The Thing that Dined on Death

by John H. Knox



Madness Rules a Crypt of Corruption Where Dead Mouths are Sated with Dripping Flesh!

CHAPTER I. Butchery

CLIFF SLADE lay flat on his belly, his muscles stiff as jerked beef, and cursed the dry leaves that crackled with each movement of his body. His breath was an imprisoned weight in his chest; it trickled out in slow wraiths of steam from between his parted lips; the beating of his heart was like a heavy fist slugging his ribs.

There it was again! The rustle of feet in dry grass, and another sound—horrid, indescribable— the soggy ripping of a blade in tough tissues of flesh!

In the dark blot of shadows beyond the intervening band of yellow hill grass, a fiend was about his execrable business—dark sadistic butchery that had changed the peaceful hillsides and byways about the village of Midvale to heathen abattoirs, where the bleeding cadavers of animals were found night after night, mutilated in a peculiar and abhorrent way.

Slade's elbows, supporting his weight, began to tremble. On the chill, clear moonlit air that lay over tree and hillside like a film of silver, the odor of blood drifted to his nostrils—warm blood that flowed and steamed. What sort of hands were those that were digging into a dead beast's intestines? Slade shivered.

The sheep had bleated only once—a shrill and almost human cry of agony. He had heard it from the little road that skirted the hillside and he had left his car and crept up toward the source of that awful cry. Now he lay within a few yards of the nameless ogre; yet he dared not go nearer the black shadows that masked that awful mystery.

Slade wasn't a coward, but he was unarmed, and he knew that the monster, whatever or whoever he was, carried a blade of deathly sharpness for his swift incisions, incisions that might have been made by some mad surgeon. Slade quivered hotly at that thought. He was a doctor himself, a new doctor in a narrow, suspicious little village. He had heard that malicious gossip was hinting that he himself might be the fiend!

Rage boiled in Slade's veins, pumping new energy into his frozen limbs. Slowly he rose to his knees. His numb fingers clawed at a crumbling rock outcropping, yanked loose a jagged fragment. He straightened cautiously to his feet, braced himself, and like a discus thrower, hurled the rock into the massed shadows of the cedar clump.

Crash!

THE rock hurtled through splintered branches, struck the stony ground with a thud. Breathless, Slade listened. There was no further sound, no outcry. He picked up another rock and dived into the moonlight. Three bounds carried him across the patch of hill grass. He ducked under low, thick-tufted branches, paused, staring into gloom.

Slade fumbled for a match, clicked it against his thumbnail, held the weak flame in cupped palms. An invisible hand seemed to clutch at his vitals, twist his stomach into a knot.

Almost at his feet it lay—the bloody corpse of a sheep. The throat had been slit first; the head was twisted grotesquely awry. One glance at the wound in the abdomen was enough. He knew what had happened there. Monster hands had plunged into the bloody welter, had fished out one bleeding organ, the sole object, apparently, of each gory debauch—the liver, the liver of a sheep!

Slade dropped the glowing match. It fell sizzling in a scarlet puddle. A sort of slick dizziness seized him and he backed quickly out of the carnage-scented gloom. Why was it always the liver which the ghoul tore from its bleeding victim? There was something faintly familiar about the sound of that.

Standing on the hillside, Slade stared up toward the tree-tufted ridges above him. Beyond the graveyard, whose white palings shone a hundred yards away, was a bright diadem of lights among the trees. Slade thought of the man who owned that place, the sleek, tall Asiatic, Merro Daak, who had bought the old stone house from Peter Marsden and rebuilt it for a country home. Merro Daak, the fashionable radio astrologer, whose name was on every woman's tongue. Slade had seen him often, passing through the village in his big foreign-made car, with his jaded and debauched companions, on whose neurotic faces Slade's eye had read the imprint of sickening abnormalities. Did the orgies which were said to go on in Merro Daak's house have any bearing on these bestial atrocities?

Slade plodded back to his car. His brain was a whirling chaos. For there were yet other pieces to be fitted into the weird jigsaw puzzle. Above all, there was the question of what was happening to Esther Corman.

Something tugged at Slade's heart as he thought of Esther with her dark hair and violet eyes. A few weeks ago they had been on the verge of marriage. Then Esther had changed, had begun to avoid him, had become strange and secretive. Where, particularly, had she been going at night? Two things troubled Slade in this connection.

Three weeks ago, Esther's best friend, Mary Wycliffe, had disappeared, had left a rather ambiguous note saying that she was going to the city and would not be back. And shortly after that, Esther had met Merro Daak, had seemed strangely fascinated by him. It was then that she had begun to change. One of those two things had done something to Esther!

Slade crawled into his roadster and kicked the engine into life. One thing was certain; tonight he would untangle a part of the mystery at least. For that afternoon, after a heated argument, Esther had told him that she had been going out with Len Marsden, Slade's best friend. Slade didn't believe it. Tonight he was going to find out from Len himself.

