In the shadow of Old Mountain, Ross Kane found Lilla—and she was compellingly beautiful. She was so lovely that he could not associate her with the horribly mangled, squeezed corpses which struck terror into the town of Eden—victims of a creature the natives called "the Serpent." Yet, near each crushed body were always found the prints of Lilla's feet...
MR. ZAGAT is on a trip through the Midwest in search of local color for his tales of terror. Two hours before the deadline for this number of Terror Tales we received a bulky package by airmail, and ten minutes later the following telegram:
YARN RUSHED YOU AIRMAIL NOT MINE STOP APPEARS TO BE TRUE TALE BUT SUGGEST PRINTING AS FICTION UNLESS INVESTIGATION I AM NOW ENGAGED IN CONFIRMS IT STOP CAN YOU ARRANGE HOLD PAGE OPEN FOR FURTHER REPORT FROM ME QUESTION MARK —ZAGAT
We were unable to wire him that holding a page open would be impossible because he omitted to give us his address, so we persuaded the printer to do the impossible and leave a page blank following this story. At this writing we cannot know whether we will again hear from Mr. Zagat in time to fill it. If you run into an expanse of unprinted whiteness when you get through reading "Lair of the Snake Girl" you will know that we did not hear from him. We have our fingers crossed.
I THOUGHT it was only the brooding cold that made me shiver as I crouched over the wheel of the battered flivver I had hired at Centredale, where the railroad ended. It struck through my light topcoat to my very bones, that damp chill of air shadowed all day by the brooding dark height of Old Mountain. Yet there was something beside that dank coldness that chilled me deep within...
North of Lost River's shallow flow the flat land was lushly green, but as I had been told, it was a spongy swamp into who's tall, rank reeds only belly-crawling, noisome creatures ventured; a morass whose treacherous black mud would suck a man down to hell itself if the ancient tales were to be believed. That was why this narrow road that was the town of Eden's only connection with the world, clung to the southerly bank of the murky stream.
I stared at the brown ribbon of earth rolling under the tires of my car and wondered dully why a village had ever been planted here. For miles now I had seen no farms, no signs of any human habitation; had encountered no traffic. For more than an hour I had pounded on and on through a hushed, desolate solitude.
Well, my lips twisted bitterly, I was looking for quiet and isolation. Peering at an outspread map with red-trimmed, haggard eyes, I had read those names—Eden, Lost River, Old Mountain—and had stabbed at them a determined forefinger.
"That sounds forsaken enough," I had mumbled. "I'll go there, Doc."
"Good boy!" Dr. Stone had exclaimed. "It's the only thing that will save you from going to pieces. Complete rest for a month, somewhere where they don't know who you are, where you won't be constantly reminded of what you've been through."
"Quit it!" I had snarled. "Quit hammering at me. I've said I'd go, haven't I?" And then I had flung out of the office, the aching swirl inside my skull beginning again...
Yards ahead the trail seemed to end against a blank wall of gloomy foliage. It was only a spur of the mountain around which river and road curved, but I fought an eerie premonition that beyond it something waited in ambush. Something grisly, malignant... I reached for the emergency brake.
But instead of pulling it I stepped on the accelerator once more. The feathery quiver along my spine was only hysteria. It was the same sort of jitteriness that had made me see staring faces, pointing fingers, all about me as I pounded to my lodgings from the physician's office, as I had taxied to the station. The same rebellion of ragged nerves that had rasped me in the Pullman car, resenting my fellow passenger's covert, curious glances, their sly whisperings.
They had known me, of course. They couldn't help recognizing me. They had seen my face in the newspapers for a week. They had read my name, in shrieking black headlines and my description in the columns of the sob sisters.
I felt a muscle twitch in my cheek as I recalled the saccharine words: "Blond-haired, blue eyed, blunt-jawed, Ross Kane might be the reincarnation of an ancient Viking." "Broad-shouldered, narrow-waisted; under his trim blue suit one senses the flat, powerful muscles of the trained athlete." "Nerves like steel piano wires, a brain keen and flashing as a rapier, this is the man who has broken up the Scarlet Legion, the man who for four interminable days has sat in a witness chair and with cold implacable speech has condemned fifty men to the execution chamber. He is a man of iron, without emotion, without fear..."
Without fear? I had lived with fear for six dreadful months, with the fear of death and of worse than death. With the fear that I fail and let the murderous legion that had stunned a nation go unpunished.
I had not failed, but I had paid a terrible price for success. When at last I had penetrated to the identity of the Scarlet Legion's masked leaders, I teetered on the very brink of madness...
An uncanny howl cut across my thoughts! From beyond the mountain spur it came, bestial in its wordlessness, yet somehow human—and filled with unthinkable agony... It ended abruptly, with an awful finality.
I gasped, pounded my heel down on the gas. The motor roared as the car leaped into swift motion. The hillside flung its racket back at me as the car surged around the curve. Brakes squealed, skidding rubber scorched. The flivver rocked to a halt.
I was already out of the car. I bent over that which lay utterly still in the road. A sick nausea twisted at the pit of my stomach.
IT WAS—it had been—a man, a lad not long out of his teens. Above the midriff it still had the form of a man, scarlet with blood that had fountained from a gaping mouth, but everything below—flesh, bones, even the corduroy trousers and leather half-boots—was squeezed into one heterogeneous pulp.
Squeezed! The fearful pressure that had crushed the youth had been exerted equally from all sides, so that the gory mass was almost cylindrical, and gruesomely elongated. Legs, hips, abdomen were constricted as though a gigantic fist had grasped them and tightened...
I whirled to a rustle, the furtive threshing—instantly quieted—of some large body in the pines. My automatic snouted from my fist at the dark wall that was the woods.
Consciousness of peril sloughed from me the palsy of my illness, and I knew my muscles were once more coiled springs, ready for instant action. My every sense was keenly alive to locate and combat the imminent threat. The sound of my approach must have frightened the killer from its prey—the crushed youth—but it was lurking now in the gloomy underbrush, watching its chance to spring upon another victim—me...
Old Mountain's flank rose steeply above me, its shadows impenetrable to my staring eyes. The odor of needle-carpeted earth, of rotting wood and putrescent fungi, breathed down from it; and its silence, after that single warning rustle, was unbroken. There was a strange, foreboding quality to that hush, as though the murk and the soundlessness cloaked the very essence of fear, as though nature itself crouched beneath some overhanging terror.
A twig snapped, the tiny sound thunderous. And then once more there was the rustle of something moving through the underbrush. Moving away!
Wrath exploded within me; red wrath at the thing that had violated the sanctuary of a human body and was now escaping. It sent me hurtling up into the woods.
My feet slipped on the slick carpet of dead pine needles, my heels ground in, hurled me forward. Brambles tore at my pants legs, low branches lashed my cheek. Above me the sound of my quarry was louder, swifter, but momentarily I gained on it. Then I saw it, a flicker of motion through motionless tree trunks, a pallid flutter glimpsed between huge black columns. My finger tightened on its trigger—and instantly relaxed.
"Hey there," I contrived to shout. "Stop! Stop, I say!"
It was no ravaging, lethal beast that fled from me, but a woman, or rather—a girl. The pale flutter was that of her white loose frock that fell from molded shoulders and was caught up at a slim waist by a belt of some shimmering, iridescently green leather. In the half-light the stygian cascade of her unbound hair had made her seem headless, but just in time to check my shot she had thrown backward a terrified glance and I had seen her profile, a cut cameo of ivory against the ebony of her tresses.
"Wait for me," I called, more calmly. "I'm not going to hurt you."
SHE HALTED at that, turned. One hand was curled at the tender curve of her heaving breast. Her parted lips were ruby and velvet-soft. Her small nostrils flared, blush-lined. Her eyes, glowing deep wells fringed by long, slumberous lashes, were fixed on my weapon. I returned it to its armpit holster.
There was about her some strange quality that at once frightened and fascinated me, something exotic and not quite... human. No question but that her face was beautiful, but its beauty was the discomforting one of a minor chord, akin somehow to pain. It was oddly shaped; the chin narrow, bluntly pointed; the cheek bones too wide, so that its outline was distinctly a triangle and not the usual circle or oval.
"I—I thought I saw a deer," I stammered, and knew by her slow smile how inept my lying was.
There had been a space of about five feet between us. It was closing now, and it was she who was closing it. She moved with a sinuous grace, undulating rather than walking...
"I must sound like an awful tenderfoot," I said. I had to say something, anything. "This is the farthest I've ever gotten from the city streets. You—you seem to belong in these woods." Not to the woods, something in me said. To the swamp. Suddenly I knew what creature it was she reminded me of. Incredibly...
"I've lived here forever." She was looking straight into my eyes, with an almost eerie intensity. Inexplicable terror in me was a black flame. I wanted to run from her, desperately I wanted to, and yet nothing on earth could have made me move.
Was it only my consciousness of the absurdity of my terror that kept me rooted there while she came closer and closer to me? With a strange, indecipherable purpose?
