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Lloyd Arthur Eshbach.

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striding along, saw him enter the room where the passengers of the
_Ariel_ lay. In a breath Cliff was down the corridor to Corio's room.
A tarnished silver candelabrum shed faint light through the chamber,
and by its flickering glow he searched for Vilma, thoroughly,
painstakingly - futilely.

He stood in the center of the room in indecision, his forehead creased
with anxiety. If only he could find her, he'd know how to plan! He ran
his hand through his hair helplessly, then heard very faintly the
luring note of Corio's horn. She must answer that summons, unless
Corio had her tied somewhere. His best chance of finding her lay in
the hall above.

On the wall still hung the mate of the cutlas he had used to free
Vilma; he wrenched it down and ran out into the corridor. The last of
the naked marchers was disappearing up the stairway. Now the
horn-note died, and he could feel more than hear the rumbling bass of
the dirge from the depths below him.

He ran the rest of the distance along the passageway and mounted the
steps two at a stride. He looked into the torture hall. As on the
previous night, Corio stood far back, close to the wall in which Cliff
crouched. The arms of the Master were raised high; raised, Cliff knew
though he could not hear it, in a blasphemous incantation. And then he
saw something that sent a crimson lance of fury crashing through his
brain.

Vilma, stripped like the rest, stood with the other victims at the
foot of the long steps! Her body gleamed pinkly, in contrast to the
pallid drabness of the half-dead automatons, and she held her head
proudly erect. But from where he stood Cliff could see the side of her
face, and it bore a look of terror.

He could see Corio's face, too, and he was looking at the girl,
baffled fury glaring from his eyes - as though she were there against
his will.

Cliff's first impulse was to fling himself out there with his cutlas
and hack a way to freedom for Vilma and himself, but cold reason
checked this folly. Such a course could end only in death. Motionless
he watched the scene before him, his brain frantically seeking a plan
with even a ghost of a chance of succeeding.

The gunpowder! There was enough of the stuff below to blast this
entire castle into the hell where it belonged! Hastily he retraced his
steps to the tunnel in which he had found the kegs, plucking the torch
from its niche in the wall as he passed it. He held it high above his
head as he examined the contents of the broken keg. Unmistakably
gunpowder!

Thrusting the cutlas beneath his belt, he clutched a handful of the
black dust. Then, crouching close to the floor, he drew an irregular
thread through the passageway toward the stairs. Once he returned for
more powder, but in a few minutes the job was done. At the foot of the
steps where the trail ended, he touched his torch to the black line
and watched a hissing spark snake its white-smoked way back toward the
powder kegs. An instant he watched it, then sprang up the stairs. He'd
have to move fast!

With a hideous howl he darted into the hall, his cutlas above his
head. Corio spun about - and it was his last living act. A single sweep
of the great blade sheared his head from his neck, sent it rolling
grotesquely along the floor. For three heart-beats the body stood with
a fountain of blood spurting from severed arteries; then it crashed.

Coolly Cliff leaned over the twitching cadaver, ignoring the bedlam on
the stairs, the horde sweeping down toward him, hurling aside the
waiting humans. He pried open clutching fingers, seized a twisted
silver instrument, and raised it to his lips.

* * * * *

The mass of undead were almost upon him, the murky light glinting on
menacing blades, when Cliff blew the first note. The note of sleep! He
tried again, hastily. And it was the right one!

At the doleful, soothing sound the undead halted in their tracks;
halted - and melted into nothingness before his eyes!

But now those other five in their robes of bloody red - they were
charging, and even though they were unarmed, Cliff felt a stab of
fear. They possessed powers beyond the human, powers a mortal could
not combat. He braced himself and waited.

At the bottom of the steps they stopped, ranging in a wide
half-circle. The central monster - the Master - flung up his arms in a
strangely terrifying gesture, and Cliff saw his carmine lips move in
a chant which he could not hear. Something, a chilling Presence,
hovered about him, seemed to settle upon him, cloaking him with the
might of the devil himself. That unheard incantation continued, and
Cliff felt a cold rigidity creeping through every fiber, slowly
freezing his limbs into columns of ice.

