Linda Loray went to the quiet country town of Torburg to become a bride—but not the Bride of Lazarus, a mad fiend who conducted midnight orgies where naked, maniac girls clawed one another asunder in bestial fury—and the spectators were dead men lusting for the sight of blood!
LINDA LORAY tried not to show her disappointment and growing uneasiness as she asked the hotel clerk whether he knew Holt Carst—the man she had come to Torburg to wed.
"Yes," he replied, eyes narrowing in his young but strangely grey-hued, brooding countenance. "Everybody in Torburg knows Holt Carst." His glance flickered over Linda's face with a curious intentness, dropped to the brass-framed card, flat on the counter, that bore the words:
ON DUTY: Dan Thilton
"Mr. Carst wired me to come by the late train," Linda explained, "but he wasn't at the station and there was no message for me." She was poignantly conscious of the dusty hush of the lobby, of its somehow desolate emptiness. "How can I reach him?"
"Hard to say." The girl had a queer impression that Thilton was holding something back deliberately, perhaps maliciously. "There are no more trains till morning. Best thing for you is take a room here and wait for Carst to get in touch with you." He shoved the register at her; thrust a pen into her hesitant fingers.
The ancient, musty inn was vaguely repulsive to her, but there was nothing else for her to do but sign: Linda Loray, Boston.
Thilton turned and took a key from a rack whose hooks were completely filled. He came out from behind the counter, moving slowly, not from weariness but as though trammeled by some odd reluctance. His tall frame was a little stooped, a little awkward with the earthbound clumsiness peculiar to men born in the hills.
"This way," he murmured, picking up Linda's bag and motioning across rutted floor tiles toward a staircase at the other end of the dim foyer. Linda reached the worn steps, started to mount them. "Lije," Thilton called, behind her. "Oh, Lije!"
A big door slid open in the lobby wall at right angles to the staircase, and the cloying, sick-sweet odor of funeral flowers was all about the girl. She turned, startled, and looked through the doorway.
The flowers were piled around a makeshift bier in what must be the dining room of the old hotel. They formed a bank of blood-red roses, of lilies wax-white as death itself, and on that bank a dull ebony coffin rested. Two huge candles were burning on either side of it.
There was no lid to the coffin, so that from her slight eminence Linda looked right down into it. She saw a black frock coat clothing a man's body—a coat unnaturally stiff as are only the garments of the dead.
The dead man's hands were decorously folded on the rigid chest, but even lifeless they were pallid, rapacious claws; their bony fingers half-curled as if still eager to tear some helpless, quivering flesh.
The head was completely bald. The face was lashless, wax-white as the lilies. It resembled the visage of an albino vulture. Beneath the closed, blue eyelids the skin sagged in the pendulous dark pouches of dissipation, and the way the livid lips were thinly puckered branded those moribund features with lascivious cruelty.
"I'm going upstairs, Lije," Thilton said, "to show this lady to her room. Watch things, will you?"
"Sure," a toneless, heavy voice responded. "Sure, Dan."
Linda looked at the man who had opened the door from within. The watcher of the dead was as tall as Thilton, as spare-framed and gangling, but much older. His hair was iron-grey, his cheeks deeply seamed, weather-beaten. And in his hands there was—a shotgun! Its black barrel slanted across his torso and one calloused forefinger rested on the trigger. Watcher of the dead indeed! The man called Lije was a guard of the dead. An armed guard!
Against what impossible menace was he armed? Against what ghouls who would violate a coffined corpse?
Thilton, in motion again, forced Linda to recommence her climb, lest he collide with her. He unlocked the door of a room at the head of the stairs, shifted the key to the inside, put her bag down and departed without a word.
Despite the questions hammering within Linda's skull, questions she oddly dared not voice. Despite her perturbation over Holt Carst's failure to meet her, the exhaustion of her long journey welled up drug-like in her, numbed her. She was already half-asleep as she undressed, and when she crept into the creaking bed, it was as though she crept into immediate, tangible oblivion...
THOUGH she had slept long enough to warm the harsh cotton sheets, Linda Loray's slim body seemed molded within ice when she awoke—as frigid and as utterly incapable of motion! Fear, naked and terrible, was a presence in the room, a livid crawl in her veins.
The sound that had startled her to the quick came again—a thin cry shrilling out of the night. This time the incredible words were clear and terrifying.
"They're coming! The dead are coming!"
Running footfalls thudded toward the hotel. "The dead—they're alive again!" The shout was right under Linda's window, and the pound of frightened feet was first dull on the hard-dirt path from Torburg's single street, then hollow on the inn's porch planks. "They're com—" A door slammed, cutting off the cry.
"Lije!" a muffled voice shouted from below. Now the sounds of trampling feet were within the house, the sounds of voices husky with apprehension but too low for Linda to distinguish the words...
She was dreaming, she tried to tell herself, and then her fear-frozen brain was demanding, can one dream noises alone, seeing nothing, feeling nothing except the pressure of one's lids against aching eyeballs, the pressure of lids one fights un-availingly to open?
It must be a dream. In no waking moment did one hear a voice crying that the dead were alive. Only in a nightmare did one's muscles refuse the bidding of a brain squeezed between the jaws of terror's dreadful vise. Only in a nightmare were one's nostrils so stuffed with the odor of funeral flowers that one could hardly breathe.
Of course! The smell of the flowers from that improvised morgue below, seeping up through the moldering walls and warped floors of the crumbling structure, had inspired a dream of horror. If she could only get her eyes open, if she could only come fully awake...
It was no dream! Linda was staring at the cold, hueless glow of moonlight that crept into the musty chamber. She was awake now, without possibility of question, and she still heard those ominous sounds.
Hushed voices quivered with some dreadful urgency. Something scraped ponderously, as though a heavy piece of furniture was being moved across the lobby floor to barricade the entrance.
On the faded quilt that weighed Linda down, the lunar luminance lay, shaped in a sharp-edged rectangle by the frame of the window through which it seeped. The oblong was deeply notched by a triangular black shadow. The girl focused her attention on that strange silhouette, trying by pondering the puzzle its odd shape presented to take her mind from the more fearful puzzle of the weird warning she had overheard, of the threat against which the preparations below were being made.
The sky had been dark when she had toiled up the deserted street from the railroad station. The moon must be now just rising. It was the shadow of a building, then, that lay on the coverlet. Linda recalled seeing a church, across the wide Main Street from the inn. Inevitable landmark of a New England village, its steeple had pointed a slender finger to the heavens. The moon was behind it now and this somber triangle was the shadow of the steeple's tip.
There had been an iron-fenced graveyard beside the church...
Thud! That dull sound was outside the inn. It was the thump of stone on soft earth. Thud! Ridiculous to think—that they were made by tombstones falling, one by one, on the soft loam of the graves they marked, that the sounds came from the graveyard...
Rusty hinges screamed protest against being disturbed! There had been an iron gate in that iron fence. It was opening! Who, what, was opening it?