"Your forever can't be very long—" I tried to break back to naturalness with a natural response. I forced a smile. Actually, she could not be more than eighteen—"unless you are a wood nymph. Were you already wandering this hillside when Old Mountain was yet young?"
Now what was there in that bit of persiflage to bring back to her eyes the look of stark, marrow-melting fear?
She halted, and a long shiver went through her. "No. Not here." Strange reply. Stranger still the flicker of her tongue tip between her pallid, parted lips. "I don't often come here. It's too far. I live on the other side of Eden, where the river is lost in the swamp."
I wasn't quite sure she said that. Her fingers were fumbling blindly at her belt, and the movement had taken my glance down to it. I felt tiny muscles harden along the ridge of my jaw, and the chill that quivered under my skin was not the cold of the ambient air. There had been a stain on the narrow leather, a smear no larger than the nail of the girl's forefinger that wiped it away in the instant I glimpsed it.
That finger was red now! That which it had wiped away was blood—a single drop of blood that was still moist!
FOR a single dreadful moment I felt eerie panic surge icy in my veins. Then reason fought it back. It didn't mean anything, I told myself. If she had been anywhere near the man in the road she would have been deluged with his blood. That stain meant simply that she had pricked a finger, so slightly that she had not even noticed it.
And then I saw the pulse fluttering in her throat, and the desperate appeal in her eyes! She knew that I had seen...
"You came from the road," her low voice pulsed. "Is Seth Corbin waiting there for me?"
"Waiting!" Her question was a lie! She had been down there, she had seen what lay there. I was as certain of that as I was of the anger curdling my brain. "He was waiting. Now he's..." I didn't finish. The words were cut off in my throat by the terror that flared into her face, terror and despair such as I hope never to see again.
I spun to the sound that had apparently seared the girl with stark fright. A dark form moved in the dimness. My hand darted under my coat, closed on my gun-butt...
A man thrust out of the shadows; tall, gaunt, shaggy-bearded. "Lilla!" he snarled, hawk-like eyes fierce under beetling, white brows. "Lilla! How did yuh get away?"
Despite his evident age his frame was wiry, compact with the rawhide strength of the woodsman, but his chest heaved with long, deep breaths and the seamed brown leather of his countenance was drawn with the weariness of prolonged effort. There was a stout staff in his gnarled hands, a straight tree-branch forked at its end.
"I—I don't know, Uncle. I can't remember." She looked bewildered now, half-dazed, but no longer openly terrified.
But deep down in the dark eyes fear still lurked, not quite hidden.
"Who is this?" The old man jerked to me. There was a curious wariness about him, a tenseness like that which had held the girl, yet somehow not akin. "How did he come here?"
"I'm Ross Kane, Mr.—"
"Thornton. Joel Thornton."
"Mr. Thornton. I saw your niece in the woods here from the highway, and I wanted to ask her for directions. I wasn't quite sure I was on the right road for Eden." Now why did I lie?
"Eden!" Thornton grunted. "Thet road leads there, but it ain't the right road fer yuh." The anxiety faded from his countenance. "It ain't the right road fer no one."
"I don't understand."
The corners of the man's bearded mouth quirked upward in a grim smile, and his look was bleak. "Yuh'll understand when yuh git thar. If yuh git thar. If I was yuh, I'd go back whar I come from, quick's I could."
"What do you mean?" I demanded sharply.
"Take me back, Uncle." Lilla had moved abruptly to him, forestalling whatever reply he might have made, if, actually, he would have replied. "Take me back before the dark."
"Whut fer do yuh think I been runnin' after yuh? Come on!" And then they vanished into the deep shadows.
I stared after the rustling they made, my brow knotting. Queer... Her uncle had furtively moved away from the girl as they started off, leaving a three foot space between them; and sinews had corded the back of his hand, so tightly did it clutch the stick whose other end was widely forked.
Widely enough, the queer thought struck me, to fit around Lilla's supple waist...
Damn! Those people must have had nothing to do with the horror in the road! The oddness of their speech, the queer things they had said, meant nothing save that living in this somber forest they had grown a little imaginative and not quite normal. I had no business mooning after them. My job was to get to Eden as quickly as I could, tell the authorities there about that which I had come upon. I spun on my heels, plunged down the hill.
The corpse of Seth Corbin still lay, stiff and incredible, in the spot where a terrible death had overtaken it. One brown-clotted arm was flung out and its blackening fingers were clenched on the soft earth of the road's shoulder, as if it had snatched at the killer and been unable to hold it with its dying strength.
Something had moved across that road-shoulder, into the woods. I stared at the spoor and my scalp tightened.
The malleable, chocolate-brown loam showed not some animal's footprints, but a wide, blurred depression. That which had dragged across the road-edge to vanish into the woods had been a footless thing that had left just such a track as a snake might have made, wavy and ill-defined, except that this trough was immensely too wide for any reptile known to this northern clime.
It was a snake that Lilla had reminded me of! Had she...?
The thought that popped up in my pounding brain was incredible. Mad! Had the sight of that ghastly corpse snapped the final thread that bound me to sanity?
I threw myself into the car, the fierce necessity to do something—anything—clawing me. The motor coughed into rattling, racking life. The flivver leaped into motion. Its response to my instinctive, unwilled manipulation of its levers and pedals gave me a hold on reality again. I didn't think any more; I deliberately fought to keep myself from thinking.
The road took a wide sweep, and Old Mountain's slope grew more precipitous. Its unseen crest rose till its brooding shadow spread far into the swamp across Lost River. Vague forms drifted out of the darkening reeds, swirled across the surface of the slothful stream; a phantom host of grey, inimical wraiths. They were only wisps of vapor, I told myself with almost hysteric emphasis evoked by the chill of the oncoming dusk from the warmer waters of bog and river. My pondering of eerie thoughts was interrupted by a muffled roar.
Thunder rumbled out of the sky! No. It wasn't thunder. It was something rolling down the cliff... Without thought I vaulted from the car, threw myself backward from the running board, hit the macadam hard and kept rolling back in the road. The unguided car plunged ahead, straight into the path of a gigantic boulder that fairly exploded from the cliff and crashed tremendously down upon the doomed vehicle.
The detonation of that impact, a vast outburst of riven metal, smashed glass and burst tires deafened me, stunned me.
I lay for a moment shaken, dazed, unable to move. Gradually control of my limbs returned. I shoved shaking palms against the ground, heaved myself to my knees, to my feet.
I stood spraddle-legged, rigid, looking at the crumpled jumble that was the car in which I had been riding. If it were not for the instantaneous coordination of vision and brain and muscle that had hurled me out of it in the same split-second of time that I had seen the grey mass launching from the almost vertical hillside, I now would be in that wreck. I would have been smashed out of all resemblance to human form. I would be under the great, lichen-covered grey mass that rested ponderous atop the twisted metal.
My glowering gaze moved to the swathe the huge rock had made when it catapulted down the cliff. It lifted along the rift of splintered trees and flattened underbrush until I saw, a hundred feet up, the mountain's brow.
The boulder had rested up there ever since it had been deposited there by the Great Glacier of prehistory. For countless ages wind, and rain, and the slow forces of decency had undermined its support, till some darting woods-creature, some stronger gust of wind, had at last disturbed its delicate balance, and it had hurtled down to within inches of snuffing out my life.
Perhaps that had been the way of it. Or perhaps... What was it Joel Thornton had said, not many minutes ago? "Yuh'll understand when you git thar. If yuh git thar..."
I moved closer to the wreck. The boulder lay on its side, the loam of its long resting place still blackening its now vertical base. There was a scrape in the rock at the center of what was now its upper edge. And just beneath it, impressed into the coating of earth, so tightly bound to the stone by root-tendrils of moss that it had not shaken free during that cataclysmic fall, was the mark of what had pried it loose from its age-old bed.
It seemed to be the spread Y of branching wood—a fork at the end of a bark-peeled staff.
MY HANDS curled slowly, somehow relentlessly, till they made fists that were hammer heads of flesh and bone, twin sledges aching to smash, to destroy.
What had happened was clear. Familiar with the terrain, Thornton had cut across a shoulder of the mountain while the flivver had made the wide detour by the road, had pried the rock loose at the moment I was about to pass underneath. It was, beyond doubt, a cold-blooded try at murder.
The girl, Lilla, had been with her uncle. She must have known what he was up to. She must have known, and she had made no attempt to foil him. There had been no cry, no scream of warning...
"Hey!" someone shouted. "Hey there, mister! Anybody hurt? Anybody under there?"
I jerked around to see two men running toward me from the direction of Eden.
"No," I called back to them. "No. I was alone and I got out in time."
"Gosh, mister, you're lucky." They panted up to me, brawny youths in just such thick-soled leather half-boots and corduroy trousers as the dead lad up the road had worn. "There wouldn't been much left of you if'n you hadn't."
The one who spoke was slightly shorter, slightly more broad-shouldered than the other, but otherwise they were indistinguishable, powdered as they were with a fine black dust. They peered at the crushed car, turned and gaped up the hill at the marks of the boulder's passage.
