From Supernatural Stories 30 - 1960
THE CRAWLING FIEND
BY BRON FANE
Copyright © R. Lionel Fanthorpe
Used with permission
“Like a patch of darker shadow it crawled towards him . . . malevolently.”
The jeep lurched and bumped its way over the rough apology for a road. High above, the fierce equatorial sun blazed down with savage intensity. The choking, sandy dust, finer and sharper than powdered glass, rose up in clouds behind the study trees . . . Away to the distant west lay the crooked ‘L’ shape of Lake Disappointment, and above it, the spidery outline of Monte Blanche. To the north lay the Kimberley goldfield, with Johanna Spring, to the north-west. Away to the east the towering peaks of the Musgrave range, sheltering Emily Spring, like a bird that hides behind a hedge. To the south-east lay the steaming waters of Lake MacDonald, glimmering in the sunlight beyond their range of vision. Due south, Lake Carnegie and Mount Margaret had dipped below the horizon.
The jeep rattled on, adding the stench of its acrid carbon-monoxide fumes to the hot, bitter air of the western Australian desert. There were four of them in the jeep — tall, dark and rugged Val Stearman, his eyes half-closed against the sting of the sand, drove with the practised ease of the globe-trotting adventurer that he was. He slid his hand off the wheel, dived it into the pocket of the dust-grimed tuxedo that flapped in the slipstream, and pulled out a packet of cigarettes.
“Isn’t it hot enough already, without lighting that thing?” joked La Noire . . . She was a tall, beautifully proportioned woman, of indeterminate age. A woman with enough of the mystery of Eve about her to have maintained that immaculate look of crisp coolness, and freshness, even out here, in the heart of the Badlands. Her jet black, almost blue, hair seemed unimpaired by the blowing sand in the whistle of the slipstream . . . Val grinned good-naturedly, and struck a match, sheltering its flame behind the screen. He inhaled deeply and added a little puff of blue-brown smoke to the dust cloud in the rear of the jeep. Behind him Professor Fitzroy was busying himself with a pair of binoculars. Fitzroy was a strange, silent man, who had failed to respond to even the big journalist’s bluff good humour. He would have been a giant, had it not been for the pitiful withering of his left leg, and a thick, gold-knobbed, ebony cane lay beside him on the seat. To his left sat Kildare, Barney Kildare, a wild, devil-may-care Irish soldier of fortune, whose fascinating Irish brogue was now laced with just enough of the Australian accent, to show that he had spent several years of his life in that wild and wonderful continent.
As the jeep continued to lurch and bump over the uneven track that seemed to be leading the devil-alone-knew-where, Val Stearman, with a strange, philosophical quirk of mind, began weighing up his companions. As he took a quick, sidelong glance at La Noire he decided he had been doing his best to weigh her up for the best part of seven or eight years now, and he was still no nearer to reaching a solution. Even the day-to-day contact of the domestic felicity of the holy state of matrimony, had failed to reveal every fathom of her magnificent mind and coralescent personality. Her temperament was like a jewel, a jewel with a million faces. You never knew quite which to expect next. She could be a saint, sinner, open and frank, or completely mysterious and enigmatical. From dainty coquetry, her mood could swiftly change to the straightforward directness of a Grenadier guardsman. She was angel, woman and devil. She was an enchantress, a philosopher, an artist in many spheres, and her beauty — which in many ways was so reminiscent of Cleopatra’s, was that dark, mysterious beauty. Val could not remember her ageing by so much as a day in all the years he had known her. He thought back to that time, long ago when he had rescued her from the coven of Black Magicians. She was a woman of mystery. A woman of the night, as graceful and as silent as a shadow, and yet, a second later, as sparkling and gay as a sunbeam. His mind went racing back over the fabulous adventures that they had already shared, from the time when, as a young and very sceptical newspaper man, he had gone at her invitation to the spiritualist meeting, to that fantastic, eye-opening séance. He thought, too, of the deadly enmity with which the Coven had pursued them . . . Dr. Jules, the cadaverous, devil-man. Van Haak, grotesque and as sinister as they come — and the dreadful hunchback servant. He remembered, as clearly and as vividly as though it had only happened the day before, how one by one their enemies had met their end. Vile, insidious attack, after vile, insidious attack had ended in a flash of flame from the heavy Colt that never left his side. The Colt, which for reasons of his own, was unlike any other gun . . . for the Colt was loaded with deadly, silver, precious bullets — silver, the Holy Metal, he told himself. He shrugged his shoulders subconsciously, and the steel-hard muscles that ripple across his chest and under his shoulders told him of the familiar weight of the shoulder-holster.
His mind went from La Noire and his own adventures, to the two men sitting in the back of the jeep. When Mac, the fiery editor of “The Globe” had sent him on this assignment, he had grasped the opportunity with both hands. Professor Blane Fitzroy had an international reputation as a geologist, archaeologist, and explorer of no uncertain merit. But there were other whispers. Whispers that had reached those hypersensitive ears of the “Globe’s” editor. Those ears that never left the ground. There were whispers that Blane Fitzroy was not merely an archaeologist, but there was a deeper — perhaps darker — side to his nature. He was constantly searching; searching, questing, for some truth so old that it had been forgotten before the Israelites toiled for their savage Egyptian task masters during their captivity in Egypt. He was looking, so it was rumoured, for a secret that had been forgotten before the Sphinx was built. Searching for an ancient civilization, beside whom the Polynesians, the Greeks, the Romans and the Aztecs, were comparative children. A civilization that made Phoenicia look modern, and that was further from Hannibal and Caesar than they were from Montgomery . . .
He sought for a civilization that was old before Homeric Troy saw a fantastic Cretan civilization with its Minotaur monster. Val Stearman glanced up into the driving mirror, and just for a second his eyes met the strange amber and green flecked orbs of Blane Fitzroy. They were more like the eyes of a hunting beast than the eyes of a man. Val Stearman was no coward. He feared no creature living nor dead. In his rather rudimentary ethical concept he tried to do what he believed to be right. He was a rough diamond, but a diamond none-the-less. Like Sir Richard Grenville before him, he had never turned his back on Don or devil yet. He feared no creature in this world or the next. But something akin to uneasiness bit deep into his very soul as he saw with a sense of deep realisation the full, stark, callousness of those bestial eyes. He knew then, intuitively, that the rumours spoke the truth. The Professor was very, very deep . . . He took his mind off the sinister archaeologist and reflected for a moment on Barney Kildare. The Irishman was not unduly tall, five feet ten or eleven, but he was built like the original Bull of Bashan. He had a big, square, straightforward head, with solid, clear-cut features that might have been chiseled from lined granite. His dark hair, receding at the forehead now, with the onset of early middle-age, went back in smooth waves that were as innocent of artificiality as the Irishman himself was innocent of guile. Little flashes of devil-may-care good humour lurked in his clear, keen eyes. A week’s heavy beard softened the lines of the big, bulldog jaw. His shoulders were tremendously wide in proportion to his height. He was broader, even, than Val Stearman himself, and the great knots of muscle on his lithe steel-hard torso, gave mute tribute to Barney Kildare’s tremendous strength. Stearman reflected that he’d be a good man to have around in a tight spot, and there was no doubt that there would be several tight spots before this trip was finished. The Professor’s eyes alone gave the clue to that.
Blane Fitzroy looked at his watch, the watch that seemed out of proportion on so huge a wrist. He looked at the watch, he looked at the sun, and then consulted the map spread out on his knees, those beast-like eyes raced over it in time with the jolting of the jeep — so quickly that he appeared to have no discomfiture in reading the fine lines. He consulted the compass again, and then to the Irishman’s amazement, produced a ship’s sextant from a case on the floor, and took a position as calmly as though he was in a ship at sea. When he spoke, his voice was devoid of any traceable accent, for his linguistic ability was so wide, that nothing in his speech betrayed his origin. He had so many mother tongues that he could have passed as a native of anywhere, or nowhere.
“I think we will call a halt here,” that was all he said, and yet, to the hypersensitive ears of La Noire, there was just the faintly detectable undertone of excitement. An excitement which hardly rang true to that cold, monosyllabic man. She flashed a swift glance at her husband. Val nodded almost imperceptibly, for he, too, had been aware of that tiny undertone. He let in the clutch, took the jeep out of gear, and braked smoothly.
“Unload,” said Blane Fitzroy, “we will make camp.” Barney and Val began unpacking the gear and pitching the tents.