The car followed the winding road that skirted Graveyard Hill and began to climb the stiff grade to the slopes above it. Here, on a gloomy hummock, stood the sagging frame house where Len lived with his father, old Peter Marsden, a man once wealthy, now ruined in health and mind and fortune. Slade drew up before the dilapidated gate, yanked his emergency brake tight and got out. A dim light burned in the front window of the old house. Slade mounted the rickety front steps and rapped at the door.

“Come!” a cracked voice called. Slade opened the door and stepped in. A billow of warm air enfolded him. The gloom of the bare room was partially dissipated by the yellow glow from an oil lamp and the red embers of a coal fire in the grate.

Old Peter Marsden, his wheelchair pulled up close to the fire, his paralyzed legs wrapped in a blanket, sat, as he always sat, with a Bible on his lap, a Bible open, Slade was sure, on the terrible poetic chapters of the Apocalypse. For Marsden, since the day when dark tragedy had numbed his mind and paralyzed his limbs, had become a religious fanatic, predicting the coming end of the world.

“You look,” said Peter Marsden, as Slade came toward the fire, rubbing his cold hands together, “like you'd seen a ghost.”

Slade tried to laugh. “No, just dropped in to see Len.”

“He ain't come in yet,” the old man's mournful voice croaked. “But look here, you ain't shakin' jest from the cold. What's happened?”

SLADE looked at old Marsden sharply. Under the thatch of greying hair, the square wrinkled face, chiseled in strong lines, showed the ravages of a crumbling brain. Yet a certain shrewdness lingered. Like a child, the old man sensed things, was not easily lied to.

“Another butchered sheep,” Slade told him, frowning. “I can't imagine what sort of hellish—”

“Can't ye?” the old man interrupted. “If ye read the Scriptures ye could. It's the signs of the end. The slaves of the Anti-Christ is about their evil business—sacrificin' flesh to the Dragon!”

“Anti-Christ?” Slade asked.

“The false prophet that in the latter days seduces the world, the evil prophet from Babylon who leads the people to idolatry!”

“And who—?” Slade began.

“Who? Who indeed!” old Marsden cackled. “Who but that Asiatic Babylonian, Merro Daak? Ain't his false prophecies heard from ocean to ocean—his heathenish soothsayin' over the radio? Listen at this—” His lean brown finger traced a passage on the open page, and he quoted: ”. . . 'and there was given unto him a mouth speaking great things and blasphemies, and power was given unto him to continue forty and two months.'“

Slade turned quickly to stare into the fire. Strange how the old man had echoed his own suspicions, though in a different way. “You think he's to blame for these butcheries?” he asked.

“Listen to me,” Peter Marsden said. “I ain't so crazy as people say. Why'd Merro Daak buy that old house from me, away off here in the hills? How come he brings them flocks of people out here, keepin' lights burnin' all night? I tell you they're aworshipin' the gods of Babylon in that place, worshipin' him with strange an' evil orgies!”

Slade cleared his throat, looked away. There were plenty of rumors of pagan orgies in the place alright. And the livers of sheep. . . . There was a connection, if he could only get it. He said, changing the subject deliberately, “Len's usually home by now, isn't he?”

“Usually,” the old man agreed.

“Then I'll just wait for him in his room,” Slade said. “I wanted to borrow a book from him; I'll look for it.”

He went out into the dark hall and closed the door behind him.

Slade went into Len's room, lighted the lamp and the oil stove that stood beside the book-littered desk where Len studied. Len, who worked by day in a machine shop, was studying civil engineering at night. Poor Len, a young man with a brilliant mind, fighting to overcome the handicap of poverty!

Slade began to pace the floor. Len Marsden was the only close friend he had found in the village. True, he had always suspected that Len was in love with Esther. But that didn't prove . . .

ASUDDEN ugly thought broke in upon his mind. There was a crazy streak in Len's family! What was this tragedy that hovered in the background? Something about an elder brother who had mistreated a girl of the village and had been lynched for it. The shock had caused old Peter Marsden's mind to crack, had caused astasiaabasia to paralyze his limbs. That had happened five years ago. Yet, if there were madness in the blood . . .

Slade suddenly realized that he had stopped before a bookshelf. His eyes had been scanning the titles without really seeing them. Now one double tier of faded letters struck his brain with a shock:

“The Magic of Ancient Babylon.”

Slade's heart took a violent jump. With shaking hands he took the book from the shelf and carried it to the table. As he laid it down it fell open of its own accord. Breathless, Slade bent forward, stared at the heading above the page. “Hepatoscopy” was the queer word he read there. On the margins of the text he saw notations in Len Marsden's hand. Eagerly his eyes seized on the print, began to read:

The favorite method of augury among the Babylonians was by examination of the liver of a slaughtered animal or human. The soul was supposed by primitive people to reside in the liver. More blood, too, is secreted by the liver than by any other organ of the body, and upon opening the carcass it appears the most striking, the most central and most sanguinary of the vital parts. This rite was called Hepatoscopy. The liver of a sheep was commonly used, though in certain esoteric ceremonies connected with the pagan mysteries, this organ, taken fresh from the body of a virgin was required.

