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ARTHUR LEO ZAGAT

GHOULS RIDE THE HIGHWAYS

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A NOVELETTE OF EERIE MENACE



First published in Horror Stories, November 1935

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2017
Version Date: 2017-12-07
Produced by Matthias Kaether and Roy Glashan

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Horror Stories, November 1935, with "Ghouls Ride the Highways"



Nona Blake awoke amidst a black-garbed host of swaying ghouls. Silently they sent that macabre van through the night to Dr. Abaddon's frightful Grove of Ashtaroth—where the elixir meant to cure her stricken husband was to be used for a ghastly, Godless, rite...!



TABLE OF CONTENTS



I. — SPECTRE AT THE WHEEL!

IT was after the stop at River Eddy that Nona Blake realized she was the only woman in the bus. Exhaustion had conquered her, and she had been asleep, curled up under her coat, in the rearmost seat. The bustle at the last settlement before the road started its long, steep climb up Buzzard Mountain had only dazedly roused her, and then the burring rumble of the huge conveyance, getting under way again, had merged with troubled dreams—with oblivion...

A sudden fierce terror blasted her awake, jerked her upright with a force that was not volition, tore her throat with a scream that she just barely choked off before it found utterance.

Her hand flew to her bosom, panic rocking her lest something had happened to the precious ampule that was the reason for her frenzied rush to the city. Thank God! It was still there between her breasts, where she had thrust it for safety. It was there, a thin-walled vial of fragile glass that meant life for Dan—Would she be in time? Was he still raving, bloated and mindless in the grip of a strange and terrible fever, in their honeymoon camp on Glimmer Lake? Or...?

Her fingers curling on the leather of the seat-top in front of her, Nona stared into the long, vague reach of the bus' interior, somehow eerie under the dim luminance of the single flickering bulb in its ceiling. What was wrong? What uncanny change had occurred that set her heart thumping against its caging ribs?

For a moment there was only the swish of the leaves against the window at her side, the rattle of twigs as the darksome forest crowded close to the narrow trail—only the pound of rushing wheels beneath and an overpowering dread, a feeling of impending doom. Then Nona was aware that all she could see of the other passengers in the line ahead was a row of rounded, black hat-crowns, one to each double seat. Uncannily, they were all alike—all exactly alike and all swaying identically with the motion of the bus. Right, left—right, left, they rocked in perfect unison, as though an invisible stiff rod ran through to fix them in an immutable rhythm. Even the driver, raised slightly above the general level, was in the grip of that queer penduluming...

The driver! As Nona's wide-eyed, burning gaze came to him her scalp tightened, was a taut cap squeezing her skull. For his jaunty uniform cap was replaced by a round-crowned hat like those others—a black hat whose broad, turned-down brim wholly hid his head. Good Lord! His shoulders were enveloped by a funereal, voluminous cloak whose wide sleeves, flapping from his crooked arms, were like great, Stygian wings. He was crouched over the wheel, immovable except for that outer sway, grotesquely perched there like a huge bat—and his hands on the wheel rim were clawed, grey talons..!


THE bus lurched, flung Nona against the window. For an instant she peered out into impenetrable darkness, into a tar-barrel murk that lay solid against the glass and rapped for admittance with the trees' tiny fingers. Then she twisted, pulling herself back...

The seats across the aisle were tenanted by a row of black-hatted, black-cloaked figures as exactly alike as images seen in the infinite vista of facing mirrors. Each was a hunched, inky blot in his cubicle, each rocked—right, left; right, left—in precise accord with the others, and each was without sign of life save for that swaying. But the girl could see the jet-shrouded form of the one directly opposite, and the one next in front of him. She could see their faces...

These too, reproduced one another in every minutest detail—duplicated one another, and duplicated horror. They were still, terribly still, without the slightest flicker of expression, and without color. A uniform grey invested the thin straight lips, the sunken cheeks, the pinched nostrils, the pointed chins lying livid against the inky folds of the swathing, shapeless cloaks. Bloodless, hueless, utterly immobile, the dull, light-swallowing gloss coating those weird countenances was the complexion of death, the patina of corruption that films the skin of corpses...

But these grim companions of her midnight journey were not corpses. Rigid as they were, so that their incredible bodies rocked as a whole—right, left; right, left—they were yet somehow palpitant with an unmistakable aura of evil sentience, of gruesome beingness that was life of a kind, though not life as we know it. Their very lack of movement was a somber menace flowing from them, filling the hurtling, dim bus, and billowing about Nona as an almost tangible miasma of throbbing, icy fear.

She pulled in a gasping, hot breath. That menace pierced her soul, quivered in every cell of her slight body, numbed every nerve and muscle, with a queasy, nightmare paralysis. She could not move, she could not cry out. She could only gaze with a tortured, affrighted stare at the sable specters.

Slowly she became aware that, from the Stygian shadow under their wide hat-brims, they in turn were watching her—from eyes deep-sunk in hollow sockets, from eyes that should be blind and yet appallingly were not...

Through the pound and rumble of the rushing vehicle another sound penetrated to Nona's ears, the roar of a mountain torrent leaping over the brink of a precipice, tumbling into space. Underneath, loose boards of bridge clattered, and the noise impacted on the girl with a new terror. For there was no bridge on the road to Glimmer Lake! It went over no stream!

The bus had missed its route and she was being carried around the other side of the mountain. By now it might be miles from where the path began that twisted through the forest to where Doctor Abaddon battled death for the soul of the man she loved. Battled death with hopeless, futile remedies and waited for the weapon she was bringing, the serum that alone, he had said, could save Dan.