All round them, there was nothing to be seen but a wide expanse of western Australia. It was God’s own country, or it was Satan’s own country, depending on which way one looked at it. While they busied themselves with the routine work of making camp Blane Fitzroy sat in the shadow of a low sandstone ridge and consulted the aluminum container of ancient MSS. The light that blazed from those amber-green eyes, seemed almost to out-rival the sun, in its fierce intensity . . . The last of the dust had settled back to the desert sand by the time the camp was erected. Blane Fitzroy set to work with a hundred yard tape, and began making swift notes in a small leather-bound book. He stood, leaning on his ebony cane and his one good leg, while his eyes drank in every detail of the desert and the position of the sun. He sniffed at the air, as a hungry animal that scents prey.
“Yes,” he breathed, more to himself than them, “We are very close. Very close indeed.” He turned and spoke to his companions with an unexpected touch of human under standing, “We have had a hard day. We will bed down early, and in the morning,” the amber eyes narrowed into two slits of fire, “in the morning we will begin to dig.” Leaning heavily on his stick he made his way to his tent, pulled the flaps to behind him, and threw his great bulk onto the ground sheet. The sun sank slowly over the western horizon, the night sky grew red, then purple and finally the darkness of night descended like a soft gossamer mantle, like a curtain of thick, blue velvet.
Val Stearman lay gazing out through the open flap of the tent at the beauty and the clarity of the desert skies. He saw all the familiar constellations as they made their rounds. Something about them seemed to bring a breath of everyday reality. London or New York, Sydney, Melbourne, Europe, or Asia, the eternal stars shone down upon the tiny speck of dust called Earth. Tinier specks of dust were the insignificant figures of men, which lived and moved and had their being . . . Val took La Noire in his arms, and pulled the blanket over them both. She curled up against him like a huge black cat, and whimsically, he almost imagined that he could hear her purring, as his fingers gently caressed her blue-black hair . . .
It was dawn when he awoke, and as he rolled over, and gazed through the flap of the tent, he saw that the limping giant was already astir. The Professor made a beckoning gesture, and Val crawled out into the early morning air.
“Wake Kildare and we’ll get started,” said Fitzroy. Stearman man walked over to Barney’s tent, as he did so, his eyes riveted themselves on two strange tracks — smooth but uneven, furrows, already dissolving in the light morning breeze-furrows that led away from Kildare’s tent . . . Away to the distance, in which they were lost, in the irregularity of the desert. Some intuitive sixth sense warned him, even before he opened the flaps of Barney’s tent, he would find it empty. He stooped down and looked in. He was right. Barney Kildare had gone! But it was not only the empty tent that gave Val Stearman an icy tingle of apprehension — it was the three drops of blood that lay on the Irishman’s ground sheet.
“Professor Fitzroy!” roared the big journalist. “Come over here, please. Hurry!” Dragging his withered leg as though it was a limp rag, Blane Fitzroy made his way across the sands, raising little flurries of orange dust, as the ebony stick bit into the soft, yielding surface of the desert. The amber eyes opened wide, and yet they did not register as profound a shock as they might have done.
“What do you make of these tracks?” asked Stearman. Blane Fitzroy lowered himself awkwardly to the ground and began to examine them. He rolled over onto the sand beside the tracks, and extended his powerful right arm to Val Stearman.
“Pull,” he ordered. Gently but firmly, Val dragged him over a few yards of desert, and then helped him to his feet. The two tracks were practically identical . . . “Something — or somebody” said Fitzroy softly, “has dragged Barney Kildare away, and by the look of the blood in that tent, I do not feel that we have much cause to be optimistic about his fate.”
“What the devil do you think it was?” asked Stearman. “La Noire and I are both light sleepers, and we heard nothing. Not a sound, not a movement. I lay awake for several hours looking out at the stars before I dropped off. I saw nothing. I heard nothing . . .”
Blane Fitzroy was still looking at the tracks. “Fetch the jeep,” he said softly. “We’ll endeavour to follow them before they disappear.” Calling to La Noire to bring the other gun, Val Stearman raced across, and started the trusty jeep. The powerful engine barked into life, and the explorers set out in the wake of the sand tracks . . . They had covered almost two miles before the tracks ended.
“I don’t get it,” said Stearman. “Professor, you’re a strong man and so am I. But would you drag a man two miles? Could you drag a man two miles over the desert? A man as big as Kildare? A man weighing maybe fifteen or sixteen stones? What’s the purpose in it? And anyway, where are the other footprints? The footprints of the man who did the dragging?”
“That is a very interesting point,” said Fitzroy slowly, “You see, the natives are very skillful at both laying and covering tracks.” Almost as though his words had been some kind of signal to the inanimate sands of the desert, the track ended.
“Talk of the devil,” whispered Stearman. There was nothing, no footprints, no drag marks, nothing but the sand, stirring faintly in the desert breeze like a slumbering monster which dreams as it sleeps.
“Get the spades,” said Fitzroy tersely, “we’ll dig.” It amazed Val Stearman to watch the Professor handle a spade, while he supported the withered leg with his stick in his left hand, he handled the huge sand shovel with his one tremendous right arm, as easily as a normal man can dig with two hands. The great weight of the heap of sand on the end, was no more to him than a man who handles his little son’s toy spade, while he helps him build a sand castle on Brighton beach. Val Stearman was a powerful man and he dug fast, but it took him all his time to keep up with the fantastic crippled giant . . . Blane Fitzroy caught the look of admiration on the big journalist’s face, and a look of almost human appreciation lit up the gaunt face and amber eyes.
“One has one’s compensations,” he said shortly. It was not so much the words themselves as the way that he said them, that conveyed the meaning to Val. He smiled, and felt that perhaps some of the ice around this strange, gaunt man was beginning to melt. He wondered whether, after all, those devilish eyes were a slander on the character of the man. Was it merely tremendous strength of will that he had mistaken for viciousness? There was of course, no way of knowing as yet . . . they dug on . . . and on . . . and on. La Noire lit the primus and brewed up tea. The wind began to rise . . . The tea tasted of sand, but they drank it with the thirst of sweating men who are working hard. Refilled their mugs, and drank again. There was a sudden hard clang as Blane Fitzroy’s shovel struck a rock. By now they had an aperture about five feet across, like a shallow well in the sand. Val Stearman redoubled his efforts, and the rock gradually became exposed.
As he scraped the sand away, he suddenly realised that there was something very odd about this table of rock, beneath the surface of the desert. It was black, black as ebony, and polished — it shone like wet steel!
“What the devil —” he began.
“I believe that our journey’s going to be fruitful,” said Fitzroy enigmatically. “Do you realise what this is, Mr. Stearman?”
Val shook his head. “I’d guess it was artificial,” he said incredulously.
“It is,” answered the Professor. The eyes lit up till they shone like beacon fires. “It could be the end of a search that has gone on for longer than I care to remember.” La Noire looked at him intently as he spoke, trying to assess the age of this strange crippled giant. How long had he been searching, she wondered. Ten, twenty, thirty years? It might have been fifty . . . His age was completely unassessable. Like the desert itself, time seemed to have had very little meaning for Blane Fitzroy. It was part of the mystery that surrounded him. If he had calmly announced’ that he was an ancient Egyptian priest, 5,000 years old, it would almost have seemed credible out there, among these incredible, mysterious sands.
“I believe this is the roof of a building. The stone we have just struck is polished black marble. Mrs. Stearman, would you be kind enough to fetch me the aluminium cylinder from the rear of the jeep?” La Noire brought it and handed it to him. He thanked her with a curt nod and turned his attention to the ancient parchments within. “Just as I thought,” he whispered. “Would you be kind enough to continue clearing the sand in this direction?” He pointed with his shovel. “I think we shall find some sort of entrance.”
“Entrance?” whispered Val. The Professor nodded.
“I have not yet given up hope for our friend Mr. Kildare. Time is absolutely vital. We must work fast.” The thought that the big, happy-go-lucky Irishman’s life might depend on the speed with which he could swing out the sand, made Val redouble his efforts. Sweat poured from him in the sultry desert air, and even the rising wind did little to cool his fevered brow. Another half-hour’s frenzied digging, and the rectilinear outline of the black marble stone was now unmistakable. He paused for another mug of tea. The Professor put the documents away and solemnly handed the aluminium cylinder back to La Noire, who returned it to the jeep, and all three stood surveying the black stone as Val mopped his forehead, and literally wrung the sweat from the sand-grimed handkerchief in his hand. Cautiously, Fitzroy stepped on to the stone and began tapping with the gold knob of his cane. At first it sounded solid, as solid as Gibraltar, and then there came the unmistakable boom of a cavity.
“This is the door,” exclaimed Fitzroy excitedly. “This is the door, Mr. Stearman. All we need to do now is to discover the secret of the mechanism . . .”
