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Lloyd Arthur Eshbach.

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silent.

From the room below came a concerted whine of ceremonial devotion, a
hollow, hungry wail. It rose from the bloodless lips of strangely
assorted human figures ranging down the center of the long stairway in
two facing columns. A hundred or more there must have been,
representing half as many periods and countries, according to their
strange and ancient costumes. Men in the armor of medieval Persia - the
crew of the black galley; yellow-haired Vikings; hawk-faced Egyptians
with leather-brown skins; half-naked islanders; red-sashed pirates
from the Spanish main; men of today! And about all, like the dampness
that clings to a tombstone, hovered a cloud of - death! The undead!

Cliff's gaze roved over the tensely waiting columns, then leaped to
the foot of the stairs. There, cowering dumbly like sheep in a
slaughter-pen, were his friends from the _Ariel_. All clothing had
been stripped from them, and they stood waiting in waxen, statuesque
stiffness. He saw then that three others lay prone before the stone
altar, naked and ominously still.

And far down at the very end of the hall stood Leon Corio, draped in a
hooded cape of unbroken black, a glint of silver in his hand - his horn
of drugging sounds.

Now, as though at a silent command, a girl left the group and began to
mount the stairs, as those motionless three must have mounted!
Vivacious Ann - she had been the life of Cliff's yacht party; but now
she was - changed. Her blanched face was rigid with inexpressible
terror despite the semi-stupor which numbed her senses. Her nude body
glowed like marble in the dim light. Horribly, her feet began their
climb with a little catch step suggested by the moaning chant of that
cracked organ note.

She reached the first of the undead, and Cliff saw light glint on a
knife-blade. A crimson gash appeared in the flesh of her thigh; and
dead lips touched that wound, drank thirstily. The girl strode on,
blood gleaming darkly on the white skin. A second drank of the crimson
flow - a third - and the blood ceased gushing forth.

Another knife flashed - and lips closed again and again on a redly
dripping wound. And the girl with the unchanging pace of a robot
climbed the stairway to its very top - climbed while fiendish corpses
drank her life's blood - climbed, to sink down on the altar.

One of the red-clad figures stooped over her, lifted her, buried long
teeth in her throat - and Cliff saw his face.... His own face paled,
and talons of fear raked his brain. Those others on the stairs - they
were abhorrent, zombies freed from the grave. But this monster! A
vampire vested with the lust and cruelty and power of hell!

He lowered her, finally, and she sank down, lay still, beside the
other three.

Another began the hellish climb, a giant of a man with a thickly
muscled torso. Cliff knew him instantly; and his heart seemed to stop.
Leslie Starke! They'd played football together. A brave man - a
fighter. He mounted the stairway with the same little catch step, the
same plodding stiffness. No resistance, no struggle - only a hell of
fear on his face.

The marrow melted from Cliff Darrell's bones. What - what could he do
against a power that did _that_ to Les Starke? He tried to swallow,
but the saliva had dried on his tongue. He wanted to turn to Vilma,
but he could not wrench his eyes from the frightful spectacle.

Up the stone steps Starke strode. And no blade leaped toward him; no
thirsty lips closed on his flesh! In an unwavering line he mounted
toward the cowled monster in the center of the dais, like a puppet on
the end of a string; mounted to pause before the stone altar, to lie
on it, head bent back, throat bared.... Mercifully Cliff regained
enough control to close his eyes.

He opened them at a gasp from Vilma; saw the vampire raise the flaccid
body of Les Starke and hurl it far from him, to crash to the stone
steps, to roll and thud and tumble, down and down, sickeningly, to lie
awkwardly twisted on the floor before his companions!

And another began to climb the long stone steps....

All through the interminable night Cliff and Vilma crouched on the
ledge, staring through the barred window. A hundred times they would
have fled to escape the maddening scene, but they could not move.
Senses reeled before the awful monotony of the ceaseless climbing,
their eyes smarted with fixed staring, their tongues and throats were
parched to desert dryness; yet only after hours of endless watching,
only after the last victim had climbed the steps, did the edge of
terror dull, and a modicum of control return to their bodies.

Stiffly Cliff looked over his shoulder. A faint tinge of gray rimmed
the sea on the eastern horizon.

"Almost daylight," he whispered hoarsely.

Vilma nodded, her gaze still held by that chamber of horror. Cliff
followed the direction of her eyes; and saw Corio standing like a
great bat in his hooded cape close to the far wall. He raised his
four-piped horn to his lips. And the instrument's fourth note crept
through the room.

