Ralph. "Billy," he said, quietly, "what did mother do when she put you in there? How did she open the wall?"
He held his breath, his body shaking to the pounding of his heart. Had the child noticed, would he remember?
"She pushed a brick, Daddy, thome-where high up."
Dean's eyes shot to the horizontal courses of brickwork that made the mantle. "Which one, son? Can you tell? Which one?"
"The one I hit wiv a 'pitball f'om my beanshooter. When muvver cleaned it there was a doodah in the wall opened. But she made me promithe not to tell. She thaid we'd play a joke on you and Unc' Anton and Aunt Sonia thometime."
"Good Lord!" So that was how...This must be the one, where the soot was smudged, showed a lighter spot.
Ralph's hand darted to it, he pressed in—and nothing happened. Sidewise then. Wood grated against wood, and a crack showed in the wall alongside the fireplace. It widened...
"It'th opening, Daddy. I can thee you..."
Dean got his fingers into the crack, threw his weight against the panel. It creaked wide. A small bundle leaped out from a dark hole in the thick wall, leaped into his father's arms. "Daddy! I wath thcared, it wath tho dark in there."
His father was covering the sooty little face with kisses. "It's all right now, little man. It's all right. There's nothing to be scared of any more. Daddy will—"
"Stop it, Anton. Let me go! Oh God! Let me go!"
Myrtle's voice had stabbed from below, lanced Ralph's heart. If only... Billy squirmed from his arms. "I fo'got. Thomeone'th hurtin' muwer. Come on Daddy, we muth he'p her." The tot was almost at the door in his stumbling rush.
"Wait, Billy! Wait." Dean's mind was made up. "You stay here and daddy will go stop the man that's hurting mother."
He dived for the youngster, but the child was out in the hall and a wind gust slammed the door. Ralph grabbed for the knob. It jammed...
"Daddy," Billy squealed. "The Injun—"
His scream choked off. Ralph got the door open, plunged out. A horrific figure loomed before him, a tattered, gory figure, whose face was the bloody mask he had seen at the window. The child was caught up under one of the man's arms, his other was upraised, and a jagged-edged, cruel knife was poised over Billy's throat!
"Stay back or I kill," a hoarse voice growled, and mad eyes leered at Ralph. "Stay back, white man, and put hands up high."
DEAN reeled back against the door that he had automatically shut as he came through. His mouth worked, but fingers of fear were clamped about his throat and he could not make a sound.
Murky shadows brooded in the long corridor; but the nursery door, between Ralph and the invisible stair-head, was half-open and a vertical beam of morning light poured through it to invest the fearful group with its lurid luminance. The red glow added the last touch of macabre horror to the taut, quivering figure, painting its nude, cadaverous torso so that even the curving shadows of its protruding ribs were the hue of clotted blood; sharpening still more its ancient, incredibly wrinkled face that was a hatchet blade of aboriginal savagery and unutterable cruelty, skull-like as death itself; searching out the orbs deep-sunk in abysmal eye-sockets, to be reflected back as twin lanterns of insane blood-lust and unquenchable, age-ripened hate.
The uplifted arm was that of a skeleton in a tight coppery skin-sheath; the ruby-glowing, serrated blade gripped in its bony fingers seemed to thirst with a malevolence of its own for the blood of the tiny, blond-curled babe hanging limply over the apparition's other arm.
"What—what do you want?" Dean managed to squeeze out. "What do you want from me?"
The leathery lips twisted in a grimace. "From you nothing except go. Go from island belong my tribe, leave Mongo in peace with shades of his people till he join them in long sleep."
A little hope stirred within Dean, though he was past coherent thought. "Of course—we'll go. Right away. We'll go at once." His arms started to drop, to reach for Billy. "Here, give me the boy and we'll get right out."
The other's knife dipped warningly and Ralph's hand stretched up again.
"No!" Swarthy eyelids narrowed and the eyes behind them were reptilian. "Papoose stay. Mongo make papoose like him. Soon Mongo must go to lodge in lake, no one left drink blood white man who come island my people's dead. Papoose do that so Mongo can rest under lake-water."
The slow, guttural accents dripped from the fleshless leering lips—dripped horror and despair into Ralph's tortured soul.
"Oh God," he squealed. "You can't do that. You can't! Take me. Take me and let the little one go. I—my body is stronger, my teeth are bigger, sharper. I can drink more blood than he. Do anything you want with me but let him go!" He took a spasmodic step forward, stopped, his guts twisting as the monster's knife lowered swiftly till it pressed close against Billy's throat. "You're making a mistake in choosing him!"
"No." The hoarse syllable was a sentence of doom. "Make mistake before. Bowl of Wanda not strong enough, not last with white squaw. Sure not last with white man. White papoose weak, Bowl of Wanda last with him. No!"
Words that had no meaning slid over the frozen surface of Ralph's anguished mind. He understood only the "No," the immutable, damning "No!"
And suddenly he knew what he had to do. His burning gaze clung to the keen point of that knife; close, so close against the white skin of the lad's stretched throat; and his muscles tensed. Though the leap he contemplated was lightning-fast, that steel must plunge deep before he could reach Mongo; but death, any death were better than the immortal horror that otherwise confronted the child he loved. Yet he hesitated, for a fleeting instant, and some other part of his mind was suddenly aware that the turmoil below had subsided, that the house was deathly still...