Casting the quilt and sheets off her body, Linda sat there for a moment in a daze. Then suddenly her bare feet struck the floor, and she came erect.
The sheer silk of her nightgown was no armor against the sharp chill of the upland night. Gooseflesh prickled her nubile breasts. Muscles tautened across her flat abdomen, shrinking from the frigid sting. The cold struck through to the very marrow of her bones, but the girl did not hesitate. The imperative need to know what was going on was impelling her to the open window through which the moonlight—and the scrape of dragging feet on flagstones—came.
She reached it, peered through it. The tiny burial place was plain in a pale weird light that lay on it like a transparent shroud.
Linda saw the black oblong of an open grave. It was for the dead man, of course, who was laid out in the dining room below. But there was another, and another; and on the grass behind them their headstones lay, askew as if just now they'd toppled to the ground.
The earth from those empty graves was not neatly piled but had erupted from the black holes, as though it had been thrust up from beneath.
The shadow of the church was black along the front of the graveyard, along the tall fence that a century ago had been wrought by patient sledges to wall the graveyard in, so that Linda's staring gaze could not make out what it was that moved there. But something moved there, many things, in fact, and from within the shadow came the faint scrapings that had seemed to her the sound of bony feet on the flagstones that paved the churchyard paths...
Whatever was there moved toward the curb, moved across the curb and out into the street. The darkness not so intense there, Linda made out the form of a man; other forms followed him. The leader came nearer still, came into a patch of pale moonlight.
A scream formed in Linda Loray's throat, was held there by the swelling of her larynx that cut off all her breath but a wheezing gasp.
Moldering garments fluttered about that scrawny shape, and through the rents in them grey-whiteness flashed that could be only skeleton ribs. Its head was grotesquely askew on twisted shoulders, and its face...
It had no face!
It had only a serrated, grinning gap where its mouth ought to be, two great stygian pits for eyes. That macabre countenance was earth-smeared, and something flapped against a grey-white cheek-hollow, like an ear that had rotted loose.
An ear that flapped with the grisly, limping gait of the thing as it crept along. The thing passed into shadow again. But the shape that followed it was no less gruesome, nor was the one that followed next...
They went across that patch of revealing luminance, and darkness hid them from Linda once more. But the shadow could not shut from her ears the scrape, scrape which told her that the spectral procession paraded straight up the path to the inn, that it mounted the steps to the hotel porch.
It could not keep her from hearing the rat-a-tat of bony knuckles on the door below her window, and the sepulchral voice that boomed a summons.
"Open!" it called. "Open for the League of Lazarus."
LINDA LORAY'S trembling fingers bit into the window sill. It wasn't—it couldn't be true. She had not seen living corpses marching from their violated graves. They were not clustered beneath her, hidden from her by the porch roof, demanding admittance to the very house that sheltered her.
Such things could not happen. Yet—
"Open!" the dead leader of the dead boomed once more. "We have come for our brother and his bride."
His bride! The bride of the dead? There had been only one coffin down there. There had been no keys missing from the rack in the lobby—no other room was occupied...
It could not be she whom they meant. How could it? In the morning she would be a bride, but not of a dead man. Of Holt Carst, who was vibrantly, heart-stirringly alive.
"Not this time," a voice shouted. "We ain't going to let you in." It wasn't Dan Thilton's voice. "This Lazarus business is going to stop right now." It was the voice of Lije, the man who had watched a corpse with a shotgun in his hands. "Henry Fulton's going to be buried proper, and he's going to stay buried."
Where was Holt? Why had he not met her at the station? What business could he have so important as to keep him from her? Saying goodbye he had murmured, "It's only for a few weeks, sweetheart, but it's going to seem like years. I dread the thought of our being separated."
Linda had smiled through her tears. "You don't really mean that, Holt. You've only known me for a month, surely you couldn't have gotten as used to having me around as all that."
"I've known you forever, Linda—in my dreams." She felt that way about him, too. She seemed always to have known his lithe, straight figure, his dark eyes that could be so gay, that could glow with such tenderness. "Known, and loved you forever." From the first time she had met him; his every little gesture had been utterly familiar, as when he tossed his head to fling back his shock of ebon hair from his high, white brow. "I'll send for you as soon as I can."
Then the trainman had called, "All aboard! All ab-o-oard!" And Holt's arms had crushed her to him, his lips hot on hers.
"Take me with you," Linda had gasped against his lips. "Now." But he had thrust her from him and sprinted through the train gate...
The great city had been lonelier than ever, after that, for the orphaned girl. She had had no friends, few acquaintances, before Holt Carst had come into her life. She had been content with her job and her books. But there had been no contentment in the time of waiting after he had returned to Torburg. It had been almost agony, relieved only by the thought that it would soon be over...
Now, there was a tentative rattle of the door latch below, and then an ominous moment of silence.
It was ended by a piercing whistle. Then another whistle answered it.
Central in the graveyard, a moss-stained family tomb glimmered palely in the moonlight. Peering to make out whence that second whistle had come, Linda saw the great bronze door of that tomb swing open; saw one, two, a half-dozen more of the spectral figures issue from it. They clustered about a shaft standing just within the graveyard gate, a "broken pillar" of archaic funeral design.
The grisly shadows gathered about that symbol of grief. They swayed, and the pillar swayed with it. It toppled, fell!
The shadows lifted the monument from where it had fallen, shuffled off with it. They shuffled out through the gate. They were carrying the cylindrical gravestone horizontally between them and the way they carried it made their purpose plain.
The stone that had been intended to stand forever as a memorial to someone's loved one—was to be a battering ram!
She must warn those below! Linda shoved herself away from the window, got moving across the room. The dimness was like some invisible, viscous flood, clinging to her limbs, clogging her progress. It required infinite effort to get her to the door, but she reached it at last, fumbled at the key till it clicked over. She reached the outer hall, leaned over the rail at the stairhead.
"Watch out," she called, managing only a husky whisper. "They're bringing something to break the door in."
"Let them," Lije grunted. His head didn't turn. He was standing in the center of the lobby, facing the place where Linda knew the entrance door was, though she could not see it. Another man was beside him, shorter, stockier. Both had guns to their shoulders, the barrels pointing at the door. They were straddle-legged, indomitable, but Linda saw that their hair and the backs of their heads were wet with perspiration.
It was deathly cold in that hotel lobby. The sweat that dampened the skin of those two men was the sweat of fear...
The clerk, Thilton, was nowhere in sight. A stir came into the lobby from beyond the unseen entrance, the thump of burdened feet on the porch planks.
"Don't try any tricks," Lije shouted, "or we'll shoot."
A laugh answered him, hollow and horrible. The crash of stone against wood obliterated it.
"Jehoshaphat!" the other man whimpered. "They're doin' it. They're breakin' in."
"Can't stop them," Lije grunted. "But we can give them a taste of lead when they get the door knocked down. Hold your fire till you can see them, Jed."
The battering ram thundered again. Wood splintered. Bolts, riven from their ancient fastenings, shrieked shrilly.