* * * * *

It was a doleful sound, a cry like the cry Death itself might possess;
yet oddly - and horribly - it was soothing, promising the peace of
endless sleep. And touched by its power, the columns of undead
stiffened, thinned to wraiths, flowed as water flows down the stone
steps, vanished!

The dead-alive - those five vampires in crimson cowls - looked upward
uneasily. The shadows under the roof were graying with the light of
dawn. Cliff could sense their thought. Before sunrise they must be in
their tombs under the castle, to sleep until another night. With one
accord they strode down the stairs, past Corio who had prostrated
himself, and entered a black opening in the wall. With their departure
the altar fire dimmed to a sullen ember.

Corio arose. He was alone in the chamber save for that dead, broken
body lying in a twisted heap at the foot of the stairs, and those
other half-alive wretches stretched out before the altar. Now, Cliff
told himself, was the time for him to get in there at Corio; now was
the time to rescue his friends - but he continued to crouch, unmoving.

Again Corio blew on his silver horn, and a faint cry leaped from
Vilma's tensed lips. The luring note that had drawn her, Cliff thought
hazily; then he thought of nothing save the sound, the sound that
promised him all he could desire. Earth and its dominion, his for the
taking - if he answered that call!... Then even the sound eluded his
senses, and he heard only the promise.... He must answer, must claim
what was rightfully his!

But those half-dead creatures - sight of their stirring steadied his
staggering sanity. Here and there heads lifted and bloodless husks of
bodies tried to rise. In the pallid light they seemed like corpses,
freed from newly opened graves. Some could only reach their knees;
others rose to uncertain limbs. And all moved down the stairway toward
Corio, answering his summons; followed as he made his slow way toward
the opening in the wall, still blowing the single note - the note that
promised Earth and all it held....

Cliff glanced toward Vilma - and she was not there. He looked down, saw
her far below, dropping from crack to crevice with amazing speed and
daring, hastening toward - Corio!

The thought jarred any lingering taint of allurement from Cliff's
mind. He must stop her. He swung around, ignoring the cramped
stiffness of his legs, and started down the steep wall. Down, down,
recklessly, with Corio's horn-note only a faintly heard sound fading
behind him.

Now he saw Vilma reach the rocks below and dash around the corner of
the castle, and he cursed, redoubling his speed. Down - down - and
suddenly the ancient rock crumbled underfoot. For an instant he hung
from straining fingertips - then dropped.

A smashing impact - a stone that slid beneath him - and his head crashed
against the castle wall. Through a fiery mist of pain he pictured
Vilma in the grasp of Corio. The mist thickened - grew black - engulfed
him.


_4. In Corio's Hands_

Cliff awoke with the sun glaring down on his face. He opened his eyes,
and stabbing lances of light pierced his eyeballs. Momentarily
blinded, he pressed his hands across his face and struggled erect.
There was a sick feeling in his stomach, and the back of his head
throbbed incessantly. He touched the aching area, and winced. A lump
like an egg thrust out his scalp; it was sticky with blood. He stood
there, weaving from side to side, trying to recall something....

As memory came, he groaned. Vilma! He had last seen her racing madly
toward Corio, lured by his damned horn. It was daylight now; the sun
had risen at least an hour ago. An hour - with Vilma gone!

Shaking his head to clear it, and gritting his teeth at the pain, he
stalked along the wall. Turning the corner he strode on toward the
crooked steps. The lifeless terrain reeled dizzily, but he went on
resolutely. The pain in his head was fading to a dull ache; and as he
mounted the steps, strength seemed to flow back into his legs. With
every sense taut he passed into the gloom of the castle.

A quick glance he cast about - saw the body of Starke lying where it
had fallen. No use to examine it; there was no life there. His gaze
swept up the slope of the stairway to the altar at its head, lingered
on the phosphorescent eye of light still glowing there. Then he
shrugged grimly and moved on to the doorway in the wall. Warily he
peered in.

As his eyes adjusted themselves to the greater darkness, he saw a
narrow stairway leading downward into a shadowy corridor. Somewhere in
the tunnel's depths a faint light shone. He could see nothing more. He
moved stealthily down the damp, dank stairs.

At the bottom he paused, listening. He could hear nothing. A hundred
feet ahead, the corridor divided in two; a burning torch was thrust in
the wall at the junction. Cliff nodded with satisfaction. Corio _must_
be somewhere near by; for only a human needed light.