"Go, White Man, or stay till I come to drink your blood." Mongo started to glide toward the open door of the nursery.
Now! Now or never! Goody-bye Billy! I'll follow you soon enough! Dean sent the death message to his legs, weak and trembling. They were sluggish in response...
Abruptly, then, a dark shape bulked in the dark behind Mongo, a white arm snaked over the bronzed shoulder and a hand closed around the knife blade, twisting it away from the babe's throat! Ralph saw red blood spurt from the white fingers. He sprang and his crashing fist obliterated the mad fury contorting the death-face.
The knife hilt darted up, caught Dean's chin, smashed his head back, sent him reeling against the wall behind. His skull crashed, light burst in a coruscation before him. But through the blaze he was aware of a whirlpool of action, of a pale figure snatching up Billy's falling little form, of a darker one materializing to plunge again at Mongo.
Tottering, trying to gather his scattered senses, Ralph saw the jagged knife sweep up, dart downward, saw the gleam of its blade quenched in blackness and heard the sickening sough of its stab. The dark figure surged forward, its fingers came into the red beam, clutching the copper throat of the savage. A head followed, a lip-lifted snarling face—Anton's face.
The two thudded down to the shaking floor. A scream ripped from the heaving, intertwined mass, a scream that burbled, was suddenly cut off—was answered by another scream—Billy's, "Daddy!"
Dean twisted. White draperies streamed out from a tall figure, dashing down the hall. Billy's face stared at him over its shoulder, mouth open. "Daddy!"
The long hair that swept across the child's face matched his tight curls in their blondness. Realization burst on Ralph. Myrtle had the child, Myrtle, its transformed mother with her appalling thirst for her own son's blood!
Ralph shoved himself away from the wall, took off in a frantic dive, plunged down the hall after the fleeing figure. It was almost to the stairs when his reaching hand touched Its shoulder, clutched It.
It shrieked—a thin, weird sound compounded of bafflement and terror—whirled around. Its eyes were twin orbs of rage and Its free hand lifted, clawed. Dean's fist swept up, checked as the fury was gone from Myrtle's face and a sudden light irradiated it.
"Ralph!" she cried. "It's you, Ralph. Oh thank God!"
This wasn't Myrtle, the vampire. This was his Myrtle! A tingling current of oneness born of their years together flashed between them, told Ralph that his wife had returned before even he saw the glow in her blue eyes.
His fist continued its sweep, but it went around her; his arm was about her, was drawing her close to him as his lips sought her now roseate ones hungrily. Billy's warm form was between them, but did not separate them, it was flesh of their flesh, blood of their blood. Tiny arms went around their necks, a gleeful voice prattled, "Daddy. Muwer'th back. I to'd you muwer'd be back thoon."
A groan quivered through Billy's prattle. Still holding Myrtle in the curve of his arm, Dean turned. The red had gone out of the sunlight that streamed through the nursery door; its white radiance fell across two still forms on the hall floor. "Oooh," Billy yelled, "Unc' Anton'th killed the Injun. Unc' Anton'th killed the Injun!"
Ralph lifted the boy down. "Run downstairs, Billy-boy," he said quietly, "and see if the rain has stopped." Then he was walking up the hall, but his hand clung to Myrtle's as if he would never again let her go.
A swift glance showed him that Mongo had indeed passed to the lodge of his vanished people; but Anton moved a bit, groaned again. A bubble of blood formed on his hirsute lips, burst.
"Ralph. Forgive me...old fellow. Always...loved her. Canoe wrecked... could save only one...saved her. Then...went crazy...I guess. But...no good. Do you f-for—"
Breath and life went out of him with a hiss. Ralph did not have to answer.
Dean lifted, turned to Myrtle. "What was it all about? What's happened? Tell me, dear."
"He had overcome me, was carrying me out of the door when we heard Billy scream. That seemed to bring him to his senses and we turned back. We heard you talking, crept up the stairs and down the hall. The two of you were so absorbed that you didn't notice us till we got near enough to jump the Indian."
Ralph pulled a shaking hand across his forehead. It seemed cruel to press his query, but he had to know. "No. That isn't what I meant. Myrtle—queer things have been happening. I thought you were—" His voice dropped to a whisper—"a vampire..."
"Ralph! What an idea! How—"
"I caught you nipping Billy's skin, under his ear. You—"
Myrtle's eyes widened with horror. "Oh, God! I thought I had dreamed that." Her fingers went to whitened lips. "That was what the Indian did to me, when he made me drink the mess he called the Bowl of Wanda. He said he was going to make me like himself..."
Ralph gasped. "Then he was a vampire, come back from the dead. We've got to get a sharpened stake, drive it through his heart, or he'll rise again. We've got to..."
"Wait, Ralph. Wait. You're wrong. He isn't really a vampire, though he did drink blood. A lot of it comes back to me, a lot of his talk when he stole me from the cave."
"The cave. What cave? What was all that Anton said about his saving you stead of Sonia?"