"Lead!" Jed exclaimed. "What good's lead against ?em? You can't kill the dead!" His voice pitched upward to a squeal. "You can't kill..."
"That's what I'm going to find out. No use running now, there ain't no place to run to."
Linda wanted to get back into her room, to lock her door and cower behind it. But she couldn't. She couldn't move—she could only lean over the rail and stair...
The whole structure shook with that thunderous impact, but apparently the door still held. The old inn was built like a fortress. It had been built as a fortress, decades ago. It must date back to the War of 1812, perhaps to the Revolution.
Light wavered on the steps. Linda had a sensation of eyes upon her, of malign eyes watching her. She looked around... The dining room door was open. She could see through it. She could see the flower-banked coffin, the body—
The dead man's lids were open! Some shortening of their muscles, drying, must have pulled them open. A dark fire glittered in those eyes that should have been glazed and sightless!
A scream tore out through Linda's throat, but whatever its volume it was drowned by the final appalling detonation as the battered door gave way; by the deafening explosion of the two shotguns in the confined space.
Orange-red flares streaked from the gun muzzles. Frantic fingers pumped reloading bolts. A skull-countenanced figure leaped toward the defenders, leaping downward as though from piled shards of the shattered portal. Lije's gun poured its charge pointblank into the attacker.
As though that lethal burst had been the harmless spurting of a child's cap pistol the apparition came on, laughed mockingly.
Others leaped behind it, a ghastly pack. Jed's shotgun blasted again... Then Jed's shriek was a scarlet thread of agonized sound. The two defenders went down under that macabre rush. A pile of green-scummed shrouds, of tossing skeleton limbs, hid the men from Linda. But a carmine stream dribbled out from under the seething mass, across the rutted tiles.
A single figure, that of the grim leader, extricated itself from that heaving, awful mound. Linda's eyes followed him, her limbs once more rigid in the grip of a nightmare paralysis. The animate skeleton came inexorably toward the stairs. He was coming for her, coming to take her...
No! At the last moment he veered, went into the room where the dead man lay. He was sitting up! Henry Fulton, dead, mourned for dead, was sitting up in his coffin!
"Welcome, brother," the spectral captain of the spectral troop intoned, "welcome to our company of the dead."
Fulton, the body of Fulton, lifted his dead arms. But it was not to the living corpse that his hands extended. It was not to the apparition in the doorway that his face was turned. It was the almost nude form of the staring girl to whom the orbs of black fire were lifted. It was Linda towards whom those pallid hands thrust, their grisly fingers curved like rapacious claws.
"All in good time," the other answered that look and that gesture. "You shall have your bride to warm your earthen bed for you—as have all your brothers of the League of Lazarus. But first..."
Icy fingers clutched Linda's arm! She wheeled, flailing out a small fist in reflex of terror. Lent strength, virulence, by her terror, that fist spattered against flesh, broke her captor's grip. She glimpsed a man staggering back against the corridor wall behind her—Thilton! She leaped for the open door of her room, slammed it closed—locked it in the same motion. Leaned against it gasping, alternating waves of frigid cold and torrid heat chasing each other through her body, a long shudder shaking it.
DEEP in Linda Loray's throat there was a whimper of animal fear. She knew now why Thilton had induced her to stay here the night, why he had not been down there in the lobby with its defenders, who were now shredded flesh, dismembered bones...
He was one of them, an accomplice of the incredible creatures who called themselves the League of Lazarus. He had snared their bride for them, their bride for the dead.
"Miss Loray." His whisper came through the thin panel. "Let me in. I can get you away. I can save you."
The corners of Linda's lips twitched, distorting her mouth to a humorless smile.
"For God's sake, Miss Loray! Let me in quick, before they see me."
"No." Linda was surprised to find her voice steady, was surprised that she had a voice at all. "You can't fool me."
"I'm not trying to fool you. I'm trying to help you. I'm your friend."
"Then prove it. Find Holt Carst. Get him for me—"
"Good Lord! Carst's—"
The whisper cut off, was replaced by the padding of stealthy feet on the worn hall carpeting. Then there was other feet, coming up the stairs. They stumbled, those feet, uncertainly, as if they were numbed by sleep—or by death.
They thumped on the landing outside. The doorknob turned against Linda's back and the door pressed against the bolt she had shot.
"It's locked," the voice of the corpse's leader said. Something answered him.
It wasn't a voice. It was a thick, tongue-less mumble that had the inflection of words, though it was utterly unintelligible. It was fuzzed by the throaty vibration that is called the death rattle, but it was not made by a man dying. It was made by a man coming alive after being dead.
"Open!" the first voice demanded. "Open for your groom."
Linda cowered away from the door, went wheeling across the room, blind panic driving her as far away from those voices of the dead as she could get. Flesh-less knuckles gartered against the flimsy portal, and the panel shook.
The wall stopped Linda, and she cowered against it, her dilated pupils on the thin barrier that was all that was between her and—nameless doom. There was the sound of splitting wood. The door must give...
The girl felt every blow on that door as though it was delivered on her own cringing flesh. There was no hope for her—no escape.
Escape? Hysteric laughter twisted her larynx. She was at the window, the open window... She heaved herself up to the sill, squirmed through to the slanting porch roof outside. Abruptly she could think again...
She reached in, pulled the window shade down, then the window itself. That would gain her precious moments, moments that would mean the difference between safety and disaster. They would look for her within the room first, beneath the bed, in the closet. Meantime she could run along the porch roof, let herself down at the end of the house, where she wouldn't be seen by those who were still below.
She heard the door crash in, the sound distinct through the glass pane. She twisted to start the flight she had planned—and froze!
A footfall on the path below had pulled her eyes downward. She saw Holt. Her lover. He was running up the path, his stride, the jaunty pose of his head, unmistakable. He was running straight toward that smashed entrance, straight into the clutches of the terrible things who were making saturnalia below!
Behind Linda the shade rattled as someone brushed against it. She still had a chance, but if she called to Holt, to warn him, she would betray herself.
"Holt!" she cried. "Don't go in there, Holt. Stop. Stop!"
He halted. Shade fabric ripped and the sash thumped up, behind Linda. She heard the rattling mumble of the dead-alive. Beneath her Holt was looking about him, startled, uncertain whence her cry had come.
"Run, Holt!" the girl screamed, leaning far over the edge. "Run!"
Something touched her back, snatching at it, something clammy-cold. She flinched from it, lost her balance, went hurtling over the porch roof, went hurtling down to the darkness below...
Sight flashed to Linda in the whirling eye-blink of time that she fell—a vision of Holt's gaping, startled countenance; of the animate corpses pouring down from the porch and swarming over him. Agony burned into her that her sacrifice had been futile. Then she crashed into the branches of a bush that whipped her face, lashed her almost nude body. Breath, all but the faintest trace of consciousness itself, was jarred from her as her body pounded those branches to the ground. She was catapulted sidewise, hurled into dank, earthy darkness that enveloped her brain.
HER wounds netting her with a garment of pain, Linda Loray weltered slowly back to realization of the miracle that she was still alive.