Silently Cliff strode along the corridor. At the fork he hesitated,
then chose the right branch, for light glowed faintly along that
passageway. The other led downward, black as the pits of hell.

A doorway appeared in the wall ahead, and he moved warily, with fists
clenched. Flickering torchlight filtered into the corridor. There was
no audible sound. Now Cliff peered into a small chamber, and gasped in
sudden horror, his eyes staring unwinkingly at a spectacle incredibly
pitiful.

Here were the passengers of the _Ariel_, whitely naked, and lying in
little groups on the cold stone floor, huddled together for warmth.
Their faces turned toward Darrell as he stood in the doorway, but
there was no recognition in the vacuous eyes, no thought, no
intelligence, and little life in the wide-mouthed stares. It seemed as
though their souls had been drained from their bodies with their
blood.

Sickened, Cliff turned away, cursing his own helplessness to aid them,
cursing Leon Corio who was responsible for their plight. Black wrath
gripped him as he moved on.

Again the corridor branched, and again he kept to the right. Suddenly
he halted, ears straining. He heard the sound of a voice - the hollow
voice of Corio! It came faintly but clearly from a room at the end of
the passageway. Cliff went forward slowly.

"And so, my dear," Corio was saying, "we entered into a pact with
the - Master, a pact sealed with blood. In exchange for our lives we
three were to bring other humans to this island for the feasting of
the dead-alive. Every third month each of us must return with our
cargo when the moon is full; and since we come back on alternating
months, they have a constant supply of fresh blood. Usually some of
our captives live from full moon to full moon before they become like
those of the galley - the undead. Some of these we waken when it suits
our fancy; they are not like the Masters; they awaken only when we
call them - we three or the Masters.

"More than life they give us for what we do. Centuries ago pirates
used this island for refuge. They - died - and they left their treasure
in this castle. It lies in the room where the Masters lie; and we
three receive payment in gold and gems. Tonight I receive my pay, and
tomorrow I leave on the _Ariel_ - and you go with me!"

Cliff heard Vilma answer, and even while his heart leaped with relief,
he marveled at the cool scorn in her voice.

"So I go with you, do I? I'd rather climb the stairs with the rest of
your victims than have anything to do with you - you monster! When
Cliff Darrell finds you - - "

"Darrell!" Corio's voice was a frozen sneer. "He'll do nothing! I'll
find _him_ - and he'll wish he could climb the stairs of blood! As for
you, you'll go with me, and like it! A drop of my blood in your veins,
and you will belong to the Master, as I do. We shall attend to that;
but first there is something else - more pleasant." His words fell to
an indistinguishable purr.

Still moving stealthily, Cliff hastened forward. Suddenly Vilma
screamed; and he launched himself madly across the remaining distance,
stood crouching at the threshold.

Vilma lay on an ancient bed, her wrists and ankles bound with leather
thongs drawn about the four tall bed-posts. Only the torn remnants of
her under-garments covered the rounded contours of her body, and Corio
crouched over her, caressing the pink flesh. Vilma writhed beneath his
touch.

* * * * *

Cliff growled deep in his throat as he sprang. Corio spun around and
leaped aside, but he was too slow to escape Cliff's powerful lunge.
One hand closed on his thin neck, and the other, a rock-like fist,
made a bloody ruin of his mouth. Howling with pain, Corio tried to
sink his teeth in Cliff's arm.

Cliff flung him aside, following with the easy glide of a boxer. Corio
crawled to his feet, cringing, dodging before the nemesis that stalked
him. Again Cliff leaped, and Corio, yellow with fear, darted around
the bed and ran wildly into the hallway. At the door Cliff checked
himself, reason holding him. Corio could elude him with ease in this
labyrinth of passages; and his first concern was Vilma's safety.

He returned to the bed. Vilma looked up at him with such relief and
thankfulness on her face that Cliff, with a little choked cry, flung
himself to his knees beside the bed and kissed her hungrily. For
moments their lips clung; then Cliff straightened shakily, trying to
laugh.

"We've got to get out of here, sweetheart," he said. "I'm not afraid
of Corio, but he knows things about this place that we don't know.
After you're safe on the yacht, I'll come back and get him."

He looked around for something with which to cut her bonds. On the
wall above the bed were crossed a pair of murderous-looking cutlasses.
Seizing one of these, Cliff wrenched it from its fastenings and drew
it through the cords.... She stood beside him, free.