In reading the hepatoscopic signs, the chief appearance of the liver was noted, as, shade of color of the gall, lengths of the ducts, etc. The lobes were divided into sections, lower, medial and higher, and the omens of the future varied from the phenomena there observed . . .

Slade straightened with his brain reeling, trying to digest the ghastly significance of his find. Undoubtedly Len Marsden had been studying this awful and forgotten science. Why? Slade clenched his hands, closed his eyes as if to shut out the black visions that swirled in the smoke of the lamp. It was absurd to suspect Len.

Suddenly he stiffened, closed the book, whirled about. A sound from across the hall had reached his ears—the sound of a door being opened softly, of stealthy steps on a creaking board. Slade blew out the light, sneaked to the door, opened it softly and stared across the hall into the kitchen.

A giddy nausea seized Slade then, froze the breath in his lungs, congealed his blood. By the wagging light from a candle he saw the pale, emaciated face of Len Marsden, who had just entered the back door. Len tiptoed to the kitchen sink, rested the candle on the drain board and turned on the water tap. Then Slade saw something which he had not noticed before. Len's hands were stained with blood!

CHAPTER II. The Faceless Thing

INCREDULOUS dismay held Slade rooted in his tracks. Even now, with the guilty picture before his eyes, the thing seemed an abomination too terrible to be true. But it wasn't just the blood, it was Len's whole manner—his chalky, haunted face, his air of furtive stealth. Hot unreasoning rage flared through Slade then. He swung the door wide, stepped out.

Len Marsden whirled. “Cliff Slade!”

“Yes,” Slade said, grimly, hollowly. “Where's Esther?”

“Esther?” A dazed look came over Len's face. Slade advanced a few steps, his fists knotted in hard lumps. “Yes, Esther,” he growled. “And why the blood?”

Len's hands dropped limply to his sides. “You can't believe— You don't understand! I couldn't let father see that blood. His poor brain's tormented enough already. I was walking out from town, cutting across Graveyard Hill when I stumbled right into one of those bloody butcheries in a cedar grove—got the gore on my hands.” He paused, gasping for breath. “But why are you asking me about Esther, Cliff?”

“Because,” Slade said, “something's happened to Esther. She goes off at night and no one knows where. This afternoon she told me she's been going out with you!”

“With me?” Len gulped. “But that's not true. I think the world and all of Esther; you know that. But I wouldn't come between you two. I've noticed there's something wrong with Esther too—ever since Mary Wycliffe disappeared. But I haven't been out with her, Cliff—not once, I swear it!”

Slade hesitated. Despite Len's pallid, twitching face, there was the ring of truth in his words. “All right,” he said, “but I want to know why you've been studying up on hepatoscopy?”

Len dropped his eyes. “You saw that book?” he asked. “I should have told you, I guess. But I was afraid you'd think it was just wild talk like father's, afraid you might think my mind was touched, too. But the fact is, Cliff, I think I've got a clue to the monster behind these outrages. He may be at the bottom of Esther's trouble, too.”

“You mean Merro Daak, I suppose?”

“Don't laugh, Cliff. I know what you think about father's wild talk. But the old man is about half right. Merro Daak is behind these outrages. Here's something you may not have thought of: the chief god of the Babylonians was Merodach—the phonetic equivalent of Merro Daak. Get it? The astrologer is the head of a cult which is reviving the ancient practices of Babylon, and—” He broke off short, whirled toward the outer door.

“What is it?” Slade asked. Then he heard. At the front a car had come to a stop with screaming brakes. Men's gruff voices could be heard in hoarse murmurs. They were getting out, coming toward the house.

Len Marsden snatched up a towel, began drying his hands. Then he blew out the candle quickly.

“What's the—?” Slade began.

Shhh!” Len hissed in the darkness. “I heard your name mentioned. You know there's been talk—”

Slade had tiptoed to the door that led into the hall. The bang of heavy fists was sounding on the front door of the house. Old Marsden's cracked voice called out, “Come.” Then a billow of sound surged in—the scrape of booted feet, a confused babble, above which sounded the deep bass of Sheriff Corman, Esther's father.

“That young Doctor Slade,” Cliff heard him say, “we're lookin' for him. His car's parked in front here.”

Slade held his breath, heard old Marsden reply, “He ain't here. What you want with him; what's he done?”

“Plenty!” Corman's gruff voice boomed. “He's gone off with my girl. There's been another animal slaughtered, too, and Lafe Braze saw him leave the place in his car.”

“You're blamin' that on Cliff?” old Marsden asked. “You're blind fools! I know who kills them critters in the dark of night!”

“It's that young doctor,” someone in the group growled. “I reckon he's up to some sort of crazy experiments—”

“Experiments!” Peter Marsden shrilled. “It's the experiments of hell, an' Merro Daak is the fiend!”

“We've questioned him,” Corman said. “He's got a group of friends with him, and they've all accounted for themselves. Now if Slade ain't here, what's his car doing out in front?”