Stygian darkness weighed heavily upon her, darkness so complete that she could be sure her eyes were open only by the feeling of lids stretched wide to stare. Clotted silence brooded about her. Then she began to make out small sounds.
There was a pit, pit, pit, regular as a clock tick, not far away. Pit, pit, pit. It might be water dripping, drop by drop, from a tiny pipe leak.
There was, every now and then, a rustling crackle. Linda had some time, somewhere, heard a sound like that before. It vaguely disturbed her that she could not identify it... Then it came again, a little louder, and she remembered. It was the sound the timbers of an old house make, drying out, settling, never quiet still, never silent.
There was another sound, faint but continuous, a soughing overtone to the others. It seemed to come from over her head where, she realized, the blackness was not quite so absolute. A soft, chill breeze seemed to brush down on her from above, bringing that vague whisper with it.
A breeze. The sound of a breeze. The sound of a breeze flowing through damp grass, yet above her... Then she knew.
She was in the cellar of the old inn! She had not fallen directly upon that bush, but upon the lateral branches of it, on the side towards the house. The strong branches had acted like springs, had thrown her light form under the porch, into the hotel's basement. So swiftly had it happened, with no one's eyes upon her, that it must have seemed as though she had vanished magically, leaving no trace.
Her heart pounded against her aching ribs. She was saved. A miracle had saved her!
And then, inwardly, she groaned. She was saved, but in her stead the ghastly things that had risen from the grave, the spectral beings who called themselves the League of Lazarus, had seized Holt Carst, her lover. What had they done to him? Had they served him as they had served Lije and Jed? Was he lying out there on the lawn, torn?...
The thought she dared not word even in her own mind lifted Linda to her feet. She twisted to the wall beside her, groped for the place whence came the wind. She found it—a narrow opening between short stone pillars that supported the foundation beams of the hotel. By pulling herself up to the very tips of her toes she could bring her eyes level with it.
She peered out, fearful of what she might see, yet knowing that she must look for it. At first, the dim glow that met her gaze blinded her, so complete had been the darkness here. But after a moment, she saw that she was looking out between the under-planking of the porch and the debris-strewn ground beneath it. Beyond, where spread the luminance of a moon now high in the heavens, she discerned the base of the bush that had saved her, the shaggy lawn, even the path where Holt Carst had been when she had spied him.
The grass was trampled, the path rough with footmarks. But no blood stained them, no fragments of a body strewed them.
There was no sign of Holt Carst there, no sign that he had been killed. What then? They could not have let him go. They must have taken him off with them, to the inferno whence they came. They must have carried him off to Satan alone knew what hellish fate!
Linda's figure tightened on the jagged edge to which she clung. Holt! A voice within her groaned. What have they done to you?
And then terror struck at her once more. There was a rasp behind her, a stealthy scrape of wood on wood...
She swung about, trembling hand to quivering breast, dry lips twisting. There was light in the cellar now; a vertical sheet of yellow light slicing down from a yellow slit in the black roof to be cut off in a narrow, zig-zag line by ladder-like stairs at the other end of the basement.
The slit in the roof widened, slowly. Its rim was scalloped by a set of knuckles. A shadow blotched the opening, a man's shadow that grew upon the stairs, grotesquely deformed, grimly ominous. The trapdoor came fully open, and Linda saw Dan Thilton crouched over it, peering down.
She had not been thrown into this basement quite unobserved. He had seen her, and now he was coming for her!
Furtively, as though he believed her unconscious of his advent and feared to alarm her before he could get her in his clutches, he lowered first one, then another cautious foot to the top of the ladder. He came down, slow and silent, the inexorable messenger of the dead.
Linda crouched, darted along the wall, her unshod feet noiseless on the earthen floor; fiercely glad that her almost naked body was unhampered by garments that might rustle.
Thilton reached the base of the ladder, started straight across for the spot where Linda had lain. No doubt, now, that it was she for whom he searched—that he knew exactly where she should be.
The girl's outstretched fingers touched stone, warned her that she had reached the basement's corner. She twisted, crouched motionless, her eyes on the prowler, a daring plan budding behind her aching brow.
When Thilton got to the outer wall she would dart straight across the cellar to the ladder. She could be up and out, the trapdoor closed, before he was aware of her. There must be some way to fasten it down, some way to imprison him, long enough at least for her to escape from the inn, for her to rouse the village to Holt's rescue.
She waited. Out of the path of light from above, Thilton was only a moving bulk, hardly discernible, blacker against blackness. He reached the foundation wall, grunted beneath his breath. Now was her chance. Now!
She launched into a run, swift and silent as a bat's flight. She was yards from the corner, she was halfway to the ladder. She was...
Her toe stubbed against something, and she went down. Rocks bruised her. Rocks rattled down about her. Not rocks but coal. She had run into a pile of coal in the blackness and it avalanched down upon her in thunderous betrayal.
LINDA LORAY heard the sharp intake of Thilton's breath. She heard his feet scrape as he whirled, heard him cry out, sharply, as he plunged toward her.
"Miss Loray!" Even then there was something stealthy in the sound of his footfalls, something furtive. "Thank God you're alive! I thought..."
He reached her, bent to her, the round shape of his head silhouetted against the trapdoor's light. Linda's hand flailed for it, holding a chunk of coal she had grasped as she fell. The impromptu missile landed square on the man's temple, the thud it made sending a sick shudder through the girl despite her desperation.
He collapsed heavily upon her, quivered, and was still. Hysteria wrenched at Linda's larynx. She throttled the scream, fought from under the man's dead weight. Bits of the coal showered from her as she gained her feet, and she lunged for the ladder.
She slipped as she reached it, barked her shin against the sharp edge of the lowermost rung. Excruciating pain shot up her leg. She clutched with frantic hands at the splintery wood, pulled herself erect. She was up the ladder and out on the lobby floor; she was tugging at the heavy trap door.
Its weight came up, swung over, tore itself from her bleeding fingers with a ponderous crash. The hole in the floor was closed, but there was no bolt, no lock, nothing to hold it shut. Linda looked frantically about her, for the moment oblivious of the shambles that made of the tiled floor a slaughter-house horror. A deep-seated club chair was only a few feet away, its stalwart frame promising weight enough for her purpose. She leaped to it, grasped its arms and tugged at it.
It moved easily, sliding too easily on the carmine fluid which lay in pools along the floor, but something caught a leg of the chair before it was wholly on the trapdoor and Linda darted around behind it to push it the rest of the way.
She halted—and dropped to her knees beside a bound, recumbent form the chair had hidden from her.
"Holt," she gasped. "Oh, Holt!"
It was her lover, his ankles, his wrists lashed, a gag forced between his jaws! It was Holt, his clothes half torn from him, a livid bruise on his cheek, but alive. Alive and not a prisoner of the revenants.
Linda's flying fingers untied the knot that held the gag in his mouth, pulled the rag from it. Then they flew to the lashings on his wrists.
"What happened?" she demanded. "What happened to you, my dear?"