With a mighty effort of will he flung himself toward that accursed
drinker of blood - and at that instant a terrific detonation rocked the
ancient building, and a cloud of smoke and flame burst from the
opening in the wall. Cliff was hurled from his feet, rolled over and
over, and crashed against the wall by the awful concussion, the cutlas
and silver horn sent whirling through the air.

Dizzily he staggered to his feet, crouching defensively. Sounds came
to him clearly now; the explosion must have jarred the plugs from his
ears. He scanned the room; saw the unclad humans scattered everywhere,
most of them lying still and unconscious. He saw Vilma rising slowly;
then he looked for the monsters in red. Startled, he saw them rushing
toward the opening in the wall, to vanish in its smoke-filled
interior. Why did they - - ? Then he knew. Down there somewhere were
their graves - graves rent and broken by the explosion - graves
threatened by the flames - and panic had seized the vampires, fear of
the death which would result with exile from their tombs!

Unsteadily Cliff crossed to Vilma. She saw him coming and flung
herself sobbing into his arms. He crushed her lithe form close - and
another explosion, more violent than the first, sent a section of the
stone floor leaping upward as though with life of its own. Clinging to
Vilma, Cliff managed to maintain his footing, though the floor bucked
and heaved. A snapping, booming roar - and a great chasm opened in the
floor. A breathless instant - and a segment of the stone stairs,
rumbling thunderously, dropped out of sight into a newly formed pit!
With it went the blasphemous altar and its phosphorescent fire.

Deafened, stunned, momentarily powerless to move, Cliff's mind groped
for an explanation. It seemed incredible that gunpowder could cause
such havoc. And the swaying of the floor continued; the thick stone
walls shook alarmingly. Suddenly he understood. An earthquake! The
explosions had jarred the none-too-stable understrata of rock into
spasmodic motion that must grind everything to bits! The island was
doomed! And Earth would be better without it.

If only they could reach the _Ariel_ first!

New strength flowed through him, and hugging Vilma close, he staggered
toward the spot where he knew the door must be. Somehow he reached it,
and reeled down the broken stone steps.

The plain of dead trees swayed like the deck of a ship in a storm as
Cliff started across it. A gale had arisen and swept in from the sea,
ripping dry branches from the skeleton growths and whirling them about
like straws. Yet somehow Cliff reached the crevice in the rock wall
with his burden, reached the deck of the galley, crossed it, and won
to the safety of the _Ariel_. Minutes later, with Diesel engines
purring, they crept out through the narrow channel into the open sea.

* * * * *

Ten minutes later the Isle of the Undead lay safely behind them. Vilma
had dressed; and now they sat together in the pilot house. Cliff had
one arm about her, and one hand on the wheel.

"And so," the girl was saying, "while Corio carried you to that
terrible old boat, I got loose. He hadn't tied me very tightly, and I
slipped my hands free. I had to hide, and I could think of only one
place that might be safe, where he wouldn't think to look for me. I
ran down to the room where those - those others lay; I undressed, and
buried myself among them. It was horrible - the way they sucked each
other's wounds...."

Cliff pressed a hand across her lips. "Forget that!" he said almost
fiercely. "Forget all of it - d'you hear?"

She looked up at him and said simply: "I'll try."

They glanced back toward the black blotch on the horizon. The seismic
disturbances continued unabated. At that moment they saw the barrier
of rock like a skull split and sink into the sea. Beyond, cleansing
tongues of flame licked the sky. They saw a single jagged wall of the
castle still standing, one window glowing in its black expanse like a
square, bloody moon against a bloody sky. It crumbled.

They turned away, and Cliff's arm circled the girl he loved. Their
lips met and clung.... And the _Ariel_ plowed on through the frothing
brine, bearing them toward safety and forgetfulness.... Together.

* * * * *








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