"She sure come down fur. Look, Josh. She started way up there."
"Yeah. I seen thet rock last Satidday, ridin' out to Centredale, an' says to Seth it oughtta be blasted away ?fore it comes down an' kills someun.
"Seth!" I exclaimed, "Do you mean Seth Corbin?"
"Yeah." Elmer's look came back to me. "Our brother. You didn't pass him up the road, did you?"
"Your brother?" Seth Corbin was their brother! He must have been like them, stalwart, vibrant with young life, less than an hour ago.
"Yeah. He took the afternoon off to go rabbit snarin'. He ain't back yet and Mom's gettin' worried. Did you see him?"
"I saw him." They didn't know of their brother's rendezvous with Lilla Thornton. "Listen boys, I've got something to tell you. Can you take it?" This was going to be hard.
"Take it." Elmer grabbed my arm, the fingers digging in fiercely, making black marks on the tan sleeve. "What...? Somethin's happened to Seth. Yuh mean somethin's happened to him?"
"Yes. Take it easy, son. Yes, something's happened to him. He's—dead."
"Ugh!" The youth grunted, as though he had been slugged in the stomach. "Seth's—" He shook his head as though to clear it of cobwebs, then turned toward the crushed car.
"No," I said. Better to have it over at once; cruelty would be the greater kindness now. "No. He isn't in the car. He's lying up the road, just around the bend. He was—squeezed—to death."
"Squeezed..." They both said it at the same time. They stared at each other, an awful stillness holding them rigid, their expressions stony under the black dust-film. Then Josh shouted, "Come on!" and they were running in the direction from which I had come, their limbs moving jerkily, grotesquely, as though they were marionettes manipulated by some unseen hand. The curve of the road hid them...
SO ABRUPTLY had they gone off that they left me flatfooted, but at once I realized that the mysterious killer might have returned to its prey, or be lurking near it, that the youths were dashing unarmed into danger.
"Wait!" I yelled, launching into a run after them. "Wait. I—"
Then I wasn't running. I was whirling around, a scream jabbing its barbed fangs into my brain... It cut off, so quickly that I was still spinning when it stopped.
It had come from very near, from just around the wooded curve at which I stared. I catapulted past the blurred green of thick bushes, and came to a halt so abruptly that I was nearly flung to the ground by my own momentum.
I had almost overrun Lilla! She was in the middle of the road, her face turned toward me. But her eyes were curiously veiled, as though a translucent membrane covered them, so that I was certain she did not quite see me, though she was aware of my presence.
Her tongue flickered between her parted lips.
A rattle, the throaty rattle of death, pulled my startled gaze to the dirt at her feet. To—not the dirt, but a form that writhed momentarily, and then was still, eternally still.
It was the form of a boy in his teens. He was not as horribly crushed as Seth Corbin's corpse. But his chest was caved in, making a hollow to catch the blood that had spewed from his gory mouth.
"Ross-s-s," Lilla hissed. "Ross-s-s Kane." I was looking at her face again, at her eyes. The membrane was gone. God! I thought, she is beautiful! Yes, that was what I thought. There was no horror in me at that which lay at her feet.
No emotion I have ever experienced, will ever experience, can equal the irresistible desire that seized me, the desire to hold her in my arms, to feel her arms around me, to feel her arms crushing me to her, making me one with her, forever.
And yet within me, somewhere deep within me, there was a kernel of fear—and the knowledge that I was snared by some inconceivable doom.
Then I was moving to her. I could not help it. I knew—horribly—that it was not my own will that impelled me, that I had no will...
The hoarse exclamation was like a stinging slap across my face.
It was Joel Thornton who had called her name. He plunged out of the bushes, half-crouched, with that forked stick raised before him, his crooked arms rigid, every gnarled inch of him taut with the wariness of a tiger tamer seeking to subdue an unruly, snarling feline.
The girl threw up her arms, as if to ward him off. The movement brought her hands out from the sleeves that till now had covered them. They were gloved with scarlet... She whirled in the same instant, avoided the jab of Thornton's stick, swift as it was, darting into the woods.
"My God," he groaned, and lurched after her, and I was alone in the road. Not quite alone. There was the boy, so newly dead.
I stared at him, really seeing him, really seeing what she had done to him. Impossible! Not that girl—not any human being—could have had the strength to do that!
But she had stood above him, and her hands had been drenched in his blood. She had been near that other pulped corpse in the road, so near that it must have been she I had heard fleeing from it. Did she, with her fatal beauty, lure victims for some great constrictor to seize in its lethal coils? Did she—I recalled how her eyes had held me helpless—hypnotize them to unawareness of the reptile?
Or had she accidentally come upon the two victims of the killer-creature, and bloodied her hands in attempting to aid them?
I wanted to believe that last. Merciful Providence, how I wanted to! But I could not.
For, staring at the road around the slain boy, I once more saw in the dust the traces of what had passed here.
I saw the undulating spoor of the great snake. I saw the boy's footprints, and Thornton's. I saw the dainty impressions of Lilla's tiny shoes.
But those pointed in only one direction. Away from the crushed body. Not one, not one, gave evidence of her approach.
The mountain was suddenly a vast, dark avatar of doom overhanging me. The slow, green-flecked, almost stagnant river was an utterly unfamiliar, foreboding thing. The whole countryside was unnatural, nightmarish.
VAGUELY perceived movement penetrated the whirling chaos within my skull and made me aware of the town a hundred feet further along the road.
The town consisted of a string of five unpainted, ramshackle frame buildings cowering between the road and a re-entrant fold of Old Mountain.
Between me and the nearest house the object whose motion had attracted my attention came rapidly toward me. It was black, monstrous in the gathering dusk. It was shaped like nothing I had ever seen, and it made no sound...
It resolved itself into detail. Then I saw, moving seemingly of itself, a strongly built wheel chair whose seat-space was completely filled by a gross torso that bulged flabbily out through the openings under the arms. The invalid's hands were dough-yellow blobs on the dirt-grey blanket that swathed his lap and legs. His head was grotesquely too small for the colossal shoulders on which it was set. His visage, the lusterless white of a fungus, was lined with the traces of long pain.
He peered at the corpse from bead-like, lashless eyes, and there was no expression in his face. But I had no time to be surprised at this. A grey-haired little woman scuttled out from behind the chair, so shrunken by age that she had been hidden from me by the high back of the chair she had been pushing. She threw herself on the slain boy.
"Henry." Hearing the way she moaned that name I had no need to be told who she was. "Henry. My baby. Why did she have to take my baby...?"
"I warned yuh." The man's voice was a piping, high quaver coming out of a mouth incongruously red and cupid-bowed. "Yuh kain't say I didn't warn yuh what would happen if yuh let Her set eyes on the boys."
I turned fiercely on him. If he had not been helpless I would have struck him. But before I could say anything the moaning accents of the bereaved mother intervened.
"I didn't dare hinder Her. Yuh know I didn't dare. Yuh know it would of done no good."
"If yuh had kept them from woundin' Old Mountain..."
"Damn it," I broke in. "How can you talk to her like that? Haven't you got any feeling?"
He seemed for the first time to be aware of me. "Whar'd you come from?" he demanded. There was authority in his piping tones, consciousness of almost dictatorial power.
"The city," I answered automatically.
"Yer a week too early," was his surprising interruption. "But since yer here, I'll have to talk to yuh. I'm Uriah Stortz, Mr. Linton. Come on." His thick fingers closed on the wooden circles screwed to his chair wheels, and he started to whirl it away.
"Wait," I yelled, jumping the five feet that already separated us, and grabbing at the chair back. "My name's not Linton. I'm Ross Kane. And I can talk to you right here." My voice dropped, so that the grief-stricken mother should not hear me. "I've just seen Seth Corbin up the road, squeezed to death and—"
"Squeezed!" he gasped, and there was in his exclamation the same unsurprised despair, the same feeling of the advent of terror as there had been in the voices of the youths to whom I had first broken that news.
"What's going on here?" I demanded. "What damnable thing?"
"Damnable enough," he answered. "But yuh can't do nothin' about it. Yuh can't help ?em, now that the Serpent has returned. I warned ?em to leave Old Mountain alone. I tole ?em what she done to our old neighbors, what she done to their dad and to me, but they wuz headstrong, an' now they've brought the curse down upon themselves."
I have capitalized the feminine pronoun in writing down the words of that strange couple. It is the only way I have of expressing the awesome veneration with which they spoke it. It was as if they named a deity whom they at once feared and worshipped.
But I wasn't thinking of that just then. "What the hell are you blattin' about?" I snarled. "There isn't any such thing as a curse. There isn't—"
"No? Yuh tellin' me that?" His hand, revoltingly soft and clammy cold, seized my wrist, dragged my arm down and shoved my hand under the grimy wrappings in his lap. "Feel thet!"
BENEATH the loose cloth, that which should have been a thigh, a leg, was only flabby, boneless flesh. It gave gruesomely to the pressure, and expanded again as I snatched my hand away.