"Got away—from—those things," he mumbled. "Came back here... look for you. Thilton jumped me from the stairs... conked me... But you, Linda, why did you stay here? Why...?"
"He told me to." Holt's hands were free and he was helping Linda loosen the lashings that bound his legs. "Thilton. He said you were busy, couldn't be reached till morning."
"The dog!" Their fingers touched and the old electric tingle ran through the girl. "I was busy—trying to get the villagers together to fight that damned League of Lazarus. Trying to convince the townsmen that there's nothing supernatural about the League. Your train had already left when Fulton died, and there was no way of stopping you. But I left word with Thilton to send Lije up to my house with you when you came. You would have been safe there. Dan's in cahoots with them. I always suspected him."
He was free now. They were both on their feet, and Linda was in her lover's arms. "You poor dear," he murmured. "You must have gone through hell. But everything's all right now. I'll take you home and then I'm going after them." He was shrugging out of his coat, was putting it around her. "I'll lick them alone if there's no other way."
"What are they?" Linda cried, snuggling into the warmth of her sweetheart's fur-lined coat, doubly comforting because it was his, because it was redolent with the spicy tang of his tobacco, of his masculinity. "What are they?"
Carst's eyes went bleak, his lips tight. "I don't know. Nobody knows. They first showed up when old Winthrop died, while I was in Boston. His body vanished and a girl vanished, too. That's happened three times since, and they've got all Torburg terrorized, so nobody sticks his nose out of doors when any man lies unburied, anywhere in town. This time I made up my mind to stop the damn business. I sent Lije Carberry here to guard Hen Fulton's body, and Jed Storm to watch the graveyard while I tried to get the town aroused. But it wasn't any use."
"No. It was no use." Linda's eyes widened, as Holt's words reminded her of what had happened here and the sight of that which was strewn through the lobby—struck sickness through her as it had not when she was so frantic. "Take me out of here, Holt. Take me away from here."
"Yes dear," said Holt; he looked down at her tattered nightgown, added, "As soon as you get some clothes on. Where are they?"
"Upstairs. But I'm not going up there again." She shuddered. "I'm going just as I am. Come on."
"You can't run naked through the streets. Your feet will be all cut up. You'll freeze to death... Wait—I'll run up and get something for you to put on."
"No! Holt—" But he was already across the lobby, was already halfway up the stairs, taking them two at a time.
Horrible as was the thought of going up to that room again, the thought of remaining alone here was still worse. Linda ran after him, across the slippery tiles. She reached the staircase, started up.
Carst yelled something, up there. His voice cut off. A black shadow whirled into being at the head of the stairs. It swooped down on Linda, enveloped her with its darkness. It swirled about her, was drawn tight, pinning her arms to her sides, pinning her legs together. Sightless, helpless in those swathing folds, Linda suddenly felt something jammed against her face, smelled a pungent, heady sweetness.
Hands gripped her, lifted her. She tried not to breathe, but her laboring chest broke the seal she put on her windpipe. The fumes gusted into her lungs, swirled up into her skull. She was slipping, slipping down into vertiginous dark.
Just as her senses left her she heard the tongueless mumble of the revived corpse to whom she had been promised as a bride. But her last thought was of her lover.
Had they killed Holt, up there? Or...
A thing mewled, close by. And although Linda Loray could not see what it was, because she had not yet summoned up courage to open her eyes, she knew by the sound it made that it was blind and mindless and without hope that death would ever come to release it from its agony...
Linda was sick with nausea. The stone upon which she lay on her side was damp and cold against her lacerated skin, and the odor of death was in her nostrils, the stench of corruption.
There were other living things about her. Vague noises told her so; a sighing breath, sluggish movement, the rub of two surfaces one upon the other. There was a hollow, reverberant quality to the sounds that told her she was in a more than ordinarily large space, and that the exit to it was closed. But it was the mewling that bothered, the half-human, half-animal cry that seemed a prophecy of what she was to become.
Something touched her thigh, something cold and slimy. It started to crawl across her quivering skin. Linda snatched at it, flung the squirming, noisome thing away from her, trembling with revulsion. And suddenly she summoned up enough courage to open her eyes.
A green and spectral light pulsed against those throbbing, pupil-dilated eyes. It came from flames that danced out of a trephined skull supported on a tripod of human thigh bones at one end of the space about which she stared. The skull's eye-sockets were filled with the green flame. It glared through the jagged triangle of its nose-pit, gleamed iridescent from its lipless, grinning mouth.
The ghastly luminance played across a wide floor of damp-blackened stone. It stroked the pillars of massive arches that curved overhead to form an interlaced roof, from which dripped serrated stalactites like tears frozen to stony icicles. It probed the shadows between the ranged pillars, thrust flickering fingers through a wide-meshed lattice-work of rusted strap iron and showed Linda what it was that moved—what it was that mewled...
They were humans who were caged there! Naked women! Young girls, or rather girls who once had been young, and now were ageless from suffering.
Linda could see three of them. The one who mewled lay on her side, her knees drawn up and pressed into her belly, her head and shoulders curled over so that her blue-veined breasts lay against those knees. Even in that emerald light the wealth of hair that cascaded over the huddled form gleamed with warm red tints. Once the girl must have been very beautiful. Once—before whatever frightful experience she had passed through had ravaged her, had left her a face a mouthing mask of horror and her body a bundle of agonized flesh...
The others, on either side of the girl on the floor, were erect and clinging to their cage-bars with fingers that writhed worm-like against the rust-red straps. Their heads were pressed against the bars, the curls of one golden as the sun, the luxuriant crown of the other raven black.
The faces of these two, turned as if they were trying to see one another, were contorted with a strange animal ferocity, with a mindless hate. Their red lips pulled away from their white teeth in silent snarls, their long-lashed eyes were orbs of lurid wrath. But, and this was most horrible of all, they made no sound and somehow Linda knew that they could make no sound, that somehow speech was lost to them forever.
Abruptly the ghastly illumination flared into brightness! Linda twisted to the source of the new light, saw that another skull, on its thigh-bone tripod, had blazed into being at the other end of the crypt.
This macabre flambeau was at the focal point of a tiered amphitheatre rising behind it. The seats on that stepped and curving rise were gravestones, so ancient that the stone flaked from them, that their inscriptions were indecipherable beneath a coating of green mould. Between them and the flaming skull three coffins stood erect, the central one taller and more ornate, and lidless, though the others were closed.
In the moment Linda saw all this an unseen bell filled the chamber with a melancholy tolling. Like a death-knell...
A scream rang out. The terror-filled sound pulled Linda's eyes back to the cages across from her. The red-haired girl had sprung to her feet! She clawed at the barrier that penned her in, and the rattling of the decrepit iron mingled with her screams, with the fading notes of the bell that had tolled.
The cacophony aroused Linda to action at last. She thrust frantic hands against the floor beneath her, to shove herself to her feet. She lifted herself. Something tightened across her hips, her ankles.