HOLDING his breath, Slade suddenly started forward. But Len Marsden's tense hand on his arm drew him back. “They'll mob you!” Len hissed. “You can't go in there. Slip out the back way. I'll tell them I drove your car here. As soon as I get away from them I'll meet you in the orchard by Merro Daak's place, and we'll find out—”

His sucked in breath, cut the words off short. In the front room a Babel of angry growls had drowned out old Marsden's shrill protests.

“Search the place! We'll find the butcher!” Heavy feet thudded on creaking floors, moved toward the hallway. With his heart hammering a staccato undertone to the wild tumult of his thoughts, Slade felt himself being pushed toward the back door. A gust of cold air sobered him. Len was right; you couldn't argue with men whose minds were deranged by excitement.

“Hurry!” Len whispered. His hand was gripping Slade's. Slade returned the pressure briefly, then turned, was running through the white waves of moonlight like a frantic swimmer.

He passed the dark barn and outbuildings, swept on by panic. A burst of voices sounded behind him; one rose shrilly above the hubbub: “Get bloodhounds after him . . .”

Slade jerked himself alive again; the terror of the hunted fugitive sent him plunging into the dense gloom of the trees. Shadows dripped from the thick foliage, seemed to cling to him like tentacles retarding his flight. Esther gone! And they believed that he had kidnapped her, believed that he was the mad butcher who disemboweled animals in the dead of night! He pictured himself in the hands of those crazed villagers and shuddered.

Abruptly Slade stopped, clutched at a limb for support, leaned there panting. He stared down along the slope below him. He had reached a point directly above the graveyard. Below him the pale white shapes of the tombstones gleamed like the scattered teeth of a giant. To his right, less than half a mile along the slope shone the lights of Merro Daak's stone house. Slade made a start in that direction, then paused.

The bloodhounds! If they picked up his trail at the Marsden place, they would follow him directly to his destination!

Out of the enveloping silence the faint gurgle of water drifted to his ears. He moved nearer the sound, came to the brink of the narrow ravine through which a shallow stream rushed down from the dark ridges above. The stream would save him.

Clinging to stunted junipers and tough grass, he clambered down into the arroyo, splashed out into the icy sheet of silver. Needles of cold stung the calves of his legs, sent frigid currents through his veins. He would follow the stream down, hide in the graveyard, and see which direction the chase took. The chances were they would follow the stream up into the hills, once the dogs lost the trail. If they did, it would leave him free to hurry on to his rendezvous with Len.

He stumbled on through the icy current, slipping on mossy rocks and regaining his balance, moving down with the current. Suddenly he halted, shivering with a cold not born of the water. From the dark slopes behind and to his left a faint and eerie ululation drifted to his ears, stabbed him with daggers of dread. The bloodcurdling bay of the bloodhounds!

Slade dived for the steep bank on his right, floundered against it clumsily, clawed for a hold on the jagged rocks. His feet were awkward frozen weights; his fingers were stiff with cold. Painfully he hefted himself up, crawled out on the dry grass, panting. Before him the graveyard spread out its sepulchral forest of white marble. He stared behind him.

On the hillside above the now dark house of the Marsdens, the faint pinpoints of lanterns bobbed grotesquely among the trees. Again the dismal baying of the dogs vibrated against his ears. He staggered up, dragging his leaden feet, stamped them on the dead grass turf as he plunged in among the gibbous shadows of the tombs.

AT the crest of Graveyard Hill he came to the little arbor used in summer for a chapel. Dry vines covered the latticed sides, and its roof was thatched with straw. Slade climbed up, threw himself down on the straw roof, began to burrow in. With all but his head covered, he lay shivering, staring out toward the slopes beyond the ravine.

Back and forth among the fringe of trees the lanterns bobbed, drawing nearer to the stream gradually as the baying hounds lost the trail, circled, picked it up again. A feverish impatience smoldered in Slade's veins.

He looked at the luminous dial of his watch. He had been here twenty minutes—twenty precious, wasted minutes! But now they had reached the ravine. The hounds had redoubled their baying. Round and round they dashed, dragging shadowy figures on taut leashes as they tried to pick up the lost trail. The spots of lights gathered in a group. Now they were moving off, moving up toward the hills.

Slade sucked cold air into his lungs with relief. Now he was free—for hours at least—free to find Esther, to snatch her from whatever dark peril threatened her.

He straightened, began kicking the straw from his limbs. “They won't dare harm her,” he muttered savagely; “they won't dare—”

His jaws snapped together, teeth clicking on the chopped off syllable. He leaned forward, muscles tense, chills prickling the flesh between his shoulder blades, his eyes glued to the square white blot of a burial vault that stood between two cypress trees a dozen yards or so away.

Had something moved there, or had he imagined it? Moonlight, filtering through the trees, lay in livid streaks across the vault's stone front. All was still now. Yet he was certain something had moved there!