"That's what the Serpent did to me," Uriah Stortz whispered. "An' I wuz lucky cause the dawn come before it reached my waist. The rest of ?em what lived here in Eden wuz gone when I come to. If yuh want to find ?em go look in the swamp whar the river is lost an' the Serpent has her lair."
My flesh curdled with the feel of what it had pressed, my brain with what I was hearing. But before I could say anything more the quavering, shrill voice of the bereaved mother turned me to her.
"What are yuh waitin' for?" She was erect on her knees in the scarlet mud, her wrinkles channels for the scant tears of age. But her red-rimmed eyes were imperious. "Go and get it settled. Only you can save us from Her, and if She learns that, our last hope of salvation is gone."
"Come!" Stortz commanded. His chair jerked from my momentarily relaxed hold, darting toward the town with astounding swiftness.
"Go!" The old woman ordered, once more. "I am safe from Her. It is only the sons of Eve She takes, not Eve. Go!"
I could not resist that command. I found myself running in a fruitless attempt to overtake the cripple's flying chair. It was far ahead of me as I pounded through the village, and it was the only sign of life. No one else moved, anywhere. There were no dogs, no children...
A shadow billowed against the sky's almost lightless vault. It was smoke and it was rising from the furthest house in Eden. Nearing that, I saw that the mountain came to within a hundred feet of the structure's rear, and that the overhanging slope was marred by a huge, pitch-black gash where trees and earth had been stripped away from the rock beneath. A great pile of ebony rock was heaped at the hill's base.
In the dusk-painted wall of that farthest house a yellow oblong shown—a door open on a lighted interior. I expected Stortz to turn in there but his darting chair went on. It was rolling beside a thicket that might once have been a neat hemlock hedge. It spun suddenly—and vanished.
My temples pounded. My momentum carried me to the spot of that queer disappearance and I saw that the foliage of the hedge was swaying as though something had just disturbed it. I thrust into those sere boughs, pushed through.
I was in a small field the hedge had hidden. Ahead of me was a one storied, dilapidated house and Stortz's chair was climbing up an improvised ramp of sagging old boards into its open door.
I started after him, halted. A pallid flutter in a black mass of shrubbery to the right caught my eye and I turned to it.
"Kane!" Stortz piped. "Kane, yuh fool!" There was terror borne urgency in his voice. "Come inside."
It is only because I recalled it later that I know what he said, for in that moment I caught sight of that for which I searched the deepening dusk. Lilla! Her arm, its sleeves fluttering like a luminous wing, beckoned me, and I started toward her. She faded into the bushes as I approached, but a sibilant hiss from the murk must have been the end of my name.
Dimly I heard the house door thud shut, but I paid no attention to it. I strained to make out where the girl went—and something caught my toe, tripped me.
Something whirred through the air, just over my head, just where my torso would have been if I had not fallen!
A sinuous shape undulated swiftly across my vision. It was a snake! It was a huge python, its tail wrapped tightly about a tree-trunk to give it purchase as it pulled back to strike at me again!
Even as my muscles exploded to fling me into a back somersault away from the sledge-like blow that would stun me helpless, I carried with me the image of its slender grace, of its triangular head, of the flicker of its forked tongue.
Something feminine about that venomous monster, something appallingly feminine! Appalling because in head-shape, in marking, in infinite, dangerous grace it was a reptilian counterpart of the girl they called Lilla!
I came up to my feet, automatic out. I was facing the Serpent, and ineffable horror shrieked through my brain.
THE somersault had carried me eight feet from the Serpent. The butt of my gun jarred my palm.
Orange-red flame streaked the gloom. I could not miss at this point-blank range.
I did not miss. Through the firearm's thunder I heard the smack, smack of lethal lead thudding into that sinuous shape, thumb-thick slugs each one of which would smash the life out of a man.
I did not miss, but the appalling thing did not even recoil. It let go its hold, darted at me. And my automatic clicked futilely in an empty chamber.
I was weaponless now, helpless against the awful death that surged upon me. I whirled. Like unleashed springs the muscles in my legs hurled me fifteen feet across the greensward, caught the ground and catapulted me again in a long, nigh incredible leap that carried me into the hemlock hedge.
The boughs lashed and cut my cheeks. I was on the road, the scaly slither of the pursuing Serpent dreadfully plain just the other side of the hedge. Even in my desperate terror I remembered to turn away from the town, hoping to lead the monstrous killer away from it, hoping that Stortz would make shift to warn the helpless humans left in Eden.
Daylight had altogether vanished in that few minutes of whirlwind combat, and it was sightless darkness into which I blindly ran. The roar of my blood in my ears kept me from hearing any longer the sounds of pursuit and I dared not risk slowing enough to turn my head and make certain how closely the Serpent followed me. I had read of the incredible speed with which those giant snakes could travel, knew I could not hope to elude it. But the more distance there was between us and the village when I was finally overtaken the better chance those others would have. So I pelted into the pitchy murk.
The road ended abruptly, pitched sharply down. A steep slope. Mud splashed about my ankles. My feet flew out from under me and I sprawled full length into icy water.
The fluid gurgled into my mouth, my nostrils; stinking, noisome. My arms pushed straight down to thrust me erect again. They found no bottom, though the mud sucked at my heels. My knees bent, tearing my feet loose and then I was swimming.
By a fortunate accident, I realized, I had escaped death by falling into the river where it ran deeper than usual near its bank. But snakes can swim.
I inhaled a long breath, regardless of the pain with which it seared my laboring lungs, and submerged. Swam with long, steady strokes beneath the surface.
It was oddly easy to swim like this. If I hadn't noticed how slowly the river flowed I would have thought myself in the grip of a swift current—and suddenly I knew—
I was being dragged downward! Inexorably the water was pulling me down. It was like a thousand hands tugging at me, a thousand implacable tendrils against which I was helpless.
Escaped death! I had merely exchanged one form of it for another only slightly less dreadful! But I wasn't giving up yet. My legs lashed out, my arms flailed against the inexorable fluid. My heart pounded and my chest heaved against the effort of my lungs to burst the throat seal with which I clamped my windpipe against the liquid breath of death. Dark agony swirled within my skull...
I FOUGHT up to the surface, gulped air, thrust lusty strokes against the current, lifted my eyes to orient myself.
I was near the left bank, but there was no safety there. That was the bottomless swamp against which I had been warned in Centredale. I would have to swim across to the other shore. I would have to—but that damned current was faster now. It was a solid sheet of water sweeping me down-river with an irresistible rush...
Was there some curve ahead, to which I could angle? I looked. Good Lord! There wasn't any curve ahead. And there wasn't any river! I was being hurled, catapulted toward a vertical bank of black rock. Lost River ended there!
It didn't end. It went under the mountain, diving in a brawling cataract to some lightless, subterranean tunnel that would take it to the sea. That was the reason for the current that was sweeping me helplessly along. That was where Lost River got its name.
Even as I fought, with the skill, the strength of long training, somehow to save myself, I recalled Uriah Stortz's piping voice. "If yuh want to find ?em, go look in the swamp, whar the river is lost an' the Serpent has Her lair."
I wasn't escaping the great snake, I was seeking its den. I was fighting to reach the very home of the python I had fled. But I might have a chance of somehow saving myself from the monstrous reptile. If I were carried down under that rock I was utterly lost.
These thoughts seared my brain and then the water was a smooth down roll in front of me, curling down for its plunge into the unknown. I approached that gleaming curve frantically reaching for something to which I could cling.
Then on the very verge of destruction, my hand somehow caught a projecting knob in that fanged rock wall. Somehow I jammed battered toes into a crevice. Another fierce effort, expending my last atom of strength, and I was over the edge, drenched and gasping, on solid ground.
After a while I realized that the dark throbbing about me was luminous with an eerie blue quarter-light. I found its source, a half-moon whose lower arc was serrated by the saw-edged tip of a down-slanting ridge over which it peered.
This was Old Mountain, I painfully figured out, sloping down to the plateau under which Lost River ran. It was still high, but not nearly so high as where it overhung Eden like a thunder cloud.
I had to get up. I had to get away from here. This was the bailiwick of the Serpent and if it found me here when it returned from its prowling—
There it was! I struggled, got to my hands and knees—and froze.
The sound that startled me came again to my ears, and it was a human footfall. A wan, outlineless shape drifted against the mountain's black screen.
"Lilla!" Joel Thornton's hoarse voice barked out of the darkness. "Whar hev yuh been?" There was controlled anger in that voice and a covert undertone of fear. "Whut hev yuh been doin'?"
"I've been—I've been... Oh, Uncle! It doesn't matter now, does it? I'm ready to go home. Take me home."
"Yuh'll come home all right." The reply was grim, filled with threat.
Lilla's answer came to me only as a sibilant hiss as the two shadowy figures moved away.
They were going, not towards the town, but away from it! Their home—Lilla's home—was somewhere near here.