“You said something about the natives,” interrupted Val. “You said something about the natives being expert trackers, they covered their tracks by dragging the body. What makes you think they have put him down here? Or don’t you really think it was the natives at all?”
“It all depends what you mean by natives,” said Fitzroy. “Do you mean the comparatively recent white settlers, who have been here for barely two hundred years? Do we mean the Aborigines, who have been here for something like twenty thousand years? Or do we mean — or do we mean the last dreadful survivors of a civilization so old, that compared to it the Aborigines are as recent as the white settlers?”
The amber eyes blazed with a look that seemed to transcend both time and space, and as Val met that strange gaze, he had the feeling that he was looking back through time itself . . .
“There’s no time for arguing, or discussing things now” said the big journalist suddenly, “but I have the uncomfortable feeling, Professor, that you know far, far more than you’ve told us. When I set out as journalistic representative on this expedition with you I understood that we were looking for traces of a lost civilization. You told us that you had found medieval documents, appertaining to a culture older than Egypt. Now you tell me its older even than the Aborigines themselves. That takes us back a very long way . . . It takes us back so far, that if there is a culture here —” he paused, uncertain how to proceed. La Noire was clenching her beautiful hands into tight little fists.
“It takes us back beyond human history altogether,” she whispered.
“Yes,” agreed Fitzroy softly. “This culture, if we find it — is not only prehistoric, it is prehuman” . . . He straightened up from his examination of the stone doorway. “We are not dealing with traces of ancient mankind, Mr. Stearman,” he said with slow deliberation. “We are not dealing with beasts, we are not dealing with men . . . If my theories are correct, we are dealing with Things.” La Noire stifled a little choking gasp of horror.
“What kind of ‘things’?” she asked in a quiet, rather strained voice.
“Basically,” said the Professor, “there are far too many gaps in the evolutionary pattern. There are too many millions of wasted years. Assuming that man and the apes alone in their descent from the lemur, are possessed of intelligence, even rudimentary intelligence, although we are able to conceive without any great effort of credulity, of sub-species of humanity, which have flourished and then died out. For example, the Cro-Magnon Man, the Neanderthal Man, the Piltdown Man, the Nutcracker Man . . . although we are able to conceive all these dead ends, as it were, along the line of evolution, we find difficulty in believing that at some remote period in the history of the world, there might have been another intelligent off-shoot, which flourished briefly in the dim dawn of history . . . And then, for some unaccountable reason, either died away, or went underground for safety. Take the whole history of mythology, the Beast-Gods of Egypt, the Lycanthropy of the Slavs, the Faeries, the Wee Folk, the legends of Werewolves and Vampire Bats — in other words, all the intelligent non-human species. Folk lore is riddled with tales of animals that could talk, of beasts that could think like men. There is no smoke without fire.” He was squatting awkwardly on the flat black stone, scraping with the blade of a stout penknife at the sand in the crack of the doorway. “There is no smoke without fire,” he repeated. “Where did these tales originate — all in the minds of men? Or is it founded in fact? Is it founded on dim, sub-human memories?” As he spoke he continued scraping away the sand in the crack between the two huge black slabs. “The modern psychologists believe that we have inherited a racial memory,” he went on, half to Val Stearman and La Noire, and half to himself. “A racial memory that gives us fear of the dark, a memory that stems from the days when dark Things walked in Dark Places . . .” He straightened suddenly with a little cry of triumph, and supported himself awkwardly on the ebony cane. “I think that will do it,” he said. “If you will be so kind as to assist me with raising the stone, Mr. Stearman.” Val produced a heavy crowbar from the jeep, and inserted the end between the two stones. “If my guess is correct,” went on the Professor, “if you apply the pressure in that direction,” he indicated with a sweep of his strong right arm, “I think we shall be able to force this dark and sinister portal.” Val threw every ounce of his mighty strength into the task. The big journalist was almost as powerful as the legendary Hercules. He heaved until the veins stood out on his forehead and the muscles of his neck stood out like whipcord, supporting himself carefully on the cane. The giant put his powerful right arm between Stearman’s hands and added his own tremendous force to the big journalist’s pressure. At first, nothing happened, and then with a creak of tortured metal, the end of the crowbar bent, as a twig bends before the gale.
“Damn,” exploded the giant. “I fear we are too much for it, Mr. Stearman.” Something like a twitch of cynical humour played round the corners of his gaunt, trap-like mouth, La Noire hurried across with another bar. The giant shook his head, “I don’t think so, my dear,” he said. “I believe we need to use ingenuity rather than force.”
It occurred to Val that if the doorway was jammed as tightly as it appeared to be, whoever, or whatever, had dragged the Irishman through the sand, must be terrifyingly powerful. He kept the thought to himself.
The giant walked around the stone doorway, lurching on his stick and withered leg. “I think perhaps, here,” he said decisively. He paused deep in thought. “Yes, I think here might be a better place . . . I was wrong before — even I am not infallible, though perhaps, with a stronger bar we should have been successful.” Val inserted the point of the bar in the other crack, and again the two men threw their united force against the stone. There was the creaking, groaning sound of ancient machinery, and with a slow, jerky movement the antique slab swung upwards, revealing a gaping black cavity . . . .
“Success,” breathed the sinister Professor. “Lights please, Mrs. Stearman.” La Noire returned with three powerful torches from the back of the jeep. The Professor switched one on and shown it down into the murky, Stygian depths. “Like the entrance to Tartarus itself,” he exclaimed in deep, sepulchral tones. The light showed a long, long flight of black stone steps, worn smooth by the passage of countless feet. Stearman could only guess at the fathomless antiquity of the chasm revealed to them.
“I’ll go first,” said the big journalist. “Are you sure you can manage all right?”
“Thank you for your consideration,” said the giant. “Yes, I shall be all right, Mr. Stearman. I have, in my time, negotiated far more difficult descents, despite my handicap.” Val shone the torch ahead of him into the darkness, the other hand resting on the butt of the trusty Colt. He began his descent. It was fantastically cold below the surface, not a breath of wind stirred down there, in that black abyss. He had gone about twenty steps down, and shone his light round the enormous, vault-like aperture. He gave a gasp of surprise when the light flashed back to him in a million rainbow hues.
“Good heavens,” exclaimed Fitzroy. “Do you realise what those stones are?”
“Gems of some kind,” answered Stearman, “at a guess.”
“A very good guess,” replied the Professor. “They are indeed gems. As a geologist I can be rather more precise. There, you see that gleaming crystal of orange and red, and the purple one beside it?” Stearman nodded.
“Those are tourmaline.”
“Tourmaline?” ejaculated Stearman. “I thought that was only found in the New York area, and the Ural Mountains.”
“To the best of my knowledge, so it is,” said the geologist “which means that whoever, or whatever, built this tower, for I believe, it is a buried tower we are descending now, had access to the mineral deposits of the whole world. It is a staggering thought, is it not? Yes, there is New York tourmaline, and the deeper purple variety is the Ural tourmaline. That green stone there is chrysoprase. Here are the two varieties of emerald.” He moved the torch beam over the walls as he spoke . . .
“And there, beautiful in their black marble settings, flash the fiery gold of Peruvian emeralds. Here is chrysoberyl from the Ural Mountains. There, look there, turquoise and a perfect diamond.” He moved the torch yet again, “Those are spinel rubies, and there is a glittering cluster of garnet. Look at that polished piece of bloodstone! And the topaz above it . . . here,” he moved the beam again to a gleaming, multi-coloured carving, shining with blues, yellows and reds, “that is a piece of lapis-lazuli. There is aquamarine, there an opal, here an amethyst . . . yes . . . the precious gems of the whole world must have been available to the builders of this prehistoric, pre-human edifice.”
“Are there any on the other side?” asked Val, swinging his torch as he spoke.
“They are even better this way,” answered the Professor, “Look there! Those that have already seen, plus zircon, peridot, and some others with which even I am unfamiliar. Treasure worth all the ransoms of all the kings who have ever lived, used to ornament one stone tower.”
“Incredible,” breathed Stearman. They continued their descent through those dazzling, bejewelled, black walls. Below them the darkness seemed to grow thicker and more Stygian, as high above their heads an oblong light which marked the entrance, grew smaller and smaller . . .
“Listen,” said La Noire suddenly, “what’s that?” They paused. Everywhere was perfect silence . . . and then . . . they heard the sound again . . . it was a creaking, grating sound. Machinery moving.
“It’s the entrance door,” screamed La Noire. “Look!”