Whose vault was that anyhow? He had been in the cemetery only a few times, but he seemed to remember it. Wasn't it— Great God, it was! It was the vault of Banker Trainor, and that very day it had yawned for a new occupant—the banker's daughter, a frail, slender girl of twenty.

Slade found himself shaking; cold sweat beaded his brow as he writhed in the clutch of grisly premonitions. He made a move to lower himself to the ground, then abruptly flung himself flat on the straw roof again with spectral fingers of horror clawing at his throat. He wasn't imagining this, this thin strip of black that had suddenly stretched in a line across the white front of the tomb, this strip of black that was gradually widening. Slowly, silently, as if propelled by the invisible hands of an incorporeal phantom, the door of the vault was swinging open.

Now it was wide, an empty rectangle of black— a black mouth that had swallowed dead things, that was now preparing to disgorge—what?

It came so suddenly that Slade could not say whether it had stepped into the black frame or materialized before his eyes. But it was there, a shape of abysmal terror, white, tall, clothed in something that clung in loose folds about it like rotting cerements, seemed draped like a loose cowl over the head. Slade stared, straining his eyes to pick out the lineaments of that face beneath the cowl. But under the hood was a blot of black, a spot of empty darkness that matched exactly the hue of the surrounding gloom. Under the cowl there was no face, no face at all, only a yawning, empty void!

Slade abruptly pushed himself back, slid his body feet first from the low roof. Dry grass turf thudded against him as he landed in a huddle and began to pick himself up unsteadily. The grass had muffled the sound of his fall. Now he straightened weakly. He crept to the edge of the arbor and peered around it. The thing was gone.

He stepped out into the moonlight, probing the shadows with his eyes. Then he saw it. Already yards away, it was moving as no living thing ever moved. A shapeless, fluttering white blur against a background of dark trees, it moved with swift leaps like a kite jerked by wild wind currents—moved a good two feet above the ground, which it did not seem to touch at all.

WITH a hoarse cry rasping between his teeth, Slade jerked loose from the rigor that held him and plunged forward after the fleeing phantom. But he went less than a dozen strides, for suddenly the pale horror fluttered out in a shapeless flash of white, swirled like a spreading smoke puff, then seemed to bunch itself and dissolve in the inky shadows.

Shade jerked to a halt, drawing one hand across his startled eyes. What was the Thing, and what had it been doing in the sepulcher of the newly dead? It had fled in the direction of Merro Daak's house. Had the astrologer by black sorcery loosed the bodiless demons of ancient times to walk the earth again?

He whirled about, stared at the yawning door of the vault. Unearthly dread clutched at him then. It took courage, but he went in, striding doggedly toward the ominous portals. Straight into the crypt he walked, and the match already in his hand rasped against the door, sputtered into yellow flame.

He stopped then, but only for an instant. The match fell from his fingers. He whirled wildly, came reeling out into the moonlight again. And he ran—leaping graves, dodging headstones, unwilling to pause for his brain to digest the awful thing he had seen—the coffin dragged from its shelf, the lid wrenched open, the ghastly thing within. For the unembalmed body of the girl had been mutilated like the bodies of the sheep, mutilated by inhuman hands that had sliced a wide incision through grave-clothes and flesh to reach the awful object of its sacrilege!

Slade's feet were winged things now, driven on by the hot tumult of a brain that shrieked, “Esther! Esther!” If there existed things so loathsome that even the dead were not immune to their ravages, what would they do to the helpless body of a living woman?

What might they not be doing even now to Esther Corman?

CHAPTER III. The Slaves of Ishtar

AT the edge of the clearing in which stood the old stone house with its gardens and orchard, Slade halted. He had been running as a man runs in a nightmare, wildly oblivious to his surroundings. Now he sobered. Clear wits would be needed to grapple with the evil entrenched in this ancient mansion.

Crouching, he crept into the orchard, moved furtively from tree to tree like a shadow. The lights in the upper part of the house had gone out. A few lower windows glowed dimly. Along the graveled driveway cars were parked; moonlight gleamed on sleek, shiny hoods and fenders. There was a crowd here tonight—wealthy neurotics, thrill-seekers. Slade pictured their flabby faces and shuddered.

Should he try to get in, or should he wait for Len Marsden to join him? Len would know the lay of the land, the arrangement of the house. The place had once been his home, before the ruined fortunes of Peter Marsden had forced him to sell it to the astrologer. Why had Merro Daak wanted this place in particular? That question seemed to trouble old Peter Marsden, too.

Slade stopped, peering at a huge grey wedge- shaped structure that reared its bulk among the garden shrubs. It was the ancient mausoleum of the Marsden family, dating back to a time when people buried their dead on their own estates. Two ideas had flashed into Slade's mind at once.

This old place was close to a graveyard, and it also contained within its grounds a burial vault. If a man were bent on carrying on traffic with the dead, here was an arrangement perfect for his needs, here were sepulchers near at hand to be plundered for the grisly appurtenances of sorcery.

Creeping up behind the vault, Slade crouched in its shadows, staring at the somber walls of the house. A slither of furtive footsteps among dry grass stalks reached his ears; a dark figure crept out from the shadows beyond the crypt.