I remembered that I had not first heard the haunting phrase about Lost River from Uriah Stortz. It was Lilla who had said, "I live on the other side of Eden, where the river is lost in the swamp."
I was curiously relieved as I got stealthily to my feet. The nightmare I had been passing through since that first terrible moment when I had come upon Seth Corbin's pulped body was for the first time showing an understandable pattern.
Lilla and Thornton, and the snake, had their abode on this far slope of the mountain. The staff the man carried was an enlarged replica of the forked sticks the snake charmers used to capture and control their venomous pets. Thornton was a snake-charmer extraordinary, master of a single huge python. For some obscure reason of his own he was using it to kill off the inhabitants of Eden, the girl luring them to meet her where the macabre murders would not be observed, fascinating them by some hypnotic power she had.
WHILE this was going through my head I was moving. My manhunter's instinct was aroused. I was a human bloodhound, nose to the trail, hackles bristling. I knew only that I was after a pair of killers, and that I was tracking them to their den.
But I kept thinking, checking my surmise, explaining what had happened to me in the light of my new knowledge, pondering the weird impression I still had that the girl and the snake incredibly metamorphosed from one to the other at will.
Thornton and the girl had recognized my name when I had so foolishly given it to Lilla. They had, from what Stortz had told me, apparently threatened the town with this new series of killings, and had jumped to the conclusion that the cripple had summoned me here to forestall them.
That was why they had tried to kill me, first by loosening the boulder upon me, then by luring me within reach of the Serpent.
"All right," I muttered. "You'd better be afraid of me. Because I'm coming after you."
I dared not get too near them, and their vague shadows were barely visible in the faint moon glow. And the woods was growing denser. But once they crossed a patch of brighter luminance and I saw that Thornton was very close to his niece, that his gnarled hand was clamped on her wrist. She walked listlessly, her head hanging, every line of her body slumped in dejection and despair.
A patch of blacker black hid them. I halted, at a loss. A twig snapped to my right and I saw them again, just going over the lip of a gully.
I waited a few seconds longer, sneaked to the edge of the ravine. I stretched myself on the ground and peered down.
We had been steadily climbing and were, I reckoned, about half-way up the hill. The moon lifted a little higher in the velvet sky and its radiance filled the cuplike depression below me.
The Thortons were just starting across its grassy floor, toward a house that occupied its center. Its two windows and the door between them made of the weathered, moss-stained wall a gigantic face.
A curious structure lumped tightly against the house's left side, like a swollen cheek. It was of stone, and seemed like an enlarged dog-kennel. It had a small, iron-barred window only a foot from the ground and its door was thickly studded with rivets. A thick-shanked padlock hung open in its hasp.
My heart thumped with triumph. That granite lean-to could have only one purpose. It was the cage of the killer-python, the lair of the death-dealing Serpent. It had Joel Thornton dead to rights! As soon as the two I watched were safely inside their house, I would...
They weren't going to the house. They were going straight to the snake pen! They reached that riveted door; the old man swung it open, brandished the forked stick as if the girl were a serpent.
And with a pathetic little moan Lilla went into the black interior!
I saw her uncle slam the door shut, heard the scrape of the padlock as he replaced it, heard it click shut. But I did not move.
I could not have moved if my life had depended on it. I think not even my heart moved in that appalling instant. I knew that my throat was torn by a noiseless scream and that fingers of terror squeezed my brain.
The lair of the Serpent and the bedchamber of Lilla Thornton were one and the same.
WHILE the meaning of it, the utterly unbelievable meaning, hammered at my whirling brain even as all my reason shudderingly rejected it, Thornton unlocked the house door, went through it, and locked it again. I saw the fitful light of a match flicker against drawn shades, steady and grow brighter as though a lamp had been lit.
The old man's gaunt shadow went across one of the yellow oblongs, became misshapen as he shucked his mackinaw, then disappeared. He was evidently settling down for the evening.
Now was my chance to go to that stone cell, to demand from Lilla an explanation of what I had seen. That was the course I chose. I had to know what she was, prisoner or...
With the infinite caution of one who knows the slightest misstep will bring death rushing upon him, I slid over the edge of the gully, cautiously clambered down its shadowed side. Then I was crawling, flat to the grass, across the clearing; hitching myself inch by inch towards my goal.
I reached it, lifted on careful hands till my head reached the window, tried to peer in. I couldn't. A black shade was drawn tightly over it.
Not too tightly, however, to prevent a filament of light to seep past one edge. Of light—there was light in that stone cage then. Lilla had light...
My nostrils flared to a queer odor—the musty, spine-tingling smell only a snake exudes. The moonlight was somewhat brighter here, and looking downward to the threshold of the rivet-studded door, I saw a minute object that froze the blood in my veins to a glacial jell. Glittering in the silver light was a bit of thin, mica-like stuff—the scale of a snake.
"Got yuh," a hoarse voice grunted, above me. "Got yuh dead t'rights, yuh damned spy."
I pounded frantic fists, knees, into the ground. It was useless. I was pinned inexorably to the earth by Joel Thornton's forked staff! I was caught by the man who had once at least already tried to kill me; twice, if my suspicions were correct.
A hard heel ground into my spine. "Lie still or I'll blast yuh apart." Agony burst through my body. I managed to force my head around within the implacable yoke to see the blued barrel of a shot-gun pointing at me, its butt nestling in the elbow crook of Thornton's free arm, a gnarled finger very steady on the trigger.
"What the hell," I groaned, "do you think you're about?"
"Fixin' yuh so yuh won't do no more snoopin'." The man's eyes were pits of glowering rage, his tone a low, ominous growl.
"Snooping? I don't know what you mean."
"No? Too bad yuh didn't know I cud get out the back an' do a little sneakin' myself. Too bad for yuh, mister. Get up! Get up slow, with yer hands away from yer clothes."
The fork stayed pressed against my neck as I obeyed, keeping me just far enough away from my captor so that my half-formed idea of springing in under the shotgun and fighting for release was impossible of performance. Nor could I chance a sudden leap for freedom. The gun was leveled straight by my midriff, and I had once seen a man cut in half by such a weapon.
"Now march," the old man grunted, "to the back uh the house. I'll take care uh yuh in there. An' if yer thinkin' of tryin' a yell fer help, fergit it. It won't do yuh no good."
This, I knew, was only too true. A shout might be heard in Eden, but who of its inhabitants would dare the dreadful woods to come to my aid?
I STUMBLED past the unbroken sidewall of the lean-to and around a corner. Behind the house the ground dropped away again steeply, but in the rear wall, poised almost on the very brink of the declivity, a door swung open.
He's not afraid of the snake, I thought, or he wouldn't have left that door open like that. My toes banged against its threshold and I went into dazzling light, into heat that was grateful, soaked and chilled through as I was.
"Mosey over to thet wall and shove yer face agin it," Thornton's harsh accents ordered.
In the thirty seconds it took me to obey, I had a complete picture of the room. It occupied more than half of the house. The heat came from a wood-burning range against the rear wall. Beside it was a pump-sink and a tall cupboard. There was a rag rug on the floor. In the center stood a rough-hewn but immaculately clean table on which a lit kerosene lamp rested, and two hand-fashioned chairs. Under the window was a cot, neatly made-up.
There were three doors; the one by which I had just come in, closed now; directly opposite this, was the one I had watched Thornton enter; and in the wall against which the stone pen had shrugged, a third.
As I reached the other wall, what I had seen of that third door thudded meaningfully within my aching skull. It was sheathed with an iron plate, riveted to the wood from edge to edge, and across it an arm-thick iron bar lay fastened in bolted sockets. If I had any doubt that the door connected with Lilla's prison, that doubt was now dispelled.
"Git yer hands down now," Thornton ordered, "an' behind yer back."
I obeyed, and I felt calloused hands lashing mine together. Now it was my feet that were being tied. The lashings at my ankles pulled tight, cutting into the flesh, and I swayed back, unbalanced. Thornton caught me, shoved me to one of the chairs.
"Now we kin talk," he grunted. "Whut did Lilla tell yer, back there by the road?"
I let my eyes widen with puzzlement. "Tell me? Only that I was going right for Eden."
The old man's face hardened, and it was a corrugated, inhuman mask of virulent hate out of which red-rimmed eyes peered with a basilisk glare. "Yuh lie," he mouthed.
I shrugged. "What do you think she told me?"
"Whut no man kin know an' keep on livin'." A brown lip curled away from rotted teeth. "Who did yuh tell what she said?"
"I told you she didn't say anything to me except the directions I asked for."
"That's twice yuh lied," Thornton growled. "I got a good cure fer thet." He dropped his stick and gun on the table, turned away, thudded stiff-legged to the rear of the room.
A metallic clangor startled me. It was a stove-lid that had made the sound, rolling from the range top. In the scarlet light glaring from the hole it uncovered Thornton's gaunt countenance was demoniac, lurid with a maniacal, sadistic cruelty.