Miles, minutes, even seconds, might decide that issue between death and life! The thought seared across her brain, pulled her to her feet, rasped her dry throat with a shrill cry. "Stop! You're going the wrong way," she cried, or started to...

A glare exploded in her face, blinding her, jamming her scream to silence. It flicked out; was replaced by the dimmed yellow lights of an approaching car. The bus' headlamp painted with white luminance a road that was a narrow, up-pitched shelf clinging to an almost vertical cliff looming to immeasurable, thicketed heights on the left and plunging to an awful abyss on the right. It brought out in vivid relief the descending auto, the open-mouthed, startled face of a woman; the contorted countenance of a man wrestling with his wheel. For an instant the broad frame of the windshield framed that vision. There was no room to pass! Instinct braced Nona for the shock of clamping brakes. The floor leaped forward under her, slammed her down into her seat. There was a crash ahead, followed by a thin scream. Glass smashed. The bus rocked, steadied to the road, rocketed on. Momentarily, from the chasm to the right, a shout echoed hollowly, and Nona thought she could distinguish the whistle of air parted by an awful mass plummeting down into black depths. Then there was no longer any sound but the roar of the catapulting wheels beneath and the creaking of the bus body that kept tune to the swaying of its macabre cargo and a moaning whimper somewhere near.

With the strange inconsequence of a racked mind clutching at tiny straws to keep itself from drowning in unutterable horror, Nona's attention seized that small whimper. She heard it again...

The collision, the hurling of the lighter car down into an inferno of lightless death, had been no accident. There had been time, ample time, for the operator of the bus to stop. The double murder had been deliberate.


THE black-cloaked figures had not stirred. The bat-like driver had not moved. But the speed of the bus had increased. It was roaring up, up into the blackness of the forest-covered mountain, and the thunder of its passage reverberated within the ill-lit interior, like the booming crash of wild drums hammering madness into her reeling brain.

To what doom was she being carried? What monstrous rendezvous was it to which the spectral chauffeur hurled his wheeled thunderbolt and its eerie load? What lay up there, on the tree-cloaked summit of Buzzard Mountain, what Walpurgis gathering waited above the clouds?

Nona plucked at the frayed leather where she was heaped and whimpered once more. This weird plight was only the climax of a curious fatality that had turned anticipated bliss into a long torture. Dan and she had sought solitude, the whispering benediction of the primeval forest for their honeymoon. At River Eddy their roadster had skidded, a wheel had crashed against a boulder, been smashed beyond repair. Undaunted, they had piled their baggage aboard the daily bus that followed Sparrow Hawk Road, had carried it on straining backs up a steep trail, and pitched their tent beside the lonely ripple of Glimmer Lake.

Gathering wood for their first fire, she had twisted her ankle. Dan had carried her into the tent, had made her comfortable on the army cot. Hot compresses applied through the night had reduced the swelling, but in the morning she still could not walk. She had insisted on Dan's leaving her. He had vanished into the forest, climbing toward the summit of the mountain.

Noon came and went, and he had not returned. After an eternity of half-mad anxiety she had struggled out of bed. Her weight had sent fiery agony darting through her injured leg. She had staggered, fallen, had struck her head against the tent pole, and the blow had stunned her.

When consciousness had returned the lake was bloody with the rays of sunset. A voice came to her, a hoarse, loud voice shouting unintelligibly from somewhere outside. Nona crawled to the entrance, saw Dan silhouetted against the sunset sky, waving wild arms above his head and mouthing obscenities. She called to him. At first he had paid no attention, then he came, stumbling, wavering, reeling.

He pitched headlong to the ground beside her, rolled, twisting in the throes of some fierce anguish. He stared at her with pain-crazed eyes from a face plastered with mud. His clothing was in tatters, ripped from his stalwart frame by thorns and brambles. Coiling around one bronzed arm there had been a rubescent, angry weal, the flesh puckering about it.

Somehow Nona quieted the raving man, somehow got him onto the cot. How her small strength had accomplished that she never knew. She stripped him, bathed the mud from him, while his tossing subsided and a deathly lethargy took its place. His skin was torrid to her touch, burning with fever.

By that time full night had come. Nona was at the end of her small resources, but she dared not leave Dan to summon aid. To hobble down the path to the road, down the road to the hamlet, would have taken her hours, perhaps all night. In the meantime he would die, he would be sure to die—alone in the wilds. She dropped to her knees and brow on the cot edge, she prayed...


A RUSTLE in the underbrush, a form in the parting of the tent, had come like an answer to her desperate, despairing plea. The man was tall, gaunt, the hair capping his age-seamed, sharp countenance white except for a single ebony lock sweeping straight back across the center of his scalp. Nona surged to her feet, a rush of anguished words tumbling from her lips.

But the newcomer raised a hand. "There is someone ill here," he intoned, "and I am a physician. I am Doctor Abaddon." He came in, his long stride soundless, and went straight to Dan. In her extremity Nona did not think to question him, nor to wonder how he had arrived in such mysterious timely response to her prayer for help. How did he know? How was it that, in these uninhabited wilds, he was carrying the long black satchel he opened to reveal gleaming instruments, a pocketed row of small bottles? At his direction, she brought icy water from the lake, wrung cloths in it, helped him administer a round white pellet—watched him through the long night as Dan's fever waned...

But in the morning the patient had babbled again, and his lips, his cheeks, were dough-white, swollen, his body bloated. Dr. Abaddon turned to her. "I cannot do any more with what I have here. It is only a question of time—unless..."

"Unless what?" Mona choked. "Is there anything I can get, anything at all that will save him?"

Abaddon shrugged. "If you can make the bus, get into the city, get right back—it will take all day—perhaps I can keep him alive till then. There is an injection...

"I'll go. Of course I'll go. What are you waiting for? Write down what you want, tell me where to get it..."