Slade studied the figure a moment through slitted eyes. Then he hissed sharply, “Len!”

The figure spun like a top, stared, came toward him.

“Cliff?” Len Marsden breathed. “I had a time getting away from them. They knew I'd lied to them about your not having been there. The old man threw a fit and had to be put to bed, but they made me go with them. I slipped away as soon as I could. What kept you?”

Slade told him. Len whistled under his breath. “Lord!” he said, “then it's even worse than I suspected. You're convinced now?”

“I'm convinced,” Slade said grimly. “How do we get into the house?”

“They're gathered in the dark basement,” Len told him. “Some sort of ceremony seems to be in progress. We'll listen in.”

Silent as shadows they stole through the shrubs of the garden, then, on hands and knees, they crawled toward a square, black opening in the foundation of the house.

A droning sound reached their ears as they crept nearer, a mumbling buzz like a hive of angry bees. A small window, hinged like a door, hung open a few inches. Flat on the ground, Len and Slade snaked nearer. Hot air billowed out of the aperture and the buzz of voices resolved itself into a chant, low, somber—a ghostly medley from invisible throats, weird words from the dark mysteries of the past:

Seven are they, seven are they! Battening in Hades, seven are they! Knowing neither mercy nor pity, The Evil Ones of Ea . . .

Slade felt his flesh crawl. “What is it?” he gasped in Len's ear.

LEN swallowed; his breath came jerkily as he whispered. “They're getting ready for something awful. That's the chant of the Seven Demons of Babylon—a sort of vampire who stole the sacrifices from the altars of the gods.”

“Let's do something!” Slade grated. “If Esther's in there— How can we get inside, Len?”

But Len was already crawling away. Slade followed. Hugging the foundation, they came to the back of the house, stopped at another narrow window.

“This,” Len whispered, “opens on a storeroom—or used to; it connects with the main basement. You go in there. I'll climb to a second- story window and come down through the house. One of us will get in there sure!” He gripped Slade's hand a moment, tensely. “Good luck!” Then he was up and gone.

Slade fumbled with the window, located the hinges, pushed gently. With a faint creak it swung open. The interior was pitch dark; the murmur of the chant was still audible, but it was muffled. The door that led into the main basement must be closed. Slade struck a match. The narrow, cement- walled room was empty except for the stacks of old furniture and boxes along the walls. Slade blew out the match, thrust his body feet first through the window.

Breathless, he stood in the thick dark. A weapon—he needed a weapon of some sort! He had nothing but a large clasp-knife in his pocket. He fished it out, opened it, crept to the door. The weird murmur of the chant still droned in his ears. He grasped the knob of the door, turned it softly, gave the door a gentle pull, peered through the crack.

Warm air struck his face, the reek of aromatic fumes. A chanting chorus washed against his ears like a rumbling wave of madness. Then the chanting ceased. In the center of the pit of gloom that yawned before him a globe of greenish light kindled on the dark. It brightened, glowed like a monstrous planet in the gulfs of space, began to shed faint rays of emerald over the eerie room, over the huddled occupants. Then a voice—the oily, evil tones of Merro Daak—was speaking in measured syllables.

“Tonight we celebrate the mysteries of Ishtar, goddess of love and fertility. As Ishtar, Astaroth, Astarte, Aphrodite, she has gleaned the harvest of the hearts of men since the dawn of time . . .”

The green mist of light brightened; the macabre scene swam before Slade's eyes like something seen through depths of murky water. The lowceilinged room, draped in dark tapestries, the weird figures of the worshipers, kneeling in a semicircle before the long altar, and behind that the raised dais, with its drawn canopies of velvet. It was from behind these curtains that the voice seemed to come.

“In the hanging gardens of Babylon, they sang the praises of Ishtar, and in the secret groves of Ninevah her priests wielded the bright knives, the bright, blood-drinking blades . . .”

At these words, spoken with slow, evil relish, moans of unholy ecstasy broke from the kneeling ranks. Slade stared with crawling revulsion at the dim shapes. Strange garments covered their forms; conical casques were on their heads, and their skirted, half-naked bodies glittered with metal sequins and brilliants. But for their faces they might have been snatched from the terraced fanes of ancient Nippur.

But those faces! Wild with evil passions now shamelessly unmasked, they glowed in the greenish light like the visages of ghouls. Aged faces, most of them; rich, jaded, avid for the final thrill before death claimed them; and young faces, too, loose- mouthed, flabby, revolting.

“Before your eyes shall be enacted Ishtar's descent into Hades, just as it was enacted by the initiates of old. We shall see the goddess go down into Aralu, the Land of No-return. At each of the Seven Gates she is stripped of some of her jewelry and clothing until she stands nude and helpless before the Gods of Darkness. There she must bow in homage while a sacrifice to Allatu is made.”