He was poking into the stove's entrails with a pair of long tongs. He pulled them out. Their jaws gripped a wedge of red fire along whose sides tiny white sparks smoked and glittered.
"Good thing I had this axe-bit annealin' in thar," the woodsman said. "It'll come in right handy." He came back toward me with a soundless, pantherine pace and that yellow-toothed, mirthless grin of his was more cruelly feline than before. "I think yuh'll talk now, mister. Or would yuh ruther have me shove this into thet pretty face of yers?"
"I can't talk," I gritted, "because I haven't anything to talk about. I've told you the truth."
The blazing metal shoved straight at my eyes, blinding them with its glare and its fierce heat... My bound feet swept up, flailed out—pounded into Thornton's belly!
The axe-bit arced into the air, skittered away across the floor. The muscles across the small of my back hurled me out of my chair, threw me jolting into the staggering torturer. The man went down, I atop him. My head battered against Thornton's jaw.
The body under me quivered, and lay still. I pulled in a gasping breath, rolled away from him. My eyes smarted from the heat that had beat at them for a single terrible second. My back felt as though the seldom-used ligaments upon which I had called for this swift turning of the tables had been pulled from their fastenings, and the thongs were cutting fiercely into my wrists and ankles.
The acrid tang of scorched wood stung my nostrils. I writhed around, saw smoke rising from around the blackening axe-bit that by now would have eaten into my sight had it not been for my sudden, terrific effort.
I rolled to it. Shrugging around, I managed to get my back turned to it, managed to shove my wrists against it.
I could not see it, of course, and tied as I was I could move only clumsily. To the odor of charred wood was added another smell, that of scorched flesh.
Every nerve, every cell in my body shrieked protest at the excruciating pain that ran to them from those wrists of mine. Teeth clenched, the cold sweat of agony beading my brow, I held them tightly against the searing iron...
Just as I reached the limit of endurance, just at the instant I could bear it no longer, a sound entered the room that piled terror atop my anguish.
It was a tiny sound, but it conveyed a message of horror to me. It was the slither of a scaly body against a wall.
It came from behind the iron-sheathed, iron-barred door.
The Serpent was in the room with Lilla Thornton!
THE thought of those terrible coils entwining Lilla's delicate limbs, constricting them, tightening awfully on that slim, beautiful body, lent me almost maniac strength. My biceps swelled, till the sleeves about them ripped. My teeth cut through my lip. The cords gashed my blistering flesh, and parted.
I jerked up to a sitting posture, fairly tore the lashings from my ankles. I sprang to my feet, snatched the forked stick from the table, hurled myself at the door, dashed the bar from the sockets in which it rested.
I did not bother with the shotgun. I had discovered once, to my dismay, that bullets were of no avail against the reptilian monster.
The iron clanked to the floor and I tugged at the doorknob. The door groaned open. I swerved around the edge, lurched into the chamber. Lamplight followed me in. I halted, peering about me.
I saw a room, narrow, low-ceiled, stonewalled, but a room. Ruffled chintz skirted a crudely made dresser, a gaily colored rug carpet lay on the floor, there were even flimsy curtains edging the low, black-shaded window. There was a chair in the room, and a bed with its blankets and sheets thrown back.
Lilla was springing from that bed. She stared wide-eyed at me, her lips hidden by her small hand, flung palm out against them, her slender frame swaying strangely, almost like a python rising to strike.
Beside her there was no other living thing in that room! But on the bed, in the depression her form had made, the lamplight glinted on a reptile's scale. My scalp tightened and the icy fingers of fear closed once more about my heart.
A scream pricked the bubble of my amazement. It was Lilla who screamed, her eyes on the forked stick I held. Before I could move, before I could realize or anticipate her intention, she flung herself at the solid stone at the rear of the room, as though to batter out her brains against it—and vanished.
An aperture had opened there, and closed behind her, in an eye blink of time! Then I too was flinging myself at the apparently solid wall. It gave way; a panel pivoted on unseen hinges. I plunged through into earth-redolent darkness.
There was nothing beneath my feet. I dropped, plummet-like into a lightless hole, a burrow angling sharply downward. My mouth, my eyes, were filled with the clayey loam, my ears were stuffed with it...
I shot out into the open air, fell sprawling through foliage that lashed at me and hit hard. The staff was jolted from my grip, but I snatched it up.
The high bank above me was the declivity I had noted behind the Thornton dwelling. The tunnel went through it, into this glade. That was how Lilla escaped from the cell in which her Uncle thought her safe.
LEAVES rustled behind me. I whirled; Lilla was peering at me through a leafy screen. I didn't meet her eyes. I knew better. I stared at the nubile swell of the bosom that her glimmering garment covered but did not conceal. I was careful to make no move, except that which tightened my grip on the forked stick.
"Lilla," I said. "Come here. I promised to help you. I will help you." The hot blood was pounding against my skin. "Come here so I can talk to you without yelling."
"Yess-sss, Ross-ss," she said. "I will come. Put down that stick and I will come to you."
"No." I tried to make it casual. "I don't think I had better. It's the only weapon I have against the Serpent."
The breast at which I stared heaved once, and then was still. But I sensed that her belly muscles were tight under the snakeskin belt with some tremendous emotion, and that her voice was tight as she wailed:
"You know! You know!"
Pity for her was a sharp pain in my throat. "Yes, Lilla," I responded softly. "I know. But it isn't your fault. You did your best to fight against it." Why was I suddenly so sure that there were two separate entities in that shapely body, the snake-woman and a terrified hopeless girl whom—I loved!
"Yes. I did my best to fight, but it wasn't any use." I scarcely heard her, stunned as I was with the realization that every fiber, every minutest portion of my body and my soul was tortured with longing, with fierce, unquenchable desire for this wistful, strange maiden.
"I am my mother's daughter. She must have fought too, but she failed and they found her in the swamp with a silver bullet in her... I am the daughter of the Serpent. I am Lilith the Serpent-Woman, and my embrace is the kiss of death."
"Lilla!" I forgot my determination not to look at her face. "That's nonsense. It isn't so!" Her lips were twisted by anguish; her great eyes were luminous in the moonlight and glistening with unshed tears. "It cannot be so. Listen to me. Understand me. It is not so!"
"Do you really think so?" There was no longer any hiss in her voice; it was the voice of a lonely, frightened child. "Ross, do you really think so?"
"Of course!" I had to convince her of that. "Of course I do." I looked deep into those shining orbs of hers, trying to convey to her the certitude of her innocence that so suddenly had flooded me.
"But he told me so. Uncle told me. When he killed a garter snake and I made a belt for myself out of its pretty skin, he told me the dreadful story about Mother, and that I must have the curse in my blood too, and he built the cage for me so as to keep me safe."
"Yes," I murmured grimly. "He made you and the people in Eden believe that superstitious nonsense to cover himself up. And he got away with it." A thought occurred to me. "You didn't construct that hinged stone and the burrow through which you could get out, did you?"
"No!" Her reply seemed to be coming from an immense distance. "I don't know who did that. I don't, even, remember how I knew they were there. But I knew I could get out."
She didn't remember... I recalled her confusion about the time, in my first meeting with her.
"There are so many things I can't remember, Ross. Why is it that I remember getting out of the cage and finding a note to meet Seth Corbin in the road, and then nothing more till I was running from you in the woods, and there was blood, just a little blood, on my belt? Later, too, I suddenly found myself running through the woods as if someone were after me, and there was blood on my hands. Uncle met me, and talked to me and then—and then it was much later and Uncle was taking me home. He told me I had changed to the Serpent and killed... Why can't I remember?"
I had the answer ready for her. "Hypnotic post-suggestion? He hypnotized you once, gave you commands that you must obey in the future. You do what he wants you to, and don't remember afterward. He dabbles you with blood and tells you that you change to a murderous snake. But it isn't true. It isn't true, Lilla."
"I believe you." It was a sob of gladness. "I believe you Ross." Her arms lifted to me, white sleeves fluttering. "It is wonderful—to know—that I am not Lilith. How can I thank you, my dear? How can I...?"
"This way." I dropped the stick and closed the space between us at a bound. "Darling." She was in my embrace. "Sweet!" She was close to me, so close that we seemed to merge, so close that I felt the thump of her heart against my heart, felt her soft breasts against my breast, her thighs against mine. The fire of ecstasy leaped in my veins, seared my lips as feverishly they sought hers.
With a sibilant sigh she yielded to me, enclosed me in her arms. That embrace of hers tightened with sudden savagery! It was crushing me...
"Rossss," she breathed, and my name was prolonged into the long and venomous hiss of the Serpent!
TERROR exploded within me, tore me out of that lethal embrace, hurled me backwards away from that kiss of death.
The python's death strike whirred in my ears. It struck...
Not the python but the forked staff struck my shoulder. Canted on a stone, I had stepped on its short end, thrown the longer portion up to within reach of my hand. I snatched it, whirled again to meet the grisly attack...
The slender, undulating figure hesitated, the vibrant form of—Lilla! She had not completed her metamorphosis, or seeing me with the only weapon she dreaded had changed back again with the speed of lightning.