Linda clawed at the wide canvas straps. They had been loose enough not to impress her until this moment, but they held her inescapably. She writhed around, discovered she was free to sit up, to bend and tear at the strange lashings.
"Don't be in such a hurry, dearie," a laugh cackled in her ear. "You must first be properly dressed for your wedding."
The girl could not see whence the hag had come, but she was bending over her, thrusting a sharp chin into Linda's face; her eyes gleaming like black beads out of rheumy sockets, her great nose hooked and vulpine, her skin yellow, wrinkled parchment, her teeth yellow fangs in a drooling mouth.
Linda's own scream added itself to the turmoil. She struck at the witch...
Fleshless fingers caught her wrist. They tightened, and with amazing strength they held Linda stiff, motionless. The tiny, evil eyes fastened on hers. The red rims expanded, the black orbs within them were great dark pools into which Linda slid.
The girl went limp. "What must I do?" she asked, her voice lacking expression.
"Obey Nitina," the hag cackled triumphantly. "Obey Nitina, and Nitina will give you a groom such as many a girl might envy. But first, here is your wedding dress."
She released Linda, bent and lifted from the ground a bundle of white fabric. "See, is it not pretty?" she asked, shaking it out.
It hung from her taloned hands, long and white and shapeless. It was such a gown as no bride had ever before been proffered. It was such a garment as long ago was used to clothe the dead. It was a shroud!
LINDA LORAY plucked at the hooks that fastened the canvas straps to rings in the floor. Her fingers were clumsy, her eyes slitted and dreamy, her face utterly expressionless.
She got herself free, came slowly to her feet, stood there docilely. Nitina tore from her the few remaining shreds of her night gown, and slipped the shroud over her head.
Even when the harsh skin of Nitina's fingers rasped her bruised breast and sent fierce pain darting through her, Linda did not move. Even when the hag's long nails tore a new wound among the many on her lacerated abdomen she did not wince.
But when Nitina stepped back to admire her handiwork, and indicated with a gesture that she might turn, the muscles in Linda's thighs tensed for the quick leap she planned, the flight from the hag toward a door she remembered having glimpsed to one side of the banked gravestones. Her quick yielding to the witch's hypnosis had been altogether simulated, had enabled her to avoid a real surrender.
Linda wheeled—but she did not make that intended leap toward escape possible.
She had delayed too long, and the way of possible escape she had spotted was now impossible. The curved rows of seats were now thronged by the dead-alive who had earlier raided the inn. They sat on the monuments that should have weighed them down in the long sleep, the sleep from which by some inconceivable necromancy they had been evoked, and every eyeless socket of that grinning, serried host was turned upon her.
There was no hope now, utterly no hope, of getting past them. They would surely intercept her.
Even if by some miracle she should avoid their clutching, skeleton fingers, whose awful power she had witnessed when Jed and Lije had gone down beneath their ravening rush, the door was blocked to her.
If they had shaken her with revulsion, the being that strode in through that darksome entrance was horrible beyond conception.
Words brushed Linda's tortured mind, words from a Book even the mere memory of which, was sacrilege in this cloistered theatre of hell:
"And when He thus had spoken, He cried with a loud voice, 'Lazarus, come forth!' And he that was dead came forth, bound hand and foot with grave clothes; and his face was bound about with a napkin."
He who came through that doorway—which Linda saw now was shaped like the door of a tomb—and glided rather than walked, was "bound hand and foot with grave clothes; and his face was bound about with a napkin." The napkin covered his face, so that Linda could not see it, and if in that moment she could be glad of anything, she was glad that this was so.
For as he reached the center coffin of the three that stood behind the green-flaming skull and took his place within it, the deep-toned bell tolled once more and the rustling, expressionless voices of the dead ranked above it dully chanted his name.
"Lazarus! Hail Lazarus!"
Lazarus bowed that white-bound, faceless head, and they were silent. His white-swathed arm gestured to his right.
The lid that covered the coffin to which he motioned slid down, seemingly into the very rock beneath it. In that place of fluttering, earth-rotted rags, of white grave clothes, no contrast could have been more ghastly than the meticulously frock-coated figure revealed within that upended casket; no long-dead skull more horrible than the staring, waxy, sex-ridden face of Henry Fulton.
Lazarus gestured to the left.
The lid of the coffin on that side slid down. Linda's eyes widened, watching it wondering what weird figure it would reveal.
There was none, none at all. The coffin was empty.
"The bride!" Lazarus' voice boomed out and echoed into the hollow resonance of the crypt. "Let the bride come forth!"
The unseen bell tolled again. But now it was not a single peal that filled the great vault. The muted strokes of the bell came again and again, and its tone changed, so that it formed a welling threnody. Higher in pitch, the sound of another, smaller bell joined it, merged with it.
The measured melody of the mellower bell was the melody of the Wedding March from Lohengrin. Beneath it, deep and hollow, shaking Linda to the very core of her being, the greater gong beat out the slow, measured notes of Chopin's Funeral March.
"Go, dearie," Nitina whispered behind her. "Go to your place."
Linda was marching toward that empty coffin, her quivering limbs keeping time to those strangely intermingled processionals that beat about her and carried her onward on the bosom of their palpitant flood. She went steadily toward the casket that awaited her.
What else was there for her to do? What else save carry out her pretence of conquest by the hag's hypnosis, hoping against hope that something might occur to save her from that to which she seemed doomed?
There was still within her, deep within her, the utterly mad, utterly unwarranted thought that perhaps Holt was still alive, that somehow he had once more escaped the minions of Lazarus and would somehow rescue her before it was too late.
She reached that waiting corpse-box, entered it. The bells moaned to silence.
"Dearly beloved," Lazarus intoned, in sepulchral mockery of the words with which so many a devoted minister had commenced his discourse on the inscrutable ways of his God, ways that were here denied. "Dearly beloved, tonight we welcome among us a new brother to our unholy company. Tried and tested in the ways of evil is he, so that he has been accounted fit to be one of us. We have with us too the bride he has selected to warm him in the cold companionship of the grave to which he is destined. Living, she shall feed her dead spouse with the life that is in her, so that the chains of death shall not bind him, the earth not hold him. So that, in the long years, he shall join with us in our nightly revels.
"Such is our custom. But, as is also our custom, before the grisly rites of their nuptials are consummated, we shall indulge him who was known among the living as Henry Fulton, and her who, still living for a space, bears the name of Linda Loray, with a foretaste of those orgies we of the League of Lazarus have preserved for the centuries since first they were presented in the arenas of Imperial Rome. Is this your will?"
"Aye," the spectral congregation cried from their high banked gravestones. "Aye. It is our will."
"So be it. And now our faithful Ninita, what have you conceived for our pleasure?"
The hag hobbled to the center of the open space and ducked in an almost ludicrous curtsey. "Something you'll like," she cackled, "I'm sure. Something to which I've trained my pretty ones with much trouble."
The old witch curtsied again, limped toward the cages. There was a key suddenly in her hand. She unlocked the cage against whose bars the golden-haired girl pressed.
"Come, Naomi. Come my sweet."
The girl darted past her, the green luminance stroking her unclothed limbs, flashing on her curves, on the secret charms of her sleek body. She crouched, knuckles to the ground, lips drawn back snarling from her gaping mouth, her eyes not human eyes but the lurid orbs of a maddened beast.
"And Jane. You've been impatient for this time, I know."
The key creaked in the rusty lock; the dark-haired maiden was whining as once Linda had heard a dog whine, eager to be at another's throat. The iron door clanged open.
Jane leaped from the enclosure. She stopped for a moment, gazed about her, evidently dazed. Linda was conscious of the impulse to veil her eyes from that gleaming nakedness, a nakedness not only of body but of murdered soul. Some horrible fascination prevented her, kept her staring at those nude girls out there, those girls who were circling now, heads thrown back, faces virulent with hatred and contorted with a fierce animal ferocity, arms crooked before them, palled fingers curved to hooked claws.
"Go get her!" Ninita screamed. "Jane! Get her, Naomi."
They sprang at each other. They were clawing at each other. They were tumbling on the stone, snarling, biting, gouging. And the grisly spectators were not silent, but howling with delight.
Their screams blasted down on Linda, beating against the coffin within which she stood—cries of encouragement, cries of lewd pleasure evoked by the naked limbs flashing in that throbbing green light. With each shrewd blow, with each handful of hair torn from a bleeding scalp, with each gory rake of tearing nails across palpitant flesh, a shriek of sadistic ecstasy shrilled from the yelling watchers.
Blood smeared the stony floor now, blood bathed the unclad flesh of the maniac girls who fought for the delectation of the dead-alive in a gladiatorial fray more awful than ever had been staged in ancient Rome.
Linda managed to drag her staring eyes from the dreadful sight—only to see the frock-coated man who should be dead leaning out of his casket; his eyes, that should be glazed, aflame with the dark light of frenzied ecstasy, and spittle drooling from the corners of his writhing lips—that should be frozen and still forever...
"That's the way, my little one!" Ninita's cry dragged Linda's eyes back to the arena. "Finish her, Naomi."
The dark girl lay flat on the stone, quivering feebly. The other kneeled on her, a scarlet-smeared, monstrous shape. Naomi's torn hands were clenched on the other's throat, were tightening, and in a sudden, brittle silence Linda heard the grate of collapsing gristle.
Jane, the terrible shape that had been Jane, writhed once, and was still. The victor lifted her head to receive the plaudits of the mob.
There were no longer eyes in that contorted, carmine mask!
THEY had been taken away, the dead body of Jane, and Naomi who less mercifully was still alive.
The green light wavered under the labyrinth of weeping arches, between the thick dark pillars of that demoniac cloister. Sick with horror, Linda Loray shrank within the casket from which she dared not move; listened to the voice of the cerement-clothed being who had been acclaimed as Lazarus.
"Well done, my Ninita," he was saying. "You have pleased us. And what other little entertainment have you devised for us?"
"One that I think you'll like even better," the hag responded, the seams of her saffron visage twisting in what she must have meant to be a smile. "An improvement on a device of Nero's of which you have told me."
"On with it then. Our bridegroom grows impatient."
"For this I must call help," the woman replied. She hobbled to the opposite end of the crypt, passing the further flambeau. Linda saw her reach the end-wall beyond it; saw for the first time that it was broken by a door.
Ninita opened that door, and came limping back. A shadowy form moved through the opening, came into the light.
Even in the full illumination the newcomer was still a shadow. He was all black; his lithe body, his legs, his arms, his hands and even his head covered by a skin-tight, dull black garment. He faced Lazarus and lifted a long, coiling black whip in salute.
Ninita's key rattled in the lock of the middle cage, the one where the auburn-haired girl was.
What had happened to those other two had been horrible, but at least they had been wholly mad and in all likelihood had no conception of what they were doing, perhaps had not even felt pain. She had seen this other suffer in anticipation, had heard her scream at the sound of the bell that had announced the gathering of the league. She would know exactly what was occurring, would suffer trebly because she was not—insane.
The cage door opened. "Come, Lillian," Ninita said. "It's your turn now."
There was no sound in response, no voice, no movement.
"Lillian!" the hag exclaimed sharply. "Quickly!"
A murmur ran through the assemblage. Then Ninita was coming out into the open again, and she was trembling with fright.
"Master!" she quavered. "It—she—Lillian is dead. Dead from fright. And I have no other to substitute for her. We shall have to dispense with what I had prepared for her."
"Thank God!" Linda breathed. "Oh thank God."
"You should have taken better care of her," Lazarus rebuked the scrawny old panderess of sensation. "You may take her place."
"No!" the woman screamed. "No!" Terror convulsed her countenance. She went down to her knees, her arms flung out in entreaty. "I have served you well. I do not deserve payment such as that."
"It is by your negligence that the brotherhood is cheated of its pleasure."
"Pleasure?" the witch squalled. "What pleasure will you have watching this old flesh lashed, these old bones broken! Look!" In an agony of desperation she tore at her clothing, ripping it from her in rags. In seconds she was naked as her victims, her sere and scrawny flesh exposed, her thighs yellow pipe-stems, her torso a bag of bones against which her wrinkled breasts lay flat and hideous. "But you need not be deprived of your game. There," she leaped erect, "there is one well-formed and beautiful. There is the one who should be here in the arena for your delight."
She pointed—straight at Linda!
"Yes!" the fleshless voices of the dead-alive roared. "Yes! Give her to us. Lazarus, give her to us!"
"Silence," their lord thundered. "Silence. It is for me to decide."
They were still, ghastly still... Linda stood motionless as the napkined head turned toward her. She could not see the eyes behind it, but she could feel them upon her.
A sound broke that stillness, a sound more horrible than the chorused voices of those living corpses. It was a mumble, the tongueless mumble of the one who was too newly dead to have relearned speech, protesting the loss of the bride that had been destined to him.
"No," Lazarus intoned. "It is not for me to choose. I have promised her to our novice brother. I cannot break that promise."
They were angry now, the brotherhood of the dead. They let him know it in no uncertain terms.
"Silence," he cut them off again. "Let me finish. I have given my promise and cannot withdraw it. But there is one who may choose. I leave the choice to that one.
His bandaged arm rose, his white-swathed hand pointed at Linda. "Choose, you. Is it bride you will be, or—" That pointing arm swept outward to the black figure, waiting just before the distant skull with his lash. "Choose! Which shall it be?"
Which should it be? Linda Loray peered across the green glow to that snaking whip, coiling and avid for her flesh. Her head turned.
She saw Henry Fulton, read his wax-white face, read the meaning of his drooling, lascivious mouth. Even if he were living... She shuddered, and her eyes went back to the other, terrible shape.
"What is your choice, Linda Loray? Bridal bed or the lash?"
The man down there at the other end of the crypt moved. His head tossed back, as if to fling back a shock of hair as black but more lustrous than the hairless cloth that covered it...
That gesture was unmistakable. It was Holt who stood there! Holt Carst! Somehow he had managed to get in here, somehow managed to overcome Ninita's helper where he had been waiting for her summons. Disguised, he had thus contrived to get in here, and now he had let her know who he was!
"I choose the lash," Linda announced, hard put to it to keep her elation out of her tone.
The red-headed girl's death had made her rescue easy. Holt would wait for her there, only a few paces from the door. When she reached him they would both dash out. Before any of the League of Lazarus could get to them they would be away...
"Come then, my duckling!" Ninita cackled. "Come, my gosling."
"Go!" Lazarus commanded.
Linda stepped out of her coffin. She went past the chuckling, relieved hag. She went past the flaming skull. She went steadily across the stony floor that was slimy with the blood of the two mad girls who had fought there to the death. There was joy in her heart.
Holt drew the lash lingeringly between his black-gloved fingers. He seemed to gather himself together. His acting was superb.
The place was so still the silence beat at Linda, pressed against her the shroud that was to have been her bridal gown. She was near to Holt now, near enough to whisper.
"Sweetheart! You are so brave. So very brave!"
"You don't know how brave, Linda," his whisper came back to her. "You don't know..." His arm lifted the short handle of his whip. His wrist circled a bit, so that its long lash coiled in wide, lazy circles about his head. He was gaining every instant of time that he could, every instant that would be so precious when they dashed at last for safety...
The lash struck out at Linda! It slashed across her side, cut through the shroud-stuff and wealed her shrieking skin!
"Holt!" she screamed. "Holt!" And then she was screaming no longer. Her arms were flung up to protect her eyes. Her head was bowed, and the whirring, biting whip was playing around her, was slashing at her. With infinite cruelty it flicked, just flicked her garment, tearing the shroud wisp by wisp, stripping her naked with its cruel bite.
"You fool!" Holt's voice was harsh. "This is what I brought you here for!"
She was nude, entirely nude. She darted away. The lash curled about her waist, brought her back to her tormentor, to her lover turned torturer. It made a thorny web about her, a web through which she could not pass. It bit at her skin, stung her flesh. It had stripped her, and now it was flaying her...!
Her mind was caught in that tortuous mesh, wishing only—and vainly—for the release of death...
A deafening detonation exploded about Linda. There were screams somewhere, shouts. There were shots...
The whip was no longer whirring about her, no longer licking at her. She went to her knees. Twisting as she fell, Linda saw a tossing, uproarious chaos involve the slanting amphitheatre from which the League of Lazarus had watched its saturnalia. She saw uniformed men swarming among the corpses, saw a club lift and fall on one grisly skull...
And a face, a grizzled, staring-eyed, but human face, appear from within it!
Fingers clutched her throat from behind, fingers cloth-covered. "I'll make sure you won't talk," Holt's voice grated in her ears. The fingers closed, hard upon her larynx, cutting off her breath. A knee dug into her spine, garroting her. "I'll get away and they won't know I've ever been here."
The fight was so fierce, up at the other end of the crypt, that no one saw what was happening at this end. Linda knew she was about to die...
Footfalls pounded out of the darkness. The strangling fingers were suddenly gone from Linda's throat, the torturing knee from her backbone. She collapsed to the floor, but the veil lifted from her eyes. She saw a fist rise and fall on a black-swathed head, saw the face of the man whose fist it was.
Youthful, but no longer grey-hued, no longer brooding—Dan Thilton!
"I must have lain there in the cellar a long time," Dan Thilton said, "after you knocked me out. When I came to I crawled out through the hole under the porch. I telephoned for the state cops; then I followed the tracks of the so-called dead men. They were plain in the graveyard, leading right to the tomb that was the entrance to that place where they carried on their mumbo jumbo. By the time I found the entrance the state cops came driving into town, and we went right to work breaking that door down. I guess we got down into the underground chamber just in time to save you."
They were in the room where Linda had first awakened to terror. She was clothed now. A grey dawn was pressing against the window through which she had climbed, and from the lobby beneath came the noises that told of the police-detail lining up those of their prisoners who were still alive, getting them ready for the bus that was to take them to jail.
"How did you know to look for me in the cellar?" she asked.
"I was on the porch roof, trying to get to you and talk some sense into you, so I saw what happened to you when you fell. I had to wait until the bunch that were dressed up as corpses went back to the graveyard, and then I went downstairs to find you. Carst was in the lobby, looking for you, I guess, and he jumped me. I knocked him out, tied him up, and went on down to the cellar."
"He said he had been arousing the people of Torburg to fight the League of Lazarus. He said it was he who got Lije and Jed here to fight them."
"That's right. He got them here and he gave them the shotguns too, loaded with blanks so they weren't any good. Lije and Jed and I weren't scared enough of his outfit to suit him, and he was afraid we were going to make trouble, so he took that way to get rid of us. But I was up here watching your room. You see, when you came in and said he'd wired you to come here tonight, it made me sure of what I'd already suspected—that there was some connection between him and what was going on. Because those other girls came here to marry Holt Carst, too! They vanished right away. Queer thing was, they were all insured in his name."
"Insured...! I remember... He did get me to sign a paper, just before he left. Said it was an application for a marriage license, but it may have been an application for insurance. I trusted him."
Linda opened her suitcase. She had already taken out of the wardrobe the frilly, glamorous garments that, tired as she had been last night, she had carefully hung up because they were to have been her trousseau. As she started to fold them into the bag, she glimpsed out of the corner of her eye. Thilton's gaunt frame, silhouetted against the window out of which he was staring with grim bleakness.
"Sure it was an insurance application," he said. "Carst played both ends against the middle. Getting the insurance on these girls was the final business. In the first place, he got the girls for that bunch of rich old libertines that paid him plenty for a new kind of thrill. ?Lazarus' was the richest; his name doesn't matter now that he's dead. And Carst is through, too. Yankee juries work fast. He's through and Torburg's clean again."
"I'm glad," Linda breathed. "It seemed such a nice village from the little I saw of it last night."
"Nice isn't just the right word for it. It's grand. Carst and his gang came from outside, and they soiled our town for a little while, and now they are gone. But the hills were here before they came, and will be here long after they are forgotten. The wooded hills, the green and pleasant valleys, the white houses where friendly people live...
"Friendly people," Linda breathed, thinking of the cold grey city to which she was returning. "Neighbors... Yes, it's a lovely town. I'd like to stay here..." Thilton looked at her, hope dawning in his eyes. "Do you mean that? I wish you would. I was thinking I'd have to move to Boston if I wanted to see you any more—and I do... I love you, Linda."
As he came toward her slowly, shyly, Linda knew that she had learned more about this man in a few hours of terror than she could have learned in years of just living.
"I love you, too," she answered. Her voice was low, but joy was in her heart. She thought. "It's funny, I did come here to get married—and that's what I'm staying for!" She smiled. But she didn't say it aloud—just then. She couldn't, for she could not talk and be kissed at the same time. And by now she was being thoroughly kissed...