Pell-mell down the path she had run, flagging the bus by a breathless, fortunate second.

The long drive into the city had been a nightmare of frustrated haste. She had bribed a taxi driver to disregard lights and traffic laws, in a mad dash to the drug house, where she had flung prescription and money at a clerk.

The man had looked at her queerly. "Chalmoogra Oil," he had muttered. "There hasn't been any call for that in years. There's no more... I didn't know there were any more—"

"Hurry," she had panted, interrupting. "Please hurry."

Nona had snatched the vial he had brought out, had plunged out to her waiting cab. As she reached the coach terminal the motor of the one returning bus was roaring for its departure.

"I was waiting for you," the driver had growled, slamming the door shut behind her. "I'm five minutes late already. Another second and I would have had to leave you behind."

Then there had been the pounding, infinitely long ride back, the baffled urgency, weary nature asserting itself at last...

Then had come the awakening to this macabre horror...


NONA pounded small fists against the seat, slid out into the aisle, threw herself to her feet. Whatever these dread beings were, whatever their goal, they were carrying her away from Dan, and she would not allow it. She had to get back to him or he would die. She lurched forward, toward the haunched, oblivious driver.

The black-cloaked beings did not move. Yet as she passed them their glances seemed to follow her, to mount at her back in a cumulative, baleful gathering of malignity.

Nona got past the foremost one. "Stop! Let me off," she screamed, reaching for the chauffeur's shoulder. "Do you hear me, let me off!" Under the silky fabric of the black cloth, her hand felt fleshless revolting bone. She kept her grip, frantically shook the grisly thing she clutched. "Let me off."

He rocked as a whole to her fierce shaking, but kept his grip on the wheel and the bus rushed on, climbing, climbing into the darkness, circling farther and farther from Glimmer Lake, from Dan...

Nona whirled, reached for the ignition key in the instrument panel. Gray talons flicked from the wheel rim, clamped on her wrist. Their touch was dry, rasping, was not the touch of anything human. And it was an inhuman strength that swept her back that threw her headlong down the aisle, so that she sprawled on the heaving floor.

She lay there, a crumpled, pitiful heap, while horror and despair ran riot through her blood, and insanity gibbered at her. In that moment, as he flung her back, her elbow had knocked off the gargoylesque driver's hat. Though his face was the same grey dead-mask as those of the others, his hair was a snow-white, sleek cap across whose center a single ebony lock swept!


II. — THE GROVE OF ASHTAROTH

NONA BLAKE groveled on the filthy floor of the surging bus, the smell of trampled dust in her nostrils, her brain rocking with the awful implication of what she had seen. The personification of evil who tooled the conveyance on its wild ride, the night-enveloped apparition who had made the hurtling coach an instrument of murder, was Doctor Abaddon! He was the physician in whose care she had left Dan. He—Oh God! Dan was alone in the dark forest. Dan was dead!

Dead! Memory seared deep into her consciousness—of Abaddon's parting words: "I shall not leave him." His lips, gashing the strange pallor of his face with a curious, blanched whiteness, had not moved as he said it, but his piercing, green eyes had seized hers and had held them with a brooding gaze. "No matter what happens you will find us together when you return. I swear it, by the Great One I serve."

Something within her had quivered with eerie apprehension. But just as the man's long arm had swept up to point down the trail, the sound of the omnibus's horn had come from far off as if evoked by that motion, and Abaddon's explosive "Go! Hurry!" had whirled her around, sent her running down the path to intercept it... Now the oddly phrased promise echoed within Mona's reeling skull, and her arms shoved down on the floor of the heaving bus against which she lay, while a dreadful question gripped her.

"We shall be together...!" Was he here—was Dan here? Was Dan one of these grisly, masked figures gruesomely rigid, gruesomely swaying? The shuddering remnant of reason left to her said that those livid visages must be masks, hiding the real faces of the others as Abaddon's face was hidden. Did one of them conceal Dan's well-loved countenance, his broad-sculptured features and his tender smile? Were they dead, all dead, all animated by an awful life-in-death, to make a ghoulish, funereal cortege catapulting to some weird ritual in the lowering sky?

Nona came erect, rocking to the lurch of the careening van. If Dan were one of these she would find him. Despite all the terrors of hell, all the fiends of Satan, she would rip the masks from each one till she had found him, or knew he was not here.

She grabbed at a seat-back with one hand to steady herself, clawed with the other at the waxen countenance of the spectre before her. Clawed...

Her nails sank into something soft, yielding, puttylike, ripped down across a scabrous cheek. Her hand came away, and its palm was wet with cold sweat while she stared at the channels she bad sliced across the face that was not a mask!

Her tearing, pointed nails had indented deep gutters into the livid flesh—from eye-wells to pointed chin—but they did not bleed. With an appalling hideousness they did not bleed, and the creature she had attacked rocked—right, left; right, left—while no quiver of a muscle, no movement of any kind, showed he had felt that attack!

Nona shrieked, the grating, shrill sound tearing her tight throat. Another shriek caught and multiplied her scream. Then came the squeal of jammed brakes and the protest of clamped, greaseless axles. Checked momentum seized her, flung her staggering up the aisle. She toppled, pounded down to the floor once more.

Half-stunned, she rolled in the passage, fighting a swirl of horror in her brain, fighting a nausea that retched her stomach. She was conscious, even in her daze, of a cold, dreadful clamminess clinging to her fingertips where they had touched grey and leprous skin.