"Got you!" I growled, lunging to pin her to the wide bole of a tree behind her. But she evaded the fork, darted into the thicket. She was a white wraith flitting through the black shadows, and I rushed after her, clumsy, awkward with fatigue and with horror. I caromed against a tree, went to my knees, scrambled up again.
She was far ahead now. I couldn't see her any longer, but I could hear the swish of a branch, the crackle of a twig, that told of her passage.
I was on the road! I was passing the hemlock hedge behind which was Uriah Stortz's abode, and here was the Corbins' house in Eden, right ahead of me.
I managed to stop myself. Queer! There wasn't any light in the sky, only the vast, terrible pall of Old Mountain. There wasn't any light in the house. Yet I could see it clearly, a black bulk against a vague, colorless glow.
That glow came from the mountain itself, from the wound where the Corbins had gashed its skin of earth. It came from the pile of rock whose edge I could see beyond the side of the house!
Black rock that glowed in the dark! My forehead wrinkled. I once had seen something like that, and it seemed terribly important for me to remember where. I thought of glittering glass, of acid smells.
"This is a particularly rich piece of pitchblende," a chemist friend of mine had said, showing me what looked like a piece of soft coal, and then turning out the light so that it glowed as if shot with veins of blue fire. "If it was all like that we would have to use only one ton for a milligram of radium, instead of three. A little came into the market some years ago, and then we couldn't get any more. The vein must have petered out. If I could find another like it I'd never have to work again."
MY FOOT thudded against something soft, yielding. It tripped me, weak as I was, and I fell.
My palms, breaking my fall, went into some liquid—thick, sticky.
It wasn't only the feel of what I had fallen into that sent the prickling chills chasing one another up and down my spine. There was an unmistakable odor in my nostrils that told me what is was.
The smell of stale blood.
I recalled a lighter in my pocket, guaranteed against water and wind. I contrived to fish it out, to thumb its spring. Flame spurted from it, flickering flame that made a wavering hole in the dark.
I stared at grey hair that was matted together with slime. I stared at cloth mixed inextricably with flesh that had burst like a rotten plum, with bone crushed to bits by a tremendous constricting force...
Beyond what the Serpent had left of the Widow Corbin, was a half-open door. Some indiscernible bulk held it open, and I heaved erect to see what it was.
A distorted leather boot told me. One of the youths, I could not tell whether it had been Elmer or Josh. Not even when somehow I was close to it and bending down to it...
The blood in which this fearful corpse was bathed was still scarlet, the raw flesh still quivering! It had been alive only seconds ago! Only seconds ago the python had left this last of its prey.
It was still in the house! I heard the slow slither of it, somewhere in the dark room on which this door opened.
My lunge into the room whence that sound had come blew out my torch. Darkness smashed in about me, complete, impenetrable darkness.
Somewhere in this awful blackness the slither of a gigantic, crawling thing continued. It had seen me! Without sight I stood no chance against it!
I halted, quivering, bracing myself against the shock of the attack... A vertical thread of light sprang abruptly into existence, widened to a slit, a narrow oblong...
Some door there ahead of me was opening to let in the colorless, eerie radiance of the pitchblende. Against that pale glow, low down, a black mass moved, a stygian bulk close to the floor.
I leaped for it, the spread ends of my staff flailing before me. They scissored the creeping thing...
It squealed; the thin cry somehow obscene coming from so tremendous a bulk. It writhed around in the wooden yoke.
A human face gleamed pallidly in that pallid light. Not Lilla's but Uriah Stortz's!
The door had swung wide now and I saw that it was Stortz who had been crawling across the floor, shoving his obese body along on his elbows, his boneless pipestem legs trailing helplessly behind.
He saw me too. "Gawd," he mumbled. "I thought... Take this thing off'n me, quick, or I'll lose my chance."
"Your chance? What do you mean?"
"Keep quiet. Look out there."
I released him, got to the door jamb, and peered out. The rock pile sent its gleam across the ground between it and the house. Halfway in that space Elmer Corbin stood, intently watching the pitchblende heap. His legs were spread wide apart; clenched in one fisted hand he held a rusted blunderbuss of a revolver.
"I cudn't keep him from goin' out there," Stortz whispered. "He don't stand a chanct, but it's just as well. When she comes for him she'll be a fair mark, an' the silver bullets I got in my shotgun ?ull do her in."
The youth tensed. A shadow moved, one side of the rock pile. It slid along the ground and then...
And then Lilla came into view, her garment shredded, torn from her so that her white, gleaming limbs, the pearly sheen of her skin, were outlined by the weird luminosity. She saw Elmer Corbin. Her eyes widened, her mouth twisted, but she did not halt. She went steadily toward him.
"Lilla," I heard the youth groan. "Run ter the house quick. It'll git yuh..."
"What do you mean, Elmer?" she replied. She moved toward him, apparently too dazed to understand.
"I'll fix her," muttered Stortz. The thump of the shotgun barrel against his leg pulled my eyes down to him. He had it against his shoulder. He was aiming it at Lilla!
In that moment I forgot what she was, remembered only that I loved her. I jackknifed, snatched the gun from the cripple's hand. "You lunatic," I yelled. "You'll kill her."
"Hell," Stortz squealed. "Now yuh've scared her off."
I glanced up. Lilla was just darting into the rock pile! She vanished.
"Are all of you crazy?" I snorted. "She's..."
I cut off, my blood curdling. A triangular black head jutted out of the jumbled stones! A great slender length surged out of it. The huge python fairly leaped across the ground.
The python! Lilla! Lilla had darted in there and the python had come out of there. The grotesque, unbelievable metamorphosis had happened under my very eyes. My last hope fled. The girl I loved was utterly beyond doubt the Serpent...
A thunderous crash blotted out thought. Elmer Corbin fired again...
And went down under the reptile's irresistible rush. The huge body coiled to crush him and the youth's scream was a scarlet knife slashing the night.
MY BRAIN clicked to icy calm. There was only one thing to do. The Serpent's head rose high above its constricting coils. Calmly, quite calmly I aimed at the monster that unbelievably was Lilla, pressed the shotgun's trigger...
The blast was a tremendous detonation within my skull. In a flash of lurid lightning the snake's head vanished. The recoil jolted me backward, and for a moment everything went black. Then a sudden shock brought full consciousness back to me. I had been tossed against a wall of the house, and before me there was a grunting, whirling maelstrom of combat. It screamed, disintegrated.
Part of it lay still. That was Uriah Stortz, his throat a red gash. The other part of it was Joel Thornton, his hollow-cheeked face distorted with rage, his eyes blazing hatred. A knife dripped scarlet in his bony fist.
Then I saw Lilla! But Lilla was dead. I had shot her head off, just now, while it was the head of the serpent.
My head rolled. Through the door I saw the flaccid form of Elmer Corbin, and the decapitated body of the python. The snake was out there. Lilla was in here. Lilla was not the snake.
WE pieced the rest of the story together afterwards, when we searched Stortz's house. To understand how he managed to get away with his demoniacal plan one must realize that he was the only one in the community who could read. It was called Eden because originally it was a colony of one of those strange sects that seek to revive the content of an elder world in communal isolation, and they thought learning bred evil thoughts, so they eschewed it.
That was why Stortz had not been afraid to keep the documents that told the story. The first was a yellowed newspaper story. It was an account of the escape of a python from a circus showing in Centredale, years before. The great snake was believed to have gained the swamp that lay along Lost River and hope of its recovery was given up.
"Thet was whut killed near everybody in Eden," Joel Thornton muttered. "I was down to the city with a load of rock to sell it. We had just started the mine. When I came back they was only baby Lilla left, an' Eve Corbin an' her children, an' Uriah. He was lyin' on the lip of rock where the river gets lost an' Lilla's mother was a lyin' in th' swamp, with a bullet into her. Stortz tol' me she had turned into a great snake an' had done the damage, an' that when she had holt of him an' he shot her, she turned back into a woman."
"I wudn't work the mine arter that, an' he cudn't, and he wudn't let us hire furriners becuz he was afraid they'd jump our claim. The woods grew back over it. Then the Corbin boys grew up and unkivered it. It was about then he started actin' so funny when Lilla used to come an' cook fer him. Wasn't it, Lilla?"
"Yes. He used to look at me till his eyes would get so big I couldn't see anything but them." She shuddered and I stopped her from saying any more, but I knew who had hypnotized her.
The second of the telltale documents was a letter on the stationery of the Universal Radium Corporation. "Dear Mr. Stortz," it began. "We are very much interested in your report that you own a deposit of extraordinarily rich pitchblende ore. Our Mr. Linton will call to inspect it on the first of next month, in accordance with your statement that you will not be ready for such inspection until then..."
"But he didn't own it," Lilla interrupted. "It belongs to all of us."