They flashed the lights up the black stone stairs. There was no one to be seen, nothing except the relentlessly closing stone portal. Val made a half-hearted effort to bypass the tall, grotesque figure of the crippled giant, and ran for the doorway, but he knew before he had taken three strides, that it was worse than useless. Even as he paused, trying to make up his mind whether or not to make a race for it, there was a crash like thunder, and the great stone slab fell back into place.
“My God, we’re trapped. Trapped like rats,” he breathed. “Do you think it was accidental?”
“I hope it was,” replied the giant slowly, “For if our presence is known to,” he hesitated, “whoever, or whatever, dragged away Mr. Kildare, then you do not need me to tell you that our situation is perilous in the extreme.”
“Do you suggest we go back?” said Val.
“Can’t see the point of it, at the moment,” said Fitzroy thoughtfully. “I doubt if two of us will be able to move that slab from the inside. We have no crowbar.”
“You’re right, of course,” answered Stearman quietly.
“On the other hand, there may be a more accessible entrance somewhere else . . .”
“That’s a point,” agreed Val.
“Shall we go on?” questioned Fitzroy. It was half question, half command. Val passed him again on the stairs, and as he did so, he noticed how easy it was. The steps were unnecessarily wide, and the solidity of the stone seemed to indicate that they would be capable of supporting almost any weight. There was no impediment to headroom in the surrounding walls, and with an uneasy shiver, the big journalist realised, that even a creature twenty feet high would have very little difficulty in negotiating those black steps. His eyes met the Professor’s in a look that spoke volumes, and almost as though Fitzroy was telepathic he swung his arm in a gesture that indicated the spaciousness of the underground system.
“Wasn’t built for a pigmy, was it, Mr. Stearman,” he said coldly.
“It certainly wasn’t,” said Val, and watched La Noire give a little convulsive shudder of fear. “And it wasn’t a pigmy that dragged Barney Kildare two miles over the desert,” he added in an undertone . . .
Down. . . and down . . . and down. . . they walked for what seemed an eternity. Every few moments they paused and flashed the torch over the coralescing sea of glittering gems that lined the walls, encrusted as thick as barnacles on the keel of a rotting hulk. It seemed that all the gems that had ever been mined were there, in that weird, black treasure tower. “Surely all the buildings can’t be ornamented like this?” he queried.
“Possibly not all,” answered the Professor, “but no doubt many of them are. If you remember your mythology, my friend, you will recall stories of monsters, and harpies, and furies, ghouls, genies — particularly the genies — of the caves that were lined with priceless riches. Think if you will deserts. The terrifying desert monsters which guarded the caves that were lined with priceless riches. Think if you like, of the old pantomime story of Aladdin, and his wicked uncle, Abanazer. Think of the treasure cave which he found . . . think of the story of the soldier and the three great dogs guarding the treasure cave — then remember what I said about there being no smoke without fire. There is a basis of fact behind all the ancient legends, and behind all the strange mythology. It is that basis of fact which it is my life’s work to bring to the light of day . . .”
From far below them in the darkness they heard something moving. It sounded as though something heavy was dragging itself across the black stones. Fear froze them motionless to the spot. They held their breath, the atmosphere was tense . . . electric with expectancy. The heavy dragging sounds continued.
“Put out the lights,” whispered Stearman, “It may not see us.” Like stars dipping behind a thick, black thunder-cloud, they extinguished the three electric torches . . . the scraping sounds terminated in a heavy splash!
“By the stars,” whispered Stearman, “there’s water down here. Water! Under the heart of the Australian desert! Does it make sense?”
“Does anything here make sense?” rejoined Blane Fitzroy quietly.
Gradually their eyes became more accustomed to the darkness of the buried tower. After the splash there was nothing but silence.
“I think it’s gone,” whispered Stearman. “Do you think we could risk the descent without the lights?’
“Not in view of that water,” answered the giant. “Come.” He switched his torch on again, and the party began their descent anew. Down . . . down . . . down . . . with that one slim pencil of sanity-giving light illuminating the watery Tartarus that lay below them. They could see the gleam of the black water now. Darker and more sinister than any water they had seen before. Like the mythical Styx that flowed by the boundary of the dreaded underworld itself. This water seemed to be the liquacious condensation of the essence of everything evil . . . La Noire shuddered involuntarily, as her hypersensitive reaction picked up the black emanation of the water.
“This place is bad,” she murmured softly. “I can feel it in every nerve. There is terrible evil and danger here.”
Val cast a quick glance over his shoulder. His fingers tightened on the butt of the gun. Fitzroy’s eyes were glowing like two live coals. It was like walking down the steps with a tiger treading behind you . . .
“There’s something moving in the water,” said Stearman quietly. “Can you see it, Professor?” Fitzroy moved the torch a trifle; and there, sure enough, a dark shape was swimming powerfully towards them! It was not as big as they had anticipated. It looked oddly familiar. Quite suddenly La Noire, whose eyes were more able to penetrate the darkness than the eyes of the men, realised what it was.
“It’s Barney Kildare,” she gasped excitedly. “He’s still alive. I’m sure that’s him.” But even as she spoke they saw a darker and more sinister ripple in the water behind the swimmer. They were close enough now to see unmistakably that it was Kildare. Kildare, and a nameless, indescribable horror, surging along in his wake. A horror, the top of which only could be glimpsed. A horror, whose submerged bulk could only be guessed. There was no doubt now as to what had caused the heavy dragging sounds. Kildare looked back and swam with redoubled fury to out-distance his pursuer. The dreadful reptilian Thing, like some enormous hirsute Saurian, was gaining on him, and then deliberately falling back. Like a cat playing with a mouse. The sight made Stearman feel physically sick. He leveled the big Colt and shot a questioning glance at the Professor. Fitzroy nodded, and Val loosed off three quick rounds. The swimming Thing submerged and Kildare gave a start, and shouted for joy.
“Is that you, Professor?” The Irish-Australian could scarcely believe his good fortune. With swift, powerful strokes he reached the bank and leapt out onto the black stone steps. There was still no sign of the ghastly amphibious monstrosity, the hairy amorphousness that had been pursuing him through the water.
“We must hurry,” snarled the Professor. “Those shots may have startled it, Mr. Stearman. I doubt if they have done much more to a creature of such bulk.” Even as they began to stumble up that long black staircase, the waters boiled and heaved in violent turbulent disruption . . . and an enormous scaly claw gripped the black stone edge of the underground pool.
“What the devil is it?” gasped the Irishman as they struggled frantically up the stairs.
“I’ve no, idea, in these particular circumstances,” replied the Professor, tersely. “But it reminds me of something I once saw in Slavia.”
“Go on,” said Stearman excitedly. “What did you see there?”
“A creature called a Vadyanoi,” replied Fitzroy. “The name comes from ‘voda’, which means ‘water’. It is a malevolent and dangerous Thing that inhabits lakes, pools, springs, and rivers. According to Slavian folklore the favourite haunt of the Vadyanoi is the neighbourhood of the mill pool and the mill dam. Under the great mill wheel many Vadyanoi would sometimes gather together. In appearance they varied a great deal. Some had human faces with huge limbs, paws instead of hands, long horns, tails, and burning eyes. Others were like giants covered with grass and moss. They might be black with enormous red eyes. Some had the aspect of an old man with green hair and beard — the beard changed colour and became white when the moon waned. Sometimes they would appear as a native woman sitting in the water on the roots of a tree. Others looked like huge fish covered in moss. And there was even one that was supposed to look like a tree trunk — a tree trunk with wings that flew along the surface of the water. They are immortals. They grow older and younger with the phases of the moon. They detest the human race. They lay in wait to drag them into the water. The drowned who fell into their deep and watery kingdom became their slaves, while they themselves lived in beautifully ornamented palaces, filled with gold and silver stolen from vessels that had sunk. They rest during the day and come out in the evening. Whenever they approach the dam of a mill, they try to destroy it to let the water flow freely.” He paused. “In Russia a few years ago millers used to throw travelers into the millrace to gain the goodwill of the Vadyanoi. This thing behind, is far bigger than the creature I saw, most of the legends about them are only folk tales, and yet, one never knows. For this Vadyanoi legend fits in with my own theory, my theory of the strange non-human intelligences — the intelligences whose culture goes back far, far beyond the dim dawn of human history,”
Stearman glanced back over his shoulder, and flashed the torch down the steps. Like some dreadful entity from the very depths of Hell the huge Saurian beast was creeping up the black marble behind them. It was then that he remembered the doorway was closed.
“How we going to get that stone up?” he gasped.