"Your clothing - - " Cliff began, his eyes on her almost-nude body.

She blushed and pointed mutely to a heap of rags on the floor. Her
eyes flamed wrathfully. "He - he ripped them from me!"

The muscles of Cliff's jaws knotted, and he scowled as he surveyed the
room for a drape or hanging to cover her. For the first time he really
saw the place. All the lavish splendor of royalty had been expended
on this chamber. It might have been the bedroom of a king, except that
the ancient furnishings belonged to no particular period; were, in
fact, the loot of raids extended over centuries. Yet despite its
splendor, everything was repulsive, cloaked with the same air of
unearthly gloom that hovered about the galley.

He moved toward an intricately woven tapestry; but Vilma checked him,
shuddering with revulsion.

"No, Cliff - it's too much like grave clothes. Everything about this
place makes my flesh crawl. I'd rather stay as I am than touch any of
it!"

Cliff nodded slowly. "Let's go then."

They hurried through the corridors toward the stairway, with Cliff
holding the cutlas in readiness. As they passed the room in which lay
the _Ariel's_ passengers, he tried to divert Vilma's attention, but
she looked in as though hypnotized.

"I saw them before," she whispered. "It's awful."

As they started up the stairway to the great hall, Cliff took the
lead. He moved with utmost caution.

"It doesn't seem right," he said uneasily. "We should hear from
Corio."

At that moment they did hear from him - literally. From somewhere in
the maze of tunnels came the sound of his accursed horn - the note of
sleep! It swirled insidiously about their heads, numbing their senses.
Cliff felt his stride falter, saw Vilma stumble, and he hurled himself
forward furiously, gripping her arm.

"Hurry!" he shouted, striving to pierce the fog of sleep. "We've _got_
to get out! Damn him!"

Vilma rallied for an instant, and they reached the top of the stairs.
On - across that wide, wide room, each step a struggle.... On while the
droning sound floated languidly through every nerve cell.... On - till
their muscles could no longer move, and they sagged to the hard stone,
asleep.

* * * * *

Moments later Cliff opened his eyes to meet the hellish glare of Leon
Corio. Corio smiled thinly.

"So - you awaken. Good! I would have you know the fate I have planned
for you. You see this?" He held the cutlas high above Darrell's throat
like the blade of a guillotine. "With this I could end your life quite
painlessly and quickly. It really would prove entertaining for Miss
Bradley, I'm sure." He chuckled faintly behind bruised and swollen
lips.

Cliff squirmed, striving to rise, then subsided instantly. He was
bound hand and foot.

"I _could_ kill you," Corio repeated musingly, "but that would lack
finesse." His teeth bared in a feline smile. "And it would be such a
waste - of blood! Instead, I'll take you out to the galley and let you
lie there till her crew awakens tonight. They have tasted blood, and
after tonight will taste none again for another month. I imagine
they'll - drain you dry!" The last phrase was a vicious snarl.

Cliff heard Vilma utter a suppressed sob, and he turned his head. She
lay close by, bound like him with strips of leather. Furiously Cliff
strained at his fetters, but they held.

"And while you wait for those gentle Persians to awaken," Corio
continued in tones caressingly soft, "you can think of your sweetheart
in my arms! It may teach you not to strike your betters - though you
can never profit by your lesson."

Stooping, he raised Cliff's powerful form and managed to fling him
over one shoulder. Then he moved from the great hall, down the stone
steps, and across the dead plain with its sighing skeleton trees. He
was panting jerkily by the time he came to the fissure leading to the
cove, but he reached it, despite Cliff's two hundred pounds. Without
pausing, he went on into the cavern, along the rock ledge, to step at
last upon the deck of the black galley.

"Pleasant thoughts," he said gently as he dropped Cliff to the spongy
boards. "You have only to wait till dark!"

Cliff listened to his rapid footfalls till they died in distance; then
there was no sound save his own breathing.

Gradually his eyes became accustomed to the heavy gloom, and he saw
that Corio had dropped him just at the edge of the rowers' pit. There
were white things down there - bones, pale as marble, scattered about
aimlessly. Could - could those bones join to make the rowers who would
arise with the night? It seemed absurd - _was_ absurd - yet he knew it
was so! He had seen too much to doubt it.