HE finished, and on the sudden silence a muffled blare of trumpets sounded from some hidden source and the curtains about the dais parted and drew back. A shudder seemed to pass over the craning devotees. Then while gasps of lewd admiration wheezed from their lungs, a double throne was revealed on the dais. In one seat sat Merro Daak in the robes of a Babylonian king, and in the other seat sat a woman whose slender body was draped in the loose folds of vari-colored veils. Golden sandals were on her tiny feet and a golden crown on her head, and her loose hair fell in ebon ripples about her shoulders.

Now she rose with graceful, mincing steps, began to descend the steps of the dais. Light from the green globe fell suddenly athwart her face, and Slade, standing rigid behind the door, felt his muscles constrict, felt fingers of horror claw at his quivering flesh.

For the veiled woman, parading with shameless poise before the avid eyes of that depraved throng, was Esther Corman! Was it possible? Esther, his Esther, the abandoned priestess of this pagan cult of shame?

It took all the strength of Slade's will to hold himself in check then. But he knew that he must wait, not give himself away too soon.

Esther had reached the floor, was moving toward one end of the semicircle of crouching worshipers. Then from the ranks, dark figures rose—seven of them—draped in flowing robes of black, they stood erect, like sentinels guarding the gates of hell. Esther had faced about, was moving toward the first of the dark seneschals. As she paused beside him, the black-robed figure stepped forth, reached out and snatched the crown from her head.

“Enter,” he intoned. “It is the command of Allatu!”

The hidden trumpets sounded two blasts. The kneeling figures bent to the floor and straightened with outstretched arms, and Esther moved on to the next robed figure. Here the ritual was repeated; the dark figure snatched from her shoulders the veil of crimson; the trumpets blared, and Esther moved on.

Hot tears of shame and rage stung Slade's eyes as he watched the progress of that evil rite. As each succeeding veil was stripped from Esther's body the excitement of the repulsive devotees increased. They bowed and straightened, flung their hands, rolled their greedy, glittering eyes, began to mumble and cackle blasphemous prayers to Ishtar and the demon-gods of Babylon.

Then the last portal was reached, and Slade, with hot shudders wringing the sweat from his body, saw the last veil torn from Esther's body amidst the lewd howls of the mob; saw her move like an animated thing of marble toward the white- draped altar and bow meekly before it.

Then something moved from the shadows of the left of the dais. Two huge Negroes dressed in scarlet loincloths paced into the light. On their massive shoulders they bore a catafalque on which lay the nude, bound body of a girl. At the altar they stopped, lowered their burden, laid it out upon the white cloth like an offering and retired into the shadows again.

“The sacrifice to Allatu!” a dozen hysterical voices wailed. “The sacrifice to Allatu. Let the god receive the offering!”

Would they dare? Slade stood frozen in a vertigo of horror, staring at the helpless girl whose body gleamed like polished jade under the eerie light. Then he recognized her. She was Mary Wycliffe, the girl who had vanished from the village three weeks ago!

Merro Daak, a smirk on his thin, cruel face, was coming down from the dais. The green light was growing dim. Was this the signal for the final orgy, for bestialities too shameful for even this unnatural light? Suddenly the kneeling figures rose, their bodies shaking, writhing in wild convulsions.

The next instant the light flared out, and Slade, flinging the door wide, leaped into the room. He shifted the knife to his left hand, held it low against his leg. He wouldn't use it unless he had to. Then, with his right fist flailing and pummeling, he threw himself into the press of milling bodies.

Nausea claimed him at the touch of gelid, unclean flesh, of lewd fingers pawing at him. The reek of sweating, perfumed bodies. Lewd mumblings gave place to shrill, half-animal cries of alarm as Slade floundered among them, fighting his way toward the altar where he had last seen Esther crouched in hideous adoration.

He was almost through the mob when suddenly the whole lust-crazed pack seemed to sense the presence of an alien. Hoarse growls of rage bubbled from their throats, and they threw themselves upon him like the unleashed dogs of hell.

He fought in earnest now. Howls of pain blubbered above the din as his fists flailed into skinny ribs, sunken bellies and lean jaws. But still they came on; like maddened harpies they clutched at him, clawing, spitting, hissing. He hadn't used the knife yet, but now a hot wave of unreason swamped his mind, and with a hoarse curse he dragged up his left arm, fist tight on the handle of the murderous blade. . . .

AND then it happened—that wild scream of agony shrilling out of the dense gloom like the shriek of a siren, that single scream, knifing its frightful message into startled ears—a woman's scream, and no mere cry of pain, but a wail of mortal agony—of death!

Like wilting phantoms, the unseen clawing hands fell away from Slade's body, and on the air, suddenly frozen to an awful silence, came a peal of ghoulish laughter, and then the heavy thud of a falling body.

Slade was stumbling forward toward the dais. His foot struck something soft, heavy. He stumbled, fell sprawling in a welter of some warm, sticky fluid, straightened, threw out groping fingers and touched the rounded contours of warm naked flesh.