Above her, all around her, a flickering red luminance danced, like the heatless fire of hell. A wind moaned, somewhere near, through dark tree trunks. She was looking out through the opened door of the bus and vague figures clumped around the exit. They held flaring torches high above them so that the red glare was thrown into the coach and up among inter-laced, leafless boughs of dead trees which seemed to writhe in the scarlet radiance, with a ghastly semblance of life. But somehow the illumination was quenched by shadow below, so that Nona could make out no detail of the murmurous throng among whom the macabre ride had ended.


SHE knew only that there were many of them, and that the low mutter of their greeting was a wave of hushed sound beating against her ears like the voice of dread incarnate. That strength, volition itself, had seeped from her, so that she lay moveless, as one dead, while consciousness was a cringing, terrible fear in her pulsing soul, and anguish for Dan's unknown fate a throbbing torture.

Sleazy fabric swished above the recumbent girl, and a shadow blotted out the torch-flare as the mysterious being, doctor and bus-conductor, bent to her. She stared up at his stark, lead-hued countenance, into lashless, abysmal sockets out of whose depths leered a greenish, gloating glare.

But she did not—could not—move. She was held in nerveless thralldom, to await the down-swoop of his flapping, sable sleeve-wings—the clutch of his taloned, grisly hands. They seized her by arm and leg, lifted, swung her up with effortless ease. She was cradled in arms that cut into her quivering flesh, like curved bars of unsheathed steel. She was held close to a hard and fleshless chest, and Abaddon strode to the exit.

Behind him the grim company was simultaneously animated by a queer, jerky life. As though in response to unheard commands they rose, shifted into the aisle. The weird file moved stiffly, like so many automatons, and thumped forward in slow procession.

Abaddon descended. The torch-bearers parted, made walls of fluttering, ebony cerements whose black folds hinted, in their angular drapings, of ungainly, misshapen, horrible bodies beneath. Dully Nona realized why the light had shown no faces. The host that had awaited the funereal bus had no faces, no heads, only bulbous sable knobs swathed by black windings. What were they? Men—so horrible? Or some fouler, more terrible spawn of the unvisited mountain-top?

Between those statuesque creatures of nightmare, Nona was borne, unresisting, in the skeleton arms of her captor, and the grisly companions of her incredible journey followed. The shuffle of their stiff-kneed progress pounded dully against her distress—right, left; right; left—curiously maintaining the awful rhythm of the swaying that for so very long had gripped them.

A voice boomed out, a deep voice whose thunder was like the rolling mutter of an approaching storm. "Welcome, Abaddon, my son. Welcome to the Grove of Ashtaroth. Welcome you who are blissfully damned."

The man—was it a man?—in whose arms Nona was being borne, stopped stark still. The girl twisted, writhing over.

Trees laced the sky, a grove of dead and leafless trees. Among them, straight ahead, a curious monument rose from a high, many terraced platform of hewn rock. It was a towering, five pointed, stony star—the pentacle of Solomon—and at its heart was an arched niche within which stood a monstrous chair.

"Great One," Abaddon intoned, "whose night will come when the long day is done, we, the blissfully damned, salute you."

The chair—it was more a throne—at the heart of the pentacle, was occupied by a great and august Presence. Somehow, even in thought, Nona could not apply the curiously weak appellation man to him. His awful dignity matched the thunder of his voice. His form filled the huge chair. Standing he would have over-towered the tallest man she had ever seen, and his flowing robe shimmered with a strange, internal luminance, as though it were woven of moonbeams and starlight. It shimmered with light—but there was a darkness about that cloak which was like the shadow of some overhanging threat.

That shadow mounted into the brooding face of the Presence. A massive head, high-browed, bearded with a great, flowing black beard that lay on the iridescence of his cloak like a cloud athwart a moonlit sky. Beetle-browed, swarthy, that head was majestic in its poise, in its deep-graven lineaments. Its expression was placid, almost divine, and yet it was pregnant with an awful malignity, with a lurking evil that sent cold shivers of fear through Nona and made of her skin an icy sheath for her body.

"I have brought with me a group of eager novitiates," the physician continued, "and also a virgin whose body I claim as my reward, when her soul is yours and she has learned the ecstasy of damnation and the fierce joy of your service."


THE eyes of the presence moved to Nona, and it was as though a glacial blast from the top of the world had folded round her, freezing her with a lifeless cold that penetrated every cell of her rigid frame, freezing her very soul so that it was small and shrunken in the enclave of a fearsome awe. "Is the virgin willing?" his dreadful voice boomed. "Does she come suppliant and eager to our service?"

The reply at first beat dully to her. "No, Great One. As yet she is not initiate into our dark mysteries. But before long she will cower suppliant before you, and, denying the delusions with which Church and priest have mired her—as they have mired all the world save our small flock—will strip naked her soul for your embrace and her body for mine."

The words stabbed Nona with dreadful understanding, unleashed her from the bonds of weird lethargy that had held her quiescent. "No!" she shrilled. "Never!" and arched her body with a sudden frenzied energy that broke the grip of Abaddon's talons. "Never!" She flailed clawed hands at his breast, pounded against it, threw herself out of the cradle of his arms. She thudded to the ground, rolled, sprang to her feet.

Her darting, frenzied glance showed Abaddon erect and motionless, his grey-visaged companions ranged behind him in a close semicircle that cut off escape. But between them and the edge of the platform supporting the pentacle there was an open space. Nona darted for it, saw it filled with a surge of the faceless creatures who had met the bus. She turned. The circle had been completed on the other side also, and there was no way clear save up the steps toward the bearded Presence.

The girl whirled, plunged up those stairs. They seemed endless, but curiously no one followed her. She reached their apex. Here she stiffened, an abortive scream rasping her throat, dying on her lips. Utterly still Nona stood gazing down at that which lay at her feet and at the feet of the Presence, at that which till now had been hidden from her by the steep rise of the rocky terraces. Stared down, moaning, while a gloating horrible laugh floated up to her from below.

Stark on the rock, nude and bleached with the awful pallor of death, lay Dan Blake. His eyes were closed, his lips wax-white and still. Around his arms and legs, leather thongs were coiled so tightly that the pallid flesh bulged through the openings they left, and the ends of those thongs were fastened to iron spikes driven into the rock.


III. — NONA BEGS FOR DEATH

"DAN," Nona moaned, and pitched to her knees, her hands flying to the shoulders of her beloved, "what have they done to you?" She bent forward, oblivious of her own peril, of the watching hosts of evil, to press a kiss upon his livid lips, his lips that would not respond to that caress. "Dan!"

Mother of Mercy! Her palms, caressing bloodless flesh, felt the heat of his fever burning them. Her lips, pressed against Dan's, felt the warm pulse of his blood against them. Before her aching, tear-filled eyes his eyelids flickered, opened, and dark, tortured orbs stared up into her own. He was alive! Dan was alive.

Then rasping, dry fingers were on her arms, were tearing her away from her lover she had mourned as dead and, amazingly, found still alive. Irresistible hands pulled her to her feet, pulled her away from him. And Abaddon's gloating, lecherous laugh was in her ears.

"Not for long, my dear," he chuckled, as she fought to escape him. "Not for long. Unless you love him enough to say farewell."

To say farewell to the stalwart youth who had become all in all to her, the lover for whom her arms and her breasts had ached, who as yet had possessed her only in spirit! To exchange for their sanctified union some foul lechery in the embrace of the grisly servitor of evil whose fingers, dead but infused with horrible life, clamped her helpless in this weird, incredible arena! Rather that they die...

"Kill us first," Nona moaned. "Kill us. That is the worst you can do."

"The worst!" Abaddon's gloating, mirthless laugh was doubly horrible, sounding flat and intonationless so close to her. "Wait." She felt him turn to face the Presence. "Great One, by virtue of my long and faithful service, I ask your indulgence while I bring to brook this reluctant one."

There was a curious impatience in the thunder that was the voice of him who sat enthroned at the heart of the pentacle. "The hour grows late, Abaddon. It is not seemly to delay the serving of our black mass."

"Only a moment, Great One—and you will be recompensed by such a priestess to tend that mass as He whom we deny never has enjoyed. See how straight she is, how soft her flesh, how like music the graceful swell of her pure curves. I have planned carefully to bring her to you—make her willing—as our creed demands. Permit me the consummation of my plan."

"The Presence lifted his hand from the stone arm of his throne. "Proceed."

Abaddon laughed again. "Bel," he called. "Come, Bel, to your task."

A rustling murmur of anticipation came up to Nona from the dark throng on the ground below. But she scarcely heard it as her agonized eyes saw that in the curving wall behind Abaddon a slit had appeared—a black, vertical slit. It widened, became a shadowy aperture in that wall. Her glance plumbed its depths with a shuddering dread, and vaguely she perceived a passage turning steeply downward, seeming to descend into the bowels of the mountain. From it a warm wind gusted—a noisome wind surging past the Presence and enveloping her with the stench of a charnel house.

A shape lifted into the opening, dim at first, but even in that first vague seeing, somehow horrible. Then it was moving out, was moving past the great chair, was lumbering down onto the platform on which she stood in the clutch of Abaddon, on which Dan lay prostrate. It glided unquestioningly to the bound man's side and loomed above him.

Nona saw it clearly now in the star-glow, and all the terror that she had suffered was as a child's puerile fright at sight of a Hallowe'en masker to that which seared her.


IT was grotesquely human-form, and yet it was not, could not be, human. It was a lascivious, bloated specter. Its unclothed torso was an egg-shaped, doughy lump acrawl with livid skin that writhed as though, just beneath its surface, a mass of worms tunneled and fed. From its legs, from its arms, tatters of rotted flesh hung like rags, so that here and there slimy bone showed through—slimy and green with putrescence. It had no mouth, no nose, only a cavernous, lewd pit under its out-jutting, hairless brow and the utter evil of its lurid, lashless eyes.

But it was the sight of that which was clutched in the shapeless lumps serving Bel for hands that raddled Nona's shaken brain with screaming, insufferable horror. It was a thing alive, a squirming, obscene thing whose scaly coat was viscid with some loathsome fluid.

Its nightmare claws, gaping and closing with a horridly slow avidity, stretched eagerly toward Dan's recumbent, pallid form and dripped foulness that splashed on his skin. And where those drops splashed they remained, and the skin around them quivered, puckered and greyed to the leaden hue of the countenances of those who had ridden here with Nona. Dan screamed, a high, shrill shriek of uttermost anguish.

It seemed to the girl that Bel laughed at that. Though it were impossible that a creature could laugh who had no lips, no throat, Nona knew that he was shaken with an insane glee, and that the Presence was grimly amused.

"Death," Abaddon husked. "He shall pray for death in a little while. We have no time for lingering over our pleasure, Bel. The moon rises and the Great One is impatient."

A sound came from the creature, a mewling, mindless squall—a gibbering that had no meaning for Nona but which seemed to convey some intent to Abaddon for he answered it!

"Afterward, Bel. Wait! She has brought it to us, the oil that will stop your pain and make you like other men. She fetched it for us when I dared not go for it." He chuckled. "She thought it was for her lover, but it was for you, Bel, and you shall have it after you have done as we planned and the black mass is over."

A red film of rage wavered before Nona's eyes, and she sobbed, hearing the reason for the long Gethsemane she had suffered, hearing how she had been fooled. But before the hot words springing to her lips found utterance, Bel had bent, mewling as if in acquiescence, and placed the thing he held on Dan's belly. The foul claws pinched soft flesh, sank in. The cries torn from the man's contorted throat were knives slicing Nona, shredding her with agony.

"Stop!" she cried. "I'll do anything you want, anything."

Abaddon released her. "Strip yourself," he commanded. "That fittingly you may cringe suppliant and beg to be received by the Great One."

Dan's cries ringing in her ears, Nona clawed at the neck opening of her frock, started to rip it from her.

"No." It was Dan shouting, his voice edged by anguish, but strong, demanding. "Nona, no! Don't do it. In God's name, don't!"

Nona's hand tore down through the sheer fabric, stripping it away from her heaving breasts. The ampule stopped her fingers, fell into her hand. She gripped it to fling it away. Her convulsive grip crushed the fragile glass.

"Nona! They're fooling you. They won't let me go. We're both forever damned if you..."

Dan's shouts penetrated the crazed swirl of her brain. A sudden resolve exploded within her skull. She whirled. The hand clutching the splintered vial flailed out, dashing the jagged, glassy points straight into the pits out of which Abaddon's eyes glittered. They ripped in, blood spurted...

Nona spun around again. As she turned her torn frock fell from her, left her nude but for a gossamer wisp across her breasts, another about her thighs. Bel was staring at her, motionless with surprise at her sudden fury. She leaped, grabbed the thing that ripped Dan's belly, tore it away. Bits of his flesh came with it in its claws, and the touch of the fluid coating it burned her fingers, her palms. She flung it straight into its lewd master's face, saw it strike and cling, heard the rotting creature's howl of anguish. Then she twisted once more, hurled herself headlong past the Great One's throne, catapulted into the opening through which Bel had come.

Her feet struck stone, once, twice. Then there was no more footing and she was falling, plummeting down into darkness that was foul with the odors of almost tangible putrescence...

Nona pounded down into a squelching soft mass which splashed noisomely about her—but it saved her from injury. Clawing to her feet, gasping, she heard a snuffle above her and an enraged, bestial howl. Terrified, she looked up and saw a glimmer of light above her, saw it blotted by Bel's horrible outline, saw him tear the thing that had tortured Dan from his face and hurl it down upon her.

She sprang blindly away from under the descending horror, heard it thud into the foul mass into which she had fallen. She was running into pitch-black mystery, running through what she knew to be a tunnel by the slimy stone sides against which she scraped her bare body.


THE patter of Nona's footsteps was repeated a thousand-fold by hollow echoes. The grade beneath her was dropping, always dropping. Behind her there was the thud of other footfalls as something pursued her, and a howl that told her what it was that pursued. It was the mindless, enraged howl of Bel! The barrier of another twist in the tunnel battered her. She slipped in sliminess, went to her knees.

Her hands, darting down to save her, touched something round, rough, brittle. Something that was a dried-out bone, the flesh gnawed from it. She leaped to her feet, taking the gruesome object with her, plunged again into terrified, fear-spurred flight. The padding footfalls of that which followed her dropped farther behind, but were there, thumping after her.

Her footing leveled, a breath of clean atmosphere mingled with the foulness of what she breathed. The darkness lightened, ahead. Suddenly she was out in the clean, free air of the forested mountainside. A vine caught her heel, brought her tumbling down.

Nona jerked around, fighting to get to her feet, to continue her flight. She saw the dark gape of the tunnel entrance out of which she had come, saw that it had been masked by vines that she had torn away, and that over it a large boulder was poised, precariously held in position by a mound of earth and loose stones.

It was no conscious plan she made, no thought inspired her action. But she leaped to that boulder, plunged the bone she grasped into the earth that held it. Once, twice, she slashed at the stones and the dirt, digging with frenzied haste. From the tunnel mouth came the pound of Bel's footfalls, terribly near, and his snuffling, insensate howl. Nona plunged her macabre spade into the little heap that still held the great rock, and swept it away. The boulder started to roll.

The girl drove heels into earth, throwing herself away from the path of the monolith. Bel's bellow roared out from the hole under her, and the pound of his footfalls were near, terribly near. The rock stopped shaking. She had failed!

Nona threw herself at it, in frantic despair, pushed against its mocking surface with hands, with a rasped shoulder. It moved again, slowly. Bel's ungainly form plunged out of the tunnel. He paused, momentarily at fault, audibly sniffed the air for her scent.

In that instant the boulder, over-balanced, crashed down. Nona heard a sickening crunch as it obliterated the monster, heard the devastating crash of its progress as it kept on rolling, shaking the mountain, crashing against tree trunks, cutting a swathe of destruction, avalanching down the mountainside.

After moments a splash came faintly up to her. A splash! The rock must have fallen into Glimmer Lake. Glimmer Lake was down below, not far, and down from it the path that led to the road the bus should have followed, the road to River Eddy and to safety.

The road to safety! There had been only the sound of Bel pursuing her in the tunnel. The others had not dared the dark of his burrowed lurking place. If they had followed her at all they would be coming down the mountain's surface, and she had time—she was sure she had time—to keep ahead of them, reach the lake, the road, before they could catch up with her. She must reach River Eddy where surely they would not dare pursue...

But Dan was still up there, on the mountain's summit, in the power of those dreadful creatures of the night. Below lay safety for her. By the time she could reach it, could send men to his rescue, Abaddon and the Great One and their host would have consummated God alone knew what terrible vengeance on Dan.

Nona looked once at that which the boulder had done, and was very sick. After awhile she started moving. But she went up the mountainside toward where Dan was a prisoner to horror—not below to River Eddy's safety...!


IV. — NONA RIDES THE JUGGERNAUT

NONA BLAKE dropped to the carpet of dew-dampened leaves, flattened herself groveling into the loam, as though she could make herself a part of the mountain and thus be concealed from that which rustled through the underbrush ahead. Timelessly she climbed, a naked, unclothed creature prowling the primeval forest, while the cold beams of a low moon had filtered through over-roofing foliage and dappled her body with silver. Physical anguish racked her with agony, but she kept on, hoping with crazed unreason to steal upon that awful throng at the summit. She wanted to catch them somehow unawares, and by some miracle rescue from them the man she loved...

Now—just when she knew that her long, torture-some journey was nearing its goal—she glimpsed a black-swathed figure coming toward her through the trees. She dropped, animal instinct that had replaced thought actuating her. Motionless she lay, playing 'possum as the scared small creatures of the woods do.

But their fur is colored to simulate the background against which they lie, while her white skin was conspicuous against the moon-splashed earth. The creature saw her, twisted and came unerringly toward her.

Nona's feet flew up, pounded into the prowler's midriff. He thudded backwards, sprawled. She was up, flung herself on him like an enraged tigress, brought her grisly weapon, the human thighbone to which she had clung, crashing down on his black bandaged head. There was a sickening crunch, her antagonist tossed, his body arching to throw her off. Nona smashed down again and the creature groaned. The bone flew from her grip, but her hands clutched the man's throat. Crazed strength flowed into her fingers, as under the rough fabric she felt the gristle of a very real windpipe under her throttling pressure.

Black-gloved hands beat frantically against her. She rocked to their pound, but did not feel their blows. She tightened her grip, her lip pulling away from her drooling teeth in a vicious snarl. The thud of fists against her faded to nothingness, the body under her quivered and lay still. She held her clutch till she was sure, very sure, that no life remained.

Nona listened, heard nothing but eternal whisper of breeze in the trees. This one had been alone, then. He had been some lonely outpost guarding the unholy ritual on the summit from intrusion. She relaxed, loosed her stiff hands, rose stiffly from the corpse of her victim.

She looked down at him, a still, jetty heap among the leaves, looked down quite calmly, quite dispassionately, at the man she had killed with her bare hands. A sly thought wriggled into her throbbing brain—a cunning idea...

In minutes a gruesome figure, black-cloaked, black-headed, glided away from that silent forest glade. Behind, rigid in death, the corpse of a man lay naked, his grizzled face engorged and purple, his glazed eyes staring at a leafy canopy through which moonlight struggled...


NONA followed a faint path curving among the trees. She moved more swiftly now, gliding from shielding tree-trunk to tree-trunk, pausing each time to listen and peer ahead for danger. She did not have to pause, even when from close ahead came the rolling thunder of the Great One's voice, and the timbre of Abaddon's antiphonal response. Even when the trees were suddenly dead things whose writhing limbs were denuded of foliage and the moon's silvery pall lay in cold radiance on a clearing wherein an ebony throng made a muted and intent semicircle below the high platform from which rose the pentacle of Solomon.

"...exalted be thy rule of evil," Abaddon was intoning, genuflecting before the august majesty of the Presence. "Surely as the moon shall rise again that shines down now upon our secret ritual, so surely wilt thou defeat Him who for so long has withheld from thee thy rightful domain. Accursed be He, may He perish among the ruins of His empire of canting love. We deny Him, the Usurper, the...

The voice went on and on in its blaspheming, and it paused now and again for a deep-throated chorus of amens from the shadowy worshippers of damnation. He whom they called the Great One listened with a brooding quietude, and Nona seemed to feel the shudder of his malfeasance quiver in the stagnant air about her. She saw that she had come out of the forest near the bus by which she had originally been brought here; that it nosed toward the altar, and that there was a cleared space in front of it. She sidled toward the big auto...

"We worship thee, O Antichrist, and we worship all thy evil doings." Abaddon seemed to be finishing. "We shall spread thy evil throughout the countryside, and thy doctrine in the hearts of men, and strive to earn thy approbation so that when thy kingdom cometh at last we may inherit the earth as thou shalt inherit the heavens."

"Amen."

"Some there are among us into whom thy spirit hath not yet fully entered. They supplicate thee for thy damnation and that they be invested by the unholy flame of thy ill-doing and of thy hate, so that they may hasten the night of thy triumph."

The Presence stretched out a hand. "Let them be of foul heart. Let them eat of my flesh and be eternally damned."

"Praise be to thee. They shall eat of thy flesh! As ensymboled by the flesh of the unbeliever, they shall eat of thy flesh and be damned!"

A cold shudder ran through Nona as she heard the roaring amen that came from the hatted and grey-faced individuals whose heads were not swathed by bandages. Suddenly there was a cross in the upraised hand of Abaddon, an inverted cross, and a knife in the other. He lifted, strode to where she knew Dan was.


NONA gasped. The whole awful intent of the ritual was clear to her now, and the terrible next step in the black mass whose celebration she was watching. The hatted figures were moving forward. They were filing up the terraced stairs as communicants to the altar, while the others commenced to chant in low moaning rhythm—words that flamed with a black fire of hatred for all that was good and sane. They were chanting, and the celebrants were swaying—right, left; right, left...

She threw herself into the bus, into the driver's seat. Through the windshield she saw the foremost of the black-cloaked figures reach Abaddon, saw a writhing, grey hand reach out with avid supplication, saw him touch the inverted cross to livid and awful lips.

Her foot searched for, found the starter button. Abaddon turned. His knife gleamed in the moonlight, started a slow descent.

The bus catapulted toward that blasphemous altar. It ploughed a shambles through the ebony-cloaked congregation whose vile hymn was replaced by piercing shrieks of sudden terror, shrieks that were cut off as the plunging radiator struck them, as the enormous wheel jounced over them, crushing them to pulp like so many squirming slugs...

They fled from before the lurching juggernaut Nona loosed upon them—tried to flee. It caught them, rolled over them, skidded on ground made slippery by blood. It crashed into the altar.

Nona was out of the bus, a long, heavy wrench she had somehow snatched up flailing about her, cracking down on the skulls of the few left to oppose her, cracking their skulls to lift and smash again. Abaddon plunged toward her, his upraised knife gleaming, his livid face still appallingly expressionless as though rigid in the death his flying figure denied. His weapon darted at Nona...

Her wrench met the blow, parried it. The blade slid down the iron, slashed her knuckles, gashing deep. Her fingers were suddenly numbed, and the spanner fell from them. The point of Abaddon's knife was at her throat.

"Dan," Nona screamed. "Good-bye Dan. I tried..."

A guttural exclamation of surprise came from the priest of evil. "You!" he choked. "You!" His blade swerved, and his arms were around her, were crushing her to his loathsome body. She felt his grisly hands tearing the cloak from her. "At least I'll—!"

Nona jabbed frantic fingers into his deep eye-sockets. He screamed with sudden anguish, threw her from him. She fell, sprawling across Dan's body.

The world fell in with a shattering blast of sound, and a sheet of same spurted from the shattered bus. It arched over Nona, whipped around Abaddon's staggering figure. He was suddenly a pillar of flame on the steps of the rocky altar. Shrieking he beat at the fire swirling about him, feeding on the cloak that enveloped him.

Nona, aghast, retching with horror at the destruction she had wrought, pushed herself away from Dan, rolled over and over to where Abaddon's knife lay, snatched it up, and was on her feet, was turning to the pentacle, to the Presence who alone was left of all the blasphemous gathering. Who was—? She stared, shaking, moaning. He was not there! There was only the niche in the monstrous monument and the vacant throne of stone. "Nona," Dan groaned.

"Nona. Cut me loose. Nona, my brave darling."


JUST as the dawn was breaking, forest rangers, attracted by the glare from the blazing bus that could be seen for miles against the night sky, found them there, locked in each other's arms. The green-uniformed men listened to the girl's story, gaped open-mouthed at the shambles she had created. One of them bent, poked tentatively at a grey face whose owner was a twisted, awful bundle of crushed and bloody bone.

"Look," he exclaimed. "It's clay. Its wet clay overlaid on his real face, and sculpted by someone to make a mask that couldn't be torn away. The rest of them are like that too."

"Lady," the leader said. "You don't know what you were up against. This is a gang from the camp in the hollow below River Eddy. They was a rip-snortin', bad crowd, always drunk an' raisin' general hell, but they didn't bother the folks around here none, and we all steered clear o' them whilst they left us alone. I did hear, though, that the gov'ment was sendin' up some o' these G-men to look into them. Seems as though some o' them kidnappers an' bank-robbers they been chasin' was said to be headin' towards here."

"Maybe they thought I was a government man," Dan put in, weakly, "when I blundered on some of them just below here. They grabbed me, tied me to a tree, and started to torture me. I was just passing out when a tall man showed up and made them stop. I can't remember very clearly what happened after that, except that he gave me something to drink, and that he had white hair with a straight lock of black across it. The next thing I knew, I was coming out of darkness to find myself strapped to those spikes—and Nona was kissing me."

"A tall man with hair like that—that's Doctor Forbes. Had a sanitarium down on the mountain below the bridge, but we run him outta there when we found out there was a guy there he was treating for leprosy. Never did know what become o' him or the—the leper."

Nona shuddered, trying to remember whether Bel had touched her anywhere with his body or his eaten-away hands. She knew now what the drug clerk had been trying to say...

"Hell," the ranger who was wandering among the twisted bodies of her victims called. "One o' these fellers with the bandages around his head has got scars on his skin like as if he had his face lifted or changed or something. They say the crooks are doin' that now when they're on the run. An' this here one's the guy what was supposed to be drivin' the bus that broke down at River Eddy."

"That broke down!" Nona exclaimed. "What bus...?"

"The afternoon bus outta the city. Its driver let all the passengers out at the store, sayin' he had a burned bearing an' couldn't go no further. Then he went up the road to get water to cool it down."

"He didn't get all the passengers out," Nona mumbled. "I remember now. He came back to me while we waited for a train to clear the way at a railroad crossing and covered me with my coat, promising to wake me up when we got to the path up to Glimmer Lake. The other people didn't see me when they got off... Oh!" she broke off, "Let's not talk about it any more. Take us away from this horrible place—take us to where we can get a train to the city."

"There's a bus..."

"No! Not a bus." She was white-faced. "I shall never ride in a bus again."


IT was not till weeks later that Dan dared to speak to her of their experiences that wild night on Buzzard Mountain. And then it was only because she had turned from staring into the fireplace to ask, suddenly: "Dan, did they ever find out who the Great One was?"

The man's brow wrinkled. "Funny that you should ask that. I got a letter this morning from the Chief Ranger for that district. They searched the tunnel through which you were chased. They found your footprints in the muck there, and that of the creature who chased you. But there wasn't any evidence of anyone else having been through there. And there were no tracks in the forest either, to show which way he escaped."

Nona shivered, as though the roaring fire had suddenly lost its heat "No," she said slowly. "I knew they would not. They wouldn't find his tracks in either the tunnel or the woods. When he went away, he didn't leave any tracks."

"Nonsense," Dan blurted, but a wave of eerie chill went through him too. "That doesn't make sense."

"None of it made sense, Dan... Oh hold me close, close, and tell me you love me. Tell me over and over again that you love me."


THE END


Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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