He rolled over on his back and stared upward into the shadows. He must
lie here helpless while Corio returned to Vilma - did with her as he
pleased! Perhaps he might even transform her into a blood-tainted
monster like himself! He saw her again in that room of ancient
splendor, spread-eagled to the bed; and the muscles corded in his
arms, and his lips strained white in a futile effort to break free.

Interminably he lay there waiting. The galley was damp with the
chilling dampness of a sepulcher, and the dampness penetrated deeper
and deeper. Clamping his jaws together to prevent their quivering, he
struggled against a rising tide of madness which gnawed at his reason.
His mind began to crunch and jangle like a machine out of gear,
threatening to destroy itself.

On and on in plodding indifference the stolid moments passed, till at
last Cliff realized that it was growing darker. He rolled over on his
side and stared into the galley pit, eyes fixed on the inert masses of
white. Soon they would move! Soon the undead would rise! His thoughts,
touched by the whips of dread, sped about like slaves seeking escape
from a torture pit. And abruptly out of the welter of chaotic ideas
came one straw of sanity; he seized it, his heart hammering with hope.

Those Persian sailors were armed! Their swords and knives were real,
for they cut flesh! Somewhere among their bones must lie sharp-edged
blades!

He struggled to the edge of the pit, let his feet drop over. As they
touched, he balanced precariously for an instant, then fell to his
knees. He peered feverishly about among white bones, moldering
garments, and rusted armor - and saw a faint glimmer of light on
pointed steel. He sank forward on his face in the direction of the
gleam, turned over, squirmed and writhed till he felt the cold blade
against his hands. He caught it between his fingers and began sawing
back and forth.

It was heart-breaking work. Age had dulled the weapon, and long
slivers of rust flaked off, but the leather which bound him was also
ancient. Though progress was slow, and the effort laborious, Cliff
knew his bonds were weakening.

But it was growing darker. Even now he could see only a suggestion of
gray among the shadows. If those undead things materialized while he
lay among them!... Sweat stood out on his forehead and he redoubled
his efforts, straining at the leather as he sawed.

With a snap the cords parted and his hands were free. A single slash
severed the thongs about his ankles, and he stood up, leaped to the
deck. Not an instant too soon! There was movement in the pit - a
hideous crawling of bones assembling themselves into skeletal form....

Cliff waited to see no more. There were limits to what one could see
and remain sane. With a bound he crossed the rotting deck, and sprang
ashore. Despite the dark, he almost ran from the madness of that cave,
ran till he passed through the wall of rock, till he saw the rim of
the moon gleaming behind the castle.


_5. The End of the Island_

Out on the plain he sprinted through the ghostly forest. He knew he
had no time to spare - knew that soon the march of torture would
begin - knew that if Vilma were within the castle, she must answer the
summons of Corio's horn. Even now light glowed faintly in the high,
square windows.

That horn! At the foot of the steps he stopped short. If _he_ heard
the horn, he too must answer! He dared not risk it. With impatient
fingers he tore a strip of cloth from his shirt, rolled it into a
cylinder, and thrust it into his ear. Another for the other ear - and
he darted up into the castle.

A sweeping glance revealed no one, only the murky glow of the altar
fire, and the wraiths of smoke pluming upward toward the shadowed
roof. Wishing now that he had brought a weapon from the galley, Cliff
crossed to the opening in the wall. He stood at the top of the steps,
listening, then cursed silently as he remembered that he could hear
none but very loud sounds. He saw nothing; so he hastened down into
the corridor. His steps were swiftly stealthy as he moved toward
Corio's room.

He was past the first branching passage, when a sixth sense warned him
of someone's approach. He ran swiftly to the next fork, then paused
within its shelter and glanced back, saw five red-cowled figures glide
along the tunnel and vanish up the stairway. Cliff frowned. With the
vampires in the great hall, Corio must soon follow, leading his
victims to the blood-feast. He drew back deeper into the shadows.

His groping hands touched something in the dark - round and hard - like
a keg. Curiously he investigated. It _was_ a keg, and there were
others. A sandy powder trailed to the floor from a crack in one of
them. Thoughtfully Cliff let it run through his fingers. Gunpowder! Of
course - he had heard Corio mention pirates and their treasure, and
this had been their cache of explosive. An idea was forming....

He looked up to see a shadow pass the mouth of the tunnel; he crept
forward and peered out. He saw the black-hooded figure of Leon Corio


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Online LibraryLloyd Arthur EshbachIsle of the Undead → online text (page 2 of 3)