Myrtle put a hand on his arm, smiled bleakly. "I had better start at the beginning, then it will all straighten out. When the storm caught us, the canoe was smashed on a rock in Skull Cove. Anton was pitched free, but Sonia and I were both caught so that we couldn't get loose.
"I came to on a pallet of leaves, in a cave. Anton was pacing up and down like a wild man, and Sonia was nowhere to be seen. When he saw I was awake, Anton began raving. He told me that the storm had been a heaven-sent miracle, that he had always loved me and married Sonia only in a fit of pique when I chose you. He could save only one of us—I was the one he had chosen. God had given me to him and he would not reject the gift. I must go with him, away from you and Billy, go somewhere where we could begin a new life, and so on.
"I told him he was insane, demanded that he take me back to you. He swore that he would never do that, that he would keep me there in the cave until I consented to do as he wished. He tied me up, so that I could hardly move, and kept talking to me till I was almost as crazy as he. The only times he stopped talking were when he had to go out and find water and berries to keep us alive. That's all we lived on, water and berries..."
"Poor girl. No wonder you looked like a corpse when I found you."
Myrtle went on..."During one of his absences I awoke to find a terrible figure bending over me. It was that Indian. His knife was poised, he was about to strike, when a sudden idea seemed to cross his mind and stop him. He sheathed his knife, picked me up and took me to another cave close by."
"Very close; in fact, he could watch you from the other." The thing was clearing up for Ralph; he remembered the cave to which he had been taken a prisoner and from which he had watched Billy run to Anton.
"When he got me there he told me that Oldun Island was sacred to the dead of his tribe, that it was their Happy Hunting Ground. His family had been hereditary guardians of the island; he was the only one left and for years had driven all white men from its sacred precincts by terrorizing or killing them. He insisted that he was centuries old, that he had prolonged his life by drinking the blood of his victims. But now even that would not avail; his time was coming, and he must recruit a new guardian from the hated palefaces. I was the one he had chosen.
"I begged him to let me go, to get me to you. But he only laughed at me, toying with his knife and bending over a cauldron in which he was stewing some unholy broth.
"Finally he made me drink the concoction he had brewed. It burned as it went down...and I knew nothing more till I awoke suddenly to find myself bending over you in Billy's nursery, with my teeth against your neck. You jumped up, looking so wild that you frightened me terribly. I ran out, ran into our room and remembered the concealed niche I had found beside the fireplace. I got in there and fainted."
"I had left you by the fire, tied up. Your lashings were cut when I got back. Who did that? Anton or—"
"It must have been Mongo. I was his creature; naturally he would release me if he found me tied. I know it wasn't Anton; he told me what he had been doing in the meanwhile. The breaking storm had driven him back to the cave. He had found me—gone, and went out again into the woods to look for me. After a while, he decided that I must have found my way to the house. He peered in through a window and saw me lying by the fire. He didn't dare enter, but his crazed brain conceived the idea of kidnapping Billy and using him to lure me out again. He climbed up the outside of the house, got the child out and got him to the cave. Charity was lying on the cot, apparently sound asleep."
Ralph fitted in another piece of the jigsaw—"Mongo must have got in in the same way and killed her right after Anton had climbed down. Then he came back?"
"And threw a blanket over your head just as you were about to jump at me. I had recovered consciousness and was trying to find you. He tied you up and chased me, but the delay gave me time to get into my hiding-place again. I stayed there a long time, till I heard someone come in downstairs, and heard Billy talking. That brought me out.
"Anton had brought Billy back. He told me he had found the Indian trying to kill you and had rescued you. In spite of his desire for me he loved you, also. That was before he kidnapped Billy. He had left the child in the cave, had gone out to get word to me somehow in order to consummate his mad scheme, had heard the yowling of an enraged wildcat and decided that it was dangerous to leave the boy alone in the cave. So he had gone back and fetched him to the house. I persuaded him to let me—take the boy upstairs and put him to bed, and that was when I hid Billy in the fireplace niche."
Ralph felt hot tears burning his eyes; in his weakness he could not hold them back. "Poor Anton. He must have been torn for years between his infatuation for you and his love for me. No wonder he went mad at last."
"I'm sorry—for him, too. When he saved you again, in the woods, I kissed him, and he thought I had yielded to him. We carried you back here, bandaged you up, and went downstairs, where he started the old argument over again..."
"I know the rest, darling, I think...Come, we'll get downstairs and take care of Billy. And after that, we ought to be able to signal the mainland for help."
"Yes, Ralph. And we three still have one another. We must try to forget all the—the rest."
FROM the summit of Mount Toran, Lake Wanda still looks like an eye, a brooding eye of mysterious evil glaring ominously at the sky. But the old house on Oldun Island, that is the eye's green pupil, is untenanted, and will soon molder into the ground. Charity and Anton are buried on the mainland, but Mongo's withered body was consigned to the lake whose shores his people prowled before ever there were white men in the land. The people of the region insist that on moonless, stormy nights, they can hear his triumphant whoop howling down the wind, proclaiming to the ancient gods that even in death he still maintains his eternal guardianship of the sacred isle.
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