“There are three of us now,” said the Professor shortly. “We must exert all our strength, that is all. Perhaps a few more shots will delay it.” With La Noire leading the way, they continued scrambling up the steps. The Irishman gave the professor a hand, but the crippled giant was making wonderful progress, considering his handicap.
“Tell me quickly, what happened to you?” he panted as they continued in their dash for freedom.
“I knew nothing till I woke up in the cold desert air,” said Barney, “I had a lump on my head the size of a pigeon’s egg. I looked up and there was this thing — one huge claw round my feet looking down at me,” he shuddered, “— and laughing. I swear it was laughing! I never heard such a hellish sound in the whole of my life. Even then, I thought I was still dreaming. It shovels the sand away with its great paws, and down we go through a huge black stone door, and it pauses, and holding me in one hand, dangling down this huge black flight of stairs, the other great claw goes up and heaps the sand back into the hole, until there’s only a small aperture above the stone, and then it pulls the stone shut and I hear the rest of the sand, dislodged by the moving stone, falling back into place, and we’re trapped. And then, with its great red eyes fixed on me, it carried me down these stairs. There was an evil leer on its face, like a cat that’s just captured a mouse, and is going to play with it, before eating it. I was nearly mad with the sheer terror of it, and I’m not a man that frightens easily. Then it gets down here, and throws me into the water. It was colder than any water I’ve ever been in in my life. It was like swimming in the Arctic sea. I feel as if I’ve been shut up in a refrigerator since I was a child.” He shivered — partly with cold and partly with dread of the slimy, hairy, scaly Thing that was coming up the stairs in pursuit. “Then it dives into the water beside me and pursues me. I swum as I’ve never swum before . . . round and round, for what seemed an eternity, and just as I was exhausted, it would ease up, and swim to the bank and sit and watch me. Then it would dive in and chase me all round the pool again. I never knew anything like it. I kept wishing I could die and get out of it all. I tried diving down to the depths of the pool, and it dived after me and pulled me back to the surface. I tried swimming to the farther shore and try to lose it in the darkness, but it could see me, or sense me, or something, for it always brought me back. . .”
“It’s gaining on us,” said the Professor quickly, interrupting the Irishman’s narrative, as he glanced over his shoulder. “Look!” it was true . . . the huge malevolent Saurian . . . its face — its indescribably ugly, bestial face — twisted into the hideous caricature of a grin, was drawing closer at every second, and then it laughed! It laughed with a sound that echoed and re-echoed round the vaulted jewel-encrusted black stone of their prison. And as it laughed the explorers felt the blood freeze in their veins with sheer fear of the dreadful Thing. It was a laugh like the cackle of an insane god. It was fantastic. It was frightening. The creature was amused, in the same savage way that a carnivore plays with its prey and amuses itself before the kill. They realised then that It knew that they were trapped . . .
“By thunder, I’ll give you something to laugh about,” snarled Stearman. He threw up the big Colt and emptied it into the grinning maw of the creature’s face. The laughter stopped. Thick black blood trickled from the corner of the monster’s mouth.
“You’ve hurt him. Well done!” cried the Professor. “Again.” Still scrambling and struggling madly up the steps, Val slammed another clip into the heavy automatic.
“Fire at the eyes,” said the Professor. “Blind the devil!” With unerring aim Stearman blazed away at the malevolent red orbs that pursued them through the darkness, and like fires that are doused by water, the red glow died away. The laughter was replaced by a screaming roar of anger and pain, as it lurched blindly after them up the steps.
“Faster!” gasped the Professor. “Faster. We must find time to open the trap.” They reached the stone at last, and leaning heavily on the black ebony cane, his great hand completely encircling its gold top, Fitzroy got his gargantuan shoulders beneath the slab that imprisoned them. Stearman and the Irishman threw themselves against the other side of the stone, and all three heaved until the blood pounded in their ears, and their hearts beat like trip hammers against their rib cages. La Noire trained the gun steadily at the lumbering, lurching Nemesis that threatened them all. With a cool, icy calm, the calm of a fear that was too deep for terror, she fired again and again into the cavernous jaws of the oncoming horror. The bullets were not without their effect, for the heavy lead slugs cut and tore and ricocheted into that reptilian flesh. More of the thick black blood trickled from the creature’s mouth and its roaring increased. Claw-like hands pawed the air as it stood like the blinded Cyclops reaching for these modern Argonauts who had dared to wound it. So great was the effort that Fitzroy and his three companions were throwing their pressure on the stone, that all three were on the verge of exhaustion, before a creak told them that they were winning this desperate battle for survival. The stone swung up. A shaft of vivid sunlight illuminated the macabre chamber. The hot desert air seemed like the blast of a hot oven, after the freezing coldness of the subterranean tower. Barney Kildare leapt up into the sunlight and pulled the limping professor up after him. The monster was scarcely five yards away from Val Stearman, as he stood to face it while La Noire scrambled to safety. With a bound of the superb athlete that he was, Stearman too leapt out into the hot desert air, as the creature’s groping hand closed over the frame of the black stone doorway.
“Get the blasting power out of the jeep,” ordered the Professor. “We’ll finish this devil thing once and for all.” Slowly, relentlessly, the wounded monster began hauling itself up over the edge of the parapet. Even as Stearman hurried back with the blasting powder the monstrous head was coming up. Its sightless eyes upon the explorers. They realised that unless its grip on the stone could be broken it would be out into the open before they could destroy it. . . With a swift twisting movement Blane Fitzroy did something to the top of his cane stick. The gold knob came away in his hand, and with a rapid movement he withdrew a long, razor-edged stiletto-like blade that flashed and glittered in the burning heat of the desert sun. The sightless monster pawed at the air in a frenzy, and roared defiant screams of pain and fury. La Noire was swiftly reloading the gun, and a crashing fusillade from the heavy Colt, bucking and kicking in the girl’s graceful hands, intermingled with the downward slash of the Professor’s blade. It came down with a stroke which would have destroyed a telegraph pole. A fierce downward slash that would have severed a young tree . . . it landed fair and square on the scaly reptilian limb, and thick blood oozed afresh on the hot orange sand. The half-severed limb hung by a few strands for a few seconds and then it dropped and lay twitching on the sand, like a huge revolting toad. The charge on the blasting powder in Val Stearman’s hand was already half-way down the fuse. Motioning the others to stand clear, he dashed right up to the hideous, bestial face of the creature, and thrust the charge straight into the cavernous mouth . . . They threw themselves flat on the sand. The next second seemed to last for a thousand million years — an eternity of suspense. A waiting that seemed to know no end. Then, with a muffled roar of thunder, the blasting powder exploded. Its roar muffled the last scream of pain from the hideous Saurian horror, and with a thud that shook the ground the giant carcase rebounded from the steps. From far, far beneath came a dull splash, and then silence . . . the silence of the tomb.
“Close the stone,” gasped the Professor. “Quickly men, close the stone.” Val and Barney Kildare threw themselves down on the back rectangle, and it grated into place, sealing the dreadful horror that lay shattered in its own pool of Stygian water.
The dust was settling a little as Val and Barney began to shovel the sand back into the crater. It was far easier work than the excavation had been. Fear lent them wings. There was no knowing how many more of the creatures were lurking down there in those foul depths. As soon as the crater was filled, they leapt aboard the jeep, Val started the powerful engine, let in the clutch, slipped in the gear, and with a roar, they were bumping and lurching away over the sands, back in the direction of the camp.
“This is an operation which requires the co-operation of all the security forces,” said Blane Fitzroy, as he carefully wiped the thick blood from the blade and replaced it in its sheath. “I only hope that we shall be able to reach civilization again before that Thing recovers, or before its friends come looking for vengeance.” Val was driving the jeep as fast as he dare over the treacherous terrain. They had barely covered half the distance back to camp, when with a spluttering, choking noise, the engine ‘died’ into terrifying silence . . . They exchanged glances.
“Of all the times . . .” muttered the Irishman, “she has to pick now! Aren’t we having some luck?” Val leapt out and threw up the bonnet. As he did so, he thought he saw something scattering away under the sump, but he gave it no heed. It must have been a trick of the light and shade, he told himself. The petrol was cut off at the tap, just above the carburettor. He heaved a sigh of relief to think that it was nothing more dangerous, switched on, flooded the chamber, and raced back for the starter. The motor barked into erratic life, and once more they speeded on.
“What was it?” asked Fitzroy.
“The vibrations must have cut the petrol off,” said Val. “I couldn’t see anything else wrong.” They had barely covered another hundred yards, before the engine spluttered and died again,
“Same thing?” asked Fitzroy with an edge to his voice. Barney and Val raced round the edge of the truck, and once more found the petrol tap in the ‘off’ position.
“Must be loose,” commented Val. “Funny it was no trouble on the way out here.” He pulled a coil of insulating tape from his pocket and bound it round the arm of the push-pull tap, holding it securely in the ‘on’ position. “Can’t make it out,” he said with a puzzled frown. “What say you, Barney?” The Irish-Australian also shook his head.
“Um, she’s a rum jiggaroo, and no mistake,” he said thoughtfully, as they started once more, and reached camp without further incident. No camp was ever cleared as quickly as that one. The explorers feverishly slung all their gear into the back of the jeep. Tents were roughly bundled, utensils thrown in, in careless confusion, expensive scientific equipment loaded with the careless abandon of sacks of coal, and then they were off. Racing southward, through the bleak, empty loneliness of the afternoon sunshine. Racing back towards the security and safety of civilization. Dusk was falling when the motors spluttered and died again.
“Damn,” said Val, “surely that tape hasn’t come off?”
“Didn’t sound like petrol to me,” said Barney. “More like a plug lead twisted off, it didn’t seem to be sparking . . .”
“You’re right,” said Val, as they lifted the bonnet. “Look at that!” The plug leads had shaken loose, this time both men knew that it could not have been vibration . . . The leads were torn away from the terminals. While the latter was still screwed securely on top of the plugs. Something had snapped the stranded copper wire as though it had been string!
“What the blazes?” said Val. “Have we run over anything? A bit of driftwood, or scrub, it’s difficult to see in the dusk. It might have come cascading up here and ripped through those leads.”
“It seems very unlikely to me,” commented the Irishman. “One perhaps, but all of them — look! It’s like a spider’s web when a wasp’s been through it.” Val took a pair of pliers from the tool kit and restripped the severed wires. They were pretty slack, and it was the work of no more than ten minutes to refasten the disconnected plugs. They slammed down the bonnet, restarted the engine and raced on again. Darkness was falling rapidly now. The sinister darkness of the lonely desert. Val switched on the two powerful headlamps, and they drove on, steering by the stars that glittered down on the rough track.
“I don’t feel that it would be advisable for us to make camp out here again,” said Fitzroy. The others nodded agreement.
“We can drive in turn, and we may get back to the nearest settlement soon.” The others nodded. Everything seemed to be running smoothly again. They had covered about another twenty miles before the lights suddenly went out.
“What the devil was that?” snarled Stearman. “There’s a hoodoo on this blasted jeep to-night.” Pausing only to snap up their electric torches, they raced round to the front of the vehicle and began checking the wiring. The bulbs had not fused. Wiring, as far as they could see, seemed intact at the back of the headlights. Then they found that the positive feeds had been torn through in the same way as the plug leads.
“Hoodoo is right,” said Barney, with just a touch of superstitious awe in his voice. The four explorers looked at one another. “You don’t think that by any strange and unbelievable possibility,” began Kildare, “that that Thing back there has put some sort of a curse on it?” There was a soft ‘flop’. The kind of noise an apple makes when it falls into soft earth. And La Noire screamed hysterically, as she pointed her torch beam.
“Look at that?” she gasped. Val’s hand dived for the big Colt, and found his holster was empty. He remembered that La Noire had the gun. It lay, at this moment, in the back of the jeep. Three strides and a quick rummage through the debris, it was in his hand. Something had dropped onto the sand beside the jeep. Val remembered the thing he had seen, or thought he had seen, move away into the shadows of the sump. It was about seven or eight inches in diameter, just a darker shadow on the sombre sands. . . Was it a rat? Or toad? Or —
“I don’t know,” said Fitzroy with an icy edge to his normally calm voice. “I don’t know at all.”
For long seconds the Thing remained motionless, then at surprising speed scuttled away out of the range of vision and disappeared in the sand.
“What the deuce was it?” asked Val. An icy trickle of something akin to fear was running up and down his spine; short hairs were raising at the base of his skull. He felt an electric quiver in every nerve; every fibre of his being was alive with the urgency and warning of danger. He felt pretty sure that whatever it was that scuttered away, it was no earthly animal . . . but if not, what the hell was it? By the light of the shaded torches they refastened the battery leads. He restarted the jeep — there was a faint scuttering, scratching sound, under the chassis. It was drowned in the roar of the engine, as Stearman started off in a flurry of sand. They drove on again for several miles, in frightened, thoughtful silence.
What was that thing? Wondered Val. What could it have been? Had it got any connection with the freak accidents to the jeep? The hours at the wheel, plus the strain of the day’s events, were making him feel drowsy. The lurching, bumping, swaying movement was having a hypnotic, narcotic, effect, and the big journalist was beginning to feel drowsy as the minutes turned into hours over that uneven bumping track. The track took a sudden sharp bend around an outcropping of jagged sandstone. Val spun the wheel automatically over to the left to avoid the obstacle — there was no response! The steering did not answer. With lightning fast instinct he stabbed on the brakes, but quick as he was on the treacherous sandy surface, he was not fast enough. With a shuddering crash, the jeep ran head-on into the sandstone. The explorers were flung from their overturned wagon in a disheveled heap. Val’s first thoughts were for La Noire.
She stood up and shook herself uncertainly. “Yes, I think so,” she answered. “No bones broken, anyway. A couple of bruises on the shin I could well have done without.”
He laughed. He admired her courage. He always had done. The crippled giant had not fared quite so well. He lay in a stunned heap on the sand, blood trickling from a two-inch gash in his forehead. Barney Kildare sat up dazedly, rubbing his chest. Before Stearman could reach him, he stood up and both men went to the aid of the unconscious Professor. A moment’s examination revealed that Fitzroy was well and truly out, but still breathing. There might be some danger of concussion. He was alive and that was the main thing.
“How the hell did it happen?” asked Kildare.
“Damned steering’s gone,” said Val savagely. “Another of these blasted freak ‘accidents’. I’m going to have a look and see just exactly what has gone.” He opened the bonnet with an effort and walking round to the other side of the jeep began examining the steering box. The two bolts had been unscrewed . . . There was no other words for it. No amount of vibration in the world could have shaken loose those two trusty steel fasteners. An icy hand seemed to clutch at his very vitals and almost twist the soul from him, and in a sudden, blinding flash of inspiration he knew. Knew without any shadow of doubt, what it was that he had seen scuttering away in the sand. He turned to the big Irishman and in a strange, faraway voice, said:
“You remember when the Professor severed the hand, or claw, or whatever it was of that beast, did you notice what happened to it afterwards?”
Barney Kildare swallowed and his face went deathly pale. “By St. Patrick, I didn’t,” he breathed. “I was too busy shoveling back the sand to think about that filthy thing.”
“So was I,” said Val. As if they were in telepathic communication, La Noire had also guessed, and her lovely face turned very white and strained. “That’s what you saw under the truck,” she said softly. “It was the severed ‘hand’ of the monster, alive with some fiendish malevolent hatred of its own, striking back at us. A hand! A crawling scuttering hand! Out for vengeance!”
There was no possibility of moving the jeep any further. Val rummaged among the overturned equipment for torches, rifles, and a spare revolver. He jerked his head in the direction of Fitzroy.
“We’ll carry him, till he’s fit to walk,” he said decisively. “La Noire, you’ll have to be spotter and guard while we walk. I shan’t be able to draw fast if I’m holding the Professor. Anyway you can see better in the dark than we can.” She nodded, and quietly handed back his gun. He and Kildare slung a rifle each over their shoulders, and picked up the inert form of Blane Fitzroy. With a revolver strapped to each of her shapely hips, and a powerful torch in her hand, La Noire began leading the way across the rough desert path . . . Blane Fitzroy was a giant, and he must have weighed all of twenty to twenty-five stones, and as he now hung dead weight, he was a pretty formidable burden. Even for the two powerful explorers. At the end of a mile, Barney Kildare was beginning to stagger. Val set his teeth determinedly.
“Keep going, Barney,” he urged. “We’ve got to keep going, it’s our only chance. If we stop here in this darkness that Thing is going to come scuttering out at us, and then we’re as good as dead. It nearly got us once, already. We’ve got to keep moving.” Kildare panted breathlessly, and they struck out again doggedly. The sand seemed to cloy and clog their feet, as though it were on the side of the hideous alien monster whom they had mutilated. Every fleeting shadow made their hearts contract in terror. Their nerves were reaching breaking strain. There was no knowing at what second the deadly Thing would come springing out of those sinister shadows, to implant its deadly grip on one throat or another. On and on and on, they slogged . . . yard after yard . . . step after step . . . shoes filled with sand . . . shivering in the cold night air in spite of their exertions. Slogging on and on, mile after mile. Val’s breath was coming in painful gasps. His huge chest and shoulders were heaving with the strain. Every muscle beyond the limit of its endurance . . . nothing but will-power left . . . He wondered how much further he could go . . . The unconscious giant in his arms began to stir slightly, opened his gleaming amber eyes, and groaned feebly. He tried to sit up.
“You’re O.K.” said Val, “take it easy Professor, we had an accident with the truck, the steering broke, you got a crack over the head. We’re just carrying you.”
The Professor relaxed. “Just for one horrible second I thought that Thing had got me,” he said. “How did the accident happen?”
“There was a big crop of sandstone in the track,” said Val shortly between gasps. “And as I turned, the steering just didn’t answer!”
“What had happened to the steering?” asked Fitzroy in a voice of strange icy calm.
“Nuts on the box had been deliberately unscrewed, and the coupling disconnected,” said Val.
“But how —” began the Professor.
“What do you think that Thing was that we saw scuttering away,” panted the Irishman. “It was the hand of that blasted monster from the pit. The hand that you hacked off, Professor. We never took the trouble to see where it was, we never threw it back down to that black darkness where it belonged, and now it’s after us . . . There’s as much malevolent hate and vengeance in the hand as there was in the whole of the body. It’s going to get us.”
“Shut up!” commanded Val sharply. “It’s not going to get us, Barney, we’re going to get through to civilization. We’re going to be O.K.”
“How far have you been carrying me?” asked the giant, weakly.
“It seems like a hundred miles,” panted the Irishman. “But I’d say it’s about six or seven.”
“You must be all in!” exclaimed Blane. “Can’t have this. Here, support me! I’ll try and walk.” He looked swiftly from one to the other. “Did you bring my cane?”
“Yes, I’ve got that safely here, stuffed in my belt,” said the Irishman, and handed the long, gold-knobbed, ebony rod to the big archaeologist.
“Good man,” said the archaeologist, “I’m only half alive without that blasted thing. Had it so long now, it’s almost like one of my own limbs, I’m so used to it.”
With Val’s assistance he struggled into an upright position, leaning heavily on his cane and his two colleagues, he made a game effort to drag himself through the sand. It must have been about midnight, when the blazing amber eyes suddenly clouded over, and with a little choking gasp he collapsed in an inert heap to the ground. “Sorry boys,” he gasped, “I’m all in. I shall have to have a breather.”
“We’ll carry him again,” said Val.
“No, it’s no good, you’ll knock yourselves up. You’ll need all your reserves of strength if the emergency comes.” They realised the sense of what Fitzroy said. It was no good reaching complete exhaustion, and then having to do battle with the hideous supernatural horror. The four of them sat in a tight huddle, back to back, torches blazing across the sand, guns at the ready.
“It doesn’t seem possible,” said Val, “And yet it’s the only explanation.”
“These things have happened before,” said Blane Fitzroy. “Did you ever read the story of the Beast with Five Fingers? That was a severed human hand. Did you ever read the Hand of Saint Ury? Same case again. Did you ever hear ‘One Foot Remained’? The paw of a hell hound was buried under a farmhouse doorstep and in that paw was concentrated all the venom that had been in the evil beast itself.”
“But those are only stories,” said the Irishman. The blazing amber eyes flashed into his.
“If you had spent as long studying archaeology and ancient history, as you have in being an adventurer, then you would know that over and over again, these have, and do happen,” said the Professor. “Believe me, we’re not fighting any illusion. It was no illusion that severed the plug leads, and turned off the petrol, smashed the headlights and finally wrecked the jeep. That truck was a first-class vehicle, in perfect order. These things don’t just happen, believe me.” He paused. “I should have known, that if the severed hand of a human being can walk the earth after the body has been interred in its grave, and the severed hand of this monster would be ever more lethal and deadly. The blasting powder killed the brute, coupled with that fall, and all the power of the monster will be concentrated in that hand. We haven’t defeated the enemy, we’ve only made it far more deadly. Deadly because of its elusiveness, and the concentration of its dark, evil force.” Something in the sand, just beyond the beam of the powerful torches, was scuttling soundlessly to and fro in the darkness . . . something that watched and waited. A lurking, crawling, evil something . . . Something like a rat or a huge bloated toad, and yet it was not either . . . out there beyond the beams of the torches, the crawling Fiend was waiting its opportunity. Six hours still separated the explorers from the comparative safety of the light of the sun. Six hours of terror. Six hours of waiting. Of not knowing. A sudden thought struck Val Stearman. He looked swiftly, appraisingly down at the torch in his hand. Its clear white beam had already changed to an orange yellow. Its effective range was considerably reduced. He doubted whether it would last another hour — two would be its maximum. He gestured to La Noire who sat on his right. She looked at hers. That too was failing. So were the other two. When the jeep had overturned, none of them had remembered to pick up the small case of spare batteries. When the torches failed they would be alone in the dark with the dreadful beast, the crawling fiend, the unknown, unnatural thing . . . loaded with deadly hatred, waiting out there in the darkness to destroy them. The circle of light grew slowly dimmer and smaller as the minutes ticked painfully by . . . twenty . . . twenty-five . . . half-an-hour passed. Val’s torch was now a very pale orange ghost of its former self. The others had fared little better, and somewhere beyond the beam of that light the dreadful Thing was waiting its opportunity, like some cunning and carnivorous animal, about to descend upon its prey. Stearman never let his hand stray more than a few inches from the gun on his knee. As the light failed, his eyes grew gradually accustomed to the darkness. Every patch of more sombre shadow seemed to him to conceal the lurking shape of the waiting fiend. All at once his finger tightened on the trigger as though he was about to loose a shot at some thing that might have been their enemy. Barney Kildare’s nerves were strained to breaking point. Blane Fitzroy sat gaunt and stark as ever, his one good leg straight out before him like a huge solid oak tree, the withered stump lying feebly behind it. La Noire was concentrating every ounce of her psychic power on trying to locate the fiend by extra-sensory perception. Her hyper-sensitive instincts told her it was there, but she couldn’t pinpoint it. She knew it was out there in the darkness coming closer and closer. At any second it would streak across that dim orange oasis of light in the desert of darkness — streak across and sink its talons into first one throat and then another. There could be no doubting that physical strength in the fearful, twisted caricature of a hand. It had needed tremendous strength to tear off the leads of the battery and the headlights. To unscrew a nut that had been tightened by a careful mechanic with a long spanner. This thing was superhuman and supremely evil, and it was loaded with a hate, as deadly as the powder with which the rifle shells themselves were loaded. Barney Kildare’s torch gave a final flickering orange gleam and went out . . . They huddled closer together and reduced the range of the light
“Of course,” said Stearman softly, “if we were anywhere else we should be able to light a fire — but you can’t make the damn sand burn! A ring of fire round this place would keep us pretty safe, I think.”
“Might as well wish for the moon, as wish for that!”
“If anybody ventured out into that darkness, they’d be as good as dead,”
“We also shall be as good as dead if we wait here in the darkness,” said Blane Fitzroy. The four of them sat motionless, lost in silent thought.
“What do you suggest we do,” said La Noire softly at last. “Try and get on the move again, or sit tight and wait for it?”
“We stand a better chance of seeing it move if we sit still,” said Blane. “If we’re walking it could spring on the last man without any difficulty — even if we’re walking in pairs — there is nothing for it but to wait till the morning. It’s very much like sitting in the condemned cell.”
“Do you think a bullet would stop the blasted thing?” questioned Val.
“I don’t know,” answered the Professor. Val decided to let him in to the secret of the big Colt. “Silver bullets in this automatic,” he said. “The holy metal. Its been very useful in tight spots before now. You’re obviously a student of mythology and folklore as well as archaeology — so you’ll understand. You’re one of the few men that I could tell and expect to be believed. That gun has killed a werewolf and a ghoul and vampire.”
“Yes, I do believe you,” said the Professor quietly. “I believe you because I myself have seen these things with my own eyes. I know that man is not the only intelligence upon this earth. I know that these evil creatures of the night live and move and have their being in dark, forbidden places . . .” he stopped short as a sudden thought struck him, and the orange amber eyes lit up. “Of course,” he said suddenly, snapping his fingers, “It’s the only way!”
“What is?” asked Barney Kildare excitedly.” Have you thought of something, Professor?”
“Yes, I have!” said Blane Fitzroy. “I have remembered the old military adage about attack being the best form of defence. While the gibbering native runs from the lion, the hunter takes his gun and goes out to destroy the beast. It will be quite an even match,” smiling cynically, “for I, too, can only crawl . . . That Thing has claws as sharp as a razor, and strong as the jaws of a steel mantrap. With these hands I can bend an iron bar — that is not idle boast. When a man is as close to death as we are now the time for boasting is past. My friends,” he gave them a long searching look, a look from the very depths of his heart and soul, “My friends, the hunted is about to become the hunter. I can only crawl, as It can crawl — we will see who can crawl to the best effect!” He untwisted his rapier from his sheath. “I forbid arguments . . . I am still in command of this expedition, gentlemen.” Val’s protest was stifled in his throat. “I must ask you to respect that command. I am going out there to find the Thing. If I am successful and return our peril will be over. If I do not return, I shall at least have decoyed it away from you for a few more minutes . . . Time is vital in this game. If we can only gain enough time, some of us may get through to the coast.”
Val Stearman felt a lump in his throat.
“I have been trying to weigh you up for a long time, Professor,” he said softly, “and for what my opinion is worth you have it now. You are a very gallant gentleman, sir. A very gallant gentlemen.” There was no cynicism in the crippled giant’s smile.
“Thank you, Mr. Stearman,” he said. “That is the finest tribute that has ever been paid — or could ever be paid — to any man.” With the stiletto grasped firmly in his enormous right arm, he crouched like a tiger ready to spring, “When I say ‘now’ I want you to douse the lights and keep them off for ten seconds. Then snap them on again. Understood?”
“Understood,” answered Val and Barney.
“Now!” As one, they snapped off the remaining torches. The ten seconds of darkness were an agony of suspense, Val counted silently under his breath. “On,” he whispered at last. There was no sound from the darkness beyond, and nothing to be seen . . . Nothing to be heard. With every sense alert they strained eyes and ears into the gloom. If the time had dragged before, it was going so slowly now, that it seemed to stand still. Every second was, a hundred years. Every minute a millennium. Five minutes seemed like an eternity.
“God! Will it never get light,” muttered the Irishman. “I’ve never known the night so long.”
“I think we’re entering the darkest hour before the dawn,” said Stearman. Out in the darkness Blane Fitzroy crawled like a huge three-legged cat. His ears were waiting for the slightest movement in the sand. Strange thoughts were going through the giant’s mind. Thoughts of the adventurous life that he had led and a life which he was now prepared to lay down without any regrets. It had not, he reflected, been an entirely blameless career. In fact, when the circumstances had justified it, in his opinion at least, that razor-edged stiletto had sunk into human flesh. He had explored, and fought his way through most of the Badlands of the world. He knew territories like the back of his hand, which few men had ever heard of. And in his brilliantly vivid imagination, he had explored the highways and the byways of a folklore of a bygone age. He had dug up the past, and resurrected cultures that had been forgotten. He was one of the few living men — they could be counted on the fingers of one hand, he knew — who could read the strange inscriptions on the stone faces of Easter Island. He knew the enigmatical codes of the Danish runic stones. He had plumbed the secrets of the Druids and now it was an older culture. The culture that he had spent a lifetime questing for, which seemed about to terminate his career. On and on, through the darkness he crawled. His ears sensitive as radar receivers. His eyes gleaming and straining into the darkness, burning like the eyes of a tiger. Most of his weight on his powerful left forearm. The right, clasping the deadly stiletto, ready to slash and thrust and pin down into the sand, the deadly crawling fiend that he was seeking to destroy. Twice he stabbed at meaningless darker patches . . . Then, suddenly, the Thing was on him! Something was clawing at his chest, scrabbling up, up, up, ever towards his throat. . . He rolled on to his back so that both arms were free of the ponderous weight of his gigantic body. He had not underestimated his own strength, but neither had he underestimated the strength of the crawling Fiend. It was a battle of the giants. A battle to the death. With his vice-like left — that huge left which for so many years had supported the weight which his withered leg was unable to bear — he closed round that slimy, hairy, caricature of a paw that was creeping up towards his windpipe. He felt that if he could only keep it away from his throat long enough to get a good grip on it, he could tear the bestial thing to pieces . . . He wondered whether to call for help. If only he could hold it long enough for the others to get there. He could perhaps hold it at arms’ length while Stearman put a bullet through it. As he grappled with it he gave a great shout.
“Help! Quickly!” They left their position, leaping up as they had received an electric shock, and with the dim torches cutting a path through the darkness towards his voice, began racing over the sand towards him. The hand, slimy and grotesque, lithe and powerful as a gigantic eel, had wriggled clear of his grasp, and continued its progress towards his throat. He caught it again, tried to hold it . . . he could feel the great sharp claws biting and cutting into the tendons at the back of his hand. Carefully, so as not to cut himself, he brought the edge of the stiletto up to the foul thing he held, and deliberately ran the bestial object against it. He felt something giving. Some of the terrible power went out of the deadly claw, but it was still intensely dangerous, and fantastically powerful. Again it wriggled clear, but the others were there now, and the light was playing on the struggling combatants. He could see the Thing in all its foul and hideous horror. He felt physically nauseated. But beside the nausea was a wave of intensely cold and violent anger. The Thing had to be destroyed. It had to be destroyed! With a superhuman effort he hurled it from him, raised himself on his one good leg and stabbed downwards with the stiletto. The elusive monstrosity skipped sideways, and springing from him to the Irishman, raced like a mad thing over Barney’s coat until it reached his throat . . . Kildare collapsed, clawing at it with a horrible choking gurgle. Stearman threw himself across his companion’s writhing body and wrenched madly to free the writhing thing from Barney’s throat. Even in that second he knew that he was too late. For as he hauled it away, the big Irishman’s head fell back. His eyes lolled open, and he ceased his writhing.
“You blasted, filthy, indescribable horror,” cursed Stearman as he struggled with all his might to keep the thing away from his own throat.
“Blane!” he roared. “Come and give me a hand.” Fitzroy was dragging himself forward across the sand to come to Stearman’s assistance as quickly as his withered leg would permit. Together the two men struggled with the monstrosity, and then, by virtue of the slime that covered it, it sprang clear, and once again raced towards the giant’s throat. Val was after it in a moment. He knew that once those claws contracted around a human windpipe they were absolutely fatal. He dived a hand into the pocket of his tuxedo, produced a length of thin, strong twine.
“Blane, if you can hold it a second, I’ll get a couple of turns of this round it,” he barked. The crouching giant seemed to slip on the sand, and whether it was due to some supernormal power in the malevolent hand, the big journalist never knew; whether it was a pure accident, or a freak of Fate, the deadly Thing had reached Blane Fitzroy’s throat . . .
La Noire suddenly dropped to her knees, and working with tremendous speed in the darkness, drew the five pointed star of the white magician. In the centre of the star she drew a small circle, and within that, the sign of the Cross. Even as Val reached the choking giant, he knew that he was too late. Blane Fitzroy was in his death agony, but he was still fighting . . .
There was a split-second choice to make, and Stearman knew that it would have been the other’s wish for him to act as he did. The grip on the Professor’s throat was far too strong to break, and even if Val had been equipped with a flame thrower, with the finest and most up-to-date of modern weapons, there was nothing he could have done to save his erstwhile employer. His one hope was to destroy the Thing, while Blane Fitzroy’s dying strength still held it powerless. The big journalist’s hand shook a little and it took all his self-control not to look away as he leveled the gun down through the dying man’s clenched hands onto the foul writhing Thing that tore at his throat. The heavy Colt exploded half-a-dozen times in quick succession. At the first shot Blane Fitzroy lay still, in his last, long sleep. The claw shattered to a mass of loathsome pulp, as the heavy, soft-nosed silver slugs bit and tore into it again and again. Twice it made a futile attempt to come back at Val Stearman, but every time the heavy gun crashed again, and flung it back into the sand.
“Damn you,” screamed Stearman, and a stream of profanity escaped his lips, “you filthy, murderous, loathsome thing.” He dived into the pocket of the tough drill trousers, and slammed another half-dozen bullets into the big Colt. But the claw was finished, it lay withering, even as he looked. The holy metal, and the explosive force of the magnificent old gun had done their work yet again. The evil thing was going out of existence. Inside the pentagram La Noire was praying with desperate concentration. Praying with every ounce of her vital psychic force and completing the destruction which Val’s big Colt had begun.
The first pale light of dawn came up over the distant horizon and in its thin grey beams the last dust of the evil claw blew away in the light desert wind. The evil thing had gone. Vanished as utterly as though it had never been.
Val stayed in that trackless and lonely desert only long enough to dig two shallow graves with his hands. Finally he smoothed down the unmarked resting places of his companions, and with his arm entwined around La Noire, they set off back to the coast — to safety and to civilization again.
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