"He would have owned all of it," I commented, grimly, "by the time this Mr. Linton arrived. The rest of you would have been dead, killed by the serpent he obtained the Lord alone knows where, after the Corbins had done the development work necessary to confirm the mineral patents. To cover that up he revived the old story he invented to conceal his crime of long ago... Look. Here's a last week's newspaper. It's got my picture in it, and an account of the trial. Now I understand why he lured me here and set the python on me. He knew I was a detective and he must have thought I had gotten on his trail, either for that old murder or for stealing the Serpent from the zoo. But how did he know I was coming early enough to try to kill me on the road here by sending that rock crashing down on me?"
"He didn't." Joel Thornton was low-voiced, shamefaced. "I did thet. I thought you had foun' out thet Lilla was a snake-woman, an' I was desprit to keep you from takin' the tidin's to Eden. Arter thet failed I went a dang sight crazier, an' I was ready to kill everybody yuh talked to."
"Which explains what you tried to do to me in your cabin."
"Yes." Thornton held out his knobbed wrists, close together. "Put the handcuffs on me. I'm ready to pay. Happy to, now I know my Lilla is just like any other girl."
I shook my head. "No. You've suffered enough, Mr. Thornton. I'm going to forget all about what you tried to do to me. This pitchblende mine belongs to you and Lilla, now that everyone else of the Eden Colony is dead. You're going to stay here and superintend it."
"I won't stay here," Lilla moaned.
"You're not going to," I grinned. "You're coming home with me."
"Yuh—yuh can't do that," Thornton spluttered. "Yuh ain't married."
"But we will be," I answered him. "Just as soon as we reach Centredale.
ALL that happened six months ago. Lilla is my beloved wife. We have just moved into the little house I have had built for us, and I ought to be very happy. But I'm not.
Lilla was so eager to come here that we set up housekeeping before our home is really ready for occupancy. I can look out, in fact, through the wide casement window before which I am writing and in the light of my desk lamp see a big square pen of drying cement the builders haven't had time to take away.
We hadn't been here a day before she started going out in the morning and not coming back till after midnight. And the old look of fear is back in her eyes.
She pleaded with me, till I promised not to ask her why she goes nor where.
I get queer ideas. For instance about the tool box in the basement. It must be a tool box, though it seems too large for that, and strangely shaped. It is not very high, but it is long and wide.
Its hinged lid is fastened tightly shut, but I can't find any lock on the outside. It seems absurd to think the lock could be on the inside, but not quite as absurd as it would be except for the other strange circumstance.
That's the little hole cut into one end of the case, with a mesh of steel wire stretched over it. I tried to flash a light into the hole, but it was covered within by a bit of black fabric...
Can post-hypnotic suggestion retain its influence over a subject after the mesmerist's death? Does Lilla still think she is the serpent-woman? Did she bring that box here, so that she can creep into it when she feels the imagined change coming over her, locking it from the inside?
A woman's finger can manipulate a lock, but a snake cannot.
That must be the way the poor girl's mind is working. I'm going downstairs to break open the box and convince her once for all that she's not... Then I'll come back and hide this manuscript in this window-seat, the top of which hasn't been nailed down yet.
I won't have to. I hear her coming up the cellar stairs. The sound is like—exactly like—the slither of the python behind the wall of the Thornton house. I'm hiding these papers and...
The manuscript ends here in a blotch of ink. However, there is an additional sheet of paper we recognize as that usually used by Mr. Zagat, on which is a hastily scrawled note, beneath which is pasted a yellowed newspaper clipping. These follow:
When I got to Midville I asked a real estate man if he knew of any haunted houses. He laughed at me at first, but I told him I was a writer looking for material and he admitted that while he had no ghost ridden mansions, he did have listed a small house in an isolated section of the outskirts of this city that had been occupied for only a week and had been vacant for the last three years because of a terrible tragedy that had occurred there. He had a clipping of the item regarding it and showed it to me.
After I read it I asked for the keys and went out there. Nothing had been touched about the place; even the piles of waste lumber and the solid block of cement under the living room window had not been removed. The living room itself was in wild disorder, as though a terrific struggle had occurred there. Poking around I discovered that the top of the window seat was loose, and in it I found the sheets I am mailing you herewith.
I am going out to Eden to try and locate Joel Thornton. I'll let you know why later.
FAMED DETECTIVE MURDERED
At an early hour this morning Jans Holmberg, a carpenter, discovered the body of Ross Kane, detective, lying in a bloody shambles in the living room of his newly built house on Thornhill Road. Mrs. Kane was nowhere to be found.
Kane's body was identified only by a set of keys, it was so horribly pulped.
The police were at first of the opinion, because of the sadistic nature of the slaying, that it had been perpetrated by some remnant of the Scarlet Legion, in revenge for Kane's destruction of that unholy organization, and that Mrs. Kane had been kidnapped by these same men. But the discovery of the woman's unhurried footprints at the edge of a flower bed caused them to change their mind. A general alarm has been sent out for the apprehension of the young woman as the murderer of the famous detective.
As we were correcting final proof on the last pages of the foregoing a thick envelope arrived by airmail. We tore it open at once, because it was postmarked Centredale, and we knew what it was:
I located Eden all right, and a very busy pitchblende mine, but no one knew anything about Joel Thornton. The mine is being run by the Universal Radium Products Company, and their manager tells me they are holding royalties accruing to its owner in a trust account, awaiting a claimant.
I determined to see if I could find the Thornton house in the woods, and succeeded. I not only found the house, but I found a couple living there, and taking a wild chance I accused the woman of being Lilla Kane.
If this was my story, I'd tell about what almost happened to me when the man heard that. But I somehow contrived to get some sense into him before he'd quite beaten out whatever senses I may possess, and then the truth came out.
Not only was the woman Lilla, but the man was—Ross Kane! Very much alive, as certain bruises on my face can attest. Here's the rest of the story:
...Kane thrust the manuscript into the window seat, slammed down the top, straightened. But he did not turn to meet the girl he heard coming...
A shadow lay across the ground outside the window, the misshapen shadow of a man. The thought flashed across Kane's mind that someone had seen where he had hidden the manuscript, would steal it and use it to blackmail Lilla. He vaulted over the sill, lifted and fairly threw the lurker into the room.
The fellow apparently struck his head and lay sprawled on the floor, stunned. Kane was staring at the bearded, gaunt countenance of Joel Thornton.
He had hardly time to realize this, when he heard the living room portieres swish as they parted. He glanced up, words trembling on his lips to forestall Lilla's astonishment at seeing her uncle stretched unconscious on the floor. But those words were never uttered.
It was not Lilla he saw gliding into the room. It was a great python!
The snake hesitated a moment, saw the stunned man and catapulted toward him. Before Kane could move, before he could get back over the sill and into the room, the huge reptile had wrapped itself around Thornton; and blood, pulped flesh, were spurting from between its glistening folds.
"Lilla!" Kane screamed, and hurled himself on the snake that was the woman he loved, tore at it with frantic fingers.
The snake quivered, uncoiled, lashed its tail around Kane's legs. He managed somehow to get them free, and then commenced an epic struggle. How long it lasted, just what happened, he was unable to tell me, but suddenly he heard Lilla screaming. The lashing coil with which he was battling seemed to be changing in character. With a last, despairing effort he tore himself loose from them—and sank into oblivion.
HE came back to consciousness to find Lilla, in her own form again, bending over him as he lay across the window sill.
The snake was nowhere in evidence. Kane dared not ask his wife the question that shrieked in his brain. But she answered it without his asking.
"No, Ross," she said. "I did not change into the snake. It came from the basement, from the box in the cellar. It was delivered here one morning while you were downtown, and I heard the thing rustling inside. My uncle sent that here, and just now he managed to release the creature so that it would kill us."
"Then you—" Kane stammered.
"I've been going out to find him. Telling you about it would do no good. You could escape him this time, but he would keep on trying to murder us as long as he could profit by it. I had to find him and buy him off, and I had to be able to assure him that you knew nothing about his attempt."
By the time she finished Ross Kane had recovered the ability to think clearly, and a new terror confronted him. There was the dead body in the living room, and there was no way to get rid of it. The snake had escaped, and who in the world would believe their story of how Joel Thornton had met his death?
They were certain to be accused of the old man's murder, certain to be executed for it. They must flee at once, under the cover of the night.
A mirthless grin creased Ross Kane's face, that was black with the pitchblende dust... "As long as we can't produce the snake, we'll have to stay here."
I said, "Hell, Kane. I know where that snake is. That window-seat top slid off the sill while I was scrabbling for your manuscripts. It hit the slab of hardened cement and cracked it. Rains had washed the earth away from under each end of it so that it opened like a book along the crack, and embedded in it, preserved by the lime, I saw the body of your python."
"What...?" The fellow couldn't get any more out, but I knew what he was asking.
"The reptile was pretty weak, after its long confinement in that box. You tore it loose from Thornton and hurled it out of the window and it fell into the half-solid cement. It covered itself over with its final feeble struggles and died; it's been there ever since."
After which I got out of there. They didn't miss me, those two. They didn't even see me go. — Arthur Leo Zagat.