A sob of mad dismay exploded in his throat. Then someone came running with a candle. Yellow light spread a mist in the choked air and the whole unspeakable horror was plain. He saw first the thing on the floor before him—the bound body of the girl who had been laid upon the altar, now lying in a puddle of scarlet from the awful gaping slit in her abdomen. Sickened, Slade looked up, and a new terror claimed him. Beyond the lambent candle glow a ring of ashen faces goggled at him with dumb accusing horror.

Instantly he knew why. Crouching there with blood smeared on his hands and clothes, he was still holding the knife in his hand!

“Murder!” a high-pitched voice shrilled. Then Slade understood. These jaded thrill- seekers hadn't wanted this. But they had got it anyhow. They had invoked the powers of hell, and now—

Where was Esther? Slade straightened, shifted the knife to his right hand, stared grimly, defiantly into the ring of fear-frozen faces. Quickly he shot a glance over his shoulder. The dais, the thrones, were empty. Esther was gone; Merro Daak was gone, too!

Slade turned back. The ring of sunken-eyed debauchees had drawn closer, mouths agape. Slade stiffened, swung the knife in a swift arc, growled, “The first one who makes a move gets that!” Then he began to back slowly away.

Slowly, step by step, he retreated; and slowly, keeping at a safe distance, they followed. To the left of the dais, in the basement wall, he had seen a door. If he could gain it—

Now the wall was behind him; he inched to the left, felt the door, fumbled for the knob. The door came open. Then the cowering pack lunged.

Swiftly Slade fell back, pushing the door with him. Then his shoulder was against it, slamming it on their baffled cries and beating fists. The next instant fumbling fingers had found the bolt, shot it home.

Slade straightened, turned about, fumbling for a match. He was never very sure of what happened next. There was a vague impression of something vast and white looming before him, and the next instant a terrific weight struck his skull. He pitched back, struck the door, crumpled. The darkness that enveloped him burst in upon his brain, and all was black.

CHAPTER IV. Rations for the Dead

FOR a long time, it seemed, he had known that the three of them were entombed—he and Esther and the dead thing. He was not sure if he and Esther were dead, too. But it did not seem to matter, for it was certain that they had been here for ages—and would doubtless be here forever. And a strange yellow light filled the place, and there were rats.

It was the red, beady eye of a rat that he focused his attention on now, hitching his mind to it, anchoring his consciousness, so that he would not again be dragged down into the depths of the abyss. The place was certainly a burial vault, for there were the shelves and the ends of rotting coffins protruding. And the dead thing beside which the rat now crouched was certainly a permanent tenant, sitting there on a packing box at one end of the place, unmoved, unworried by the rodents who scampered about him.

But there was light here; light from an ordinary lantern which rested on another box a few feet away.

That thing on the box! He certainly wasn't pleasant to look at. His clothes were rotted; his face was hideous, too; but it wasn't rotted. It was almost black, dried, leathery, shrunken, and the lips were peeled back from yellowed teeth, and there were no eyes to stare from the empty sockets. The rats had doubtless eaten them. Why was he sitting there, that ugly fellow?

Slade twisted his head about, stared at Esther. Like him, she was seated on the floor leaning against the cement wall, her body half-covered by an old blanket. But her head was leaning sideways, and her eyes were closed. Why were they sitting here? Ah, now he knew. It was the iron chain that encircled her throat. It was fastened with a padlock, and ended at a heavy staple in the cement wall. There was one about his own throat, too!

But what did it all mean? Then in a sudden flash he remembered; came back to full sanity with a jerk. A hot flame of terror singed his mind. He pulled himself nearer to Esther. Was she dead? He reached out shaking hands to touch her, grasped her arm, shook her.

“Esther, Esther! In God's name, darling . . .” She stirred; dazedly she turned toward him dark eyes, wide, dry and dumb with fear and pain. “I've been asleep again,” she said. “I couldn't wake you, I—I—” It ended in a sob.

He seized one of her hands, fondled it hungrily. His brain was hammering now like an engine with a broken piston rod. “Brace up, darling. What happened?”

“But I don't know, Cliff. That's the awful part of it. Oh, but I've been through hell, and then— this!” She shuddered, drew the blanket closer about her. “You see, when Mary Wycliffe vanished, I suspected that Daak had lured her away. I wanted to find her. I deliberately made friends with that monster, allowed him to bring me here to this place where he entertained and victimized his awful friends. But I couldn't get a trace of Mary. Then he asked me to take part in one of his horrid pageants. I even did that—tonight—and for the first time I saw Mary. He must have lured her away, doped her, and kept her prisoner here. Anyhow, when the lights went out during the ceremony, I tried to get her untied, tried to rouse her. Then—then, I scarcely know what happened. It seemed that something huge and white was near me; then something struck my skull, and I went out. That's all I knew until I came to my senses here. Where are we, Cliff? Why are you here?”

Slade bit his lip till the blood was salt in his mouth. But what could he tell her?

“My guess is that we're in the old Marsden vault, darling. I imagine Merro Daak has used it before. Why didn't you tell me about Daak, about where you had been going, Esther?”

“I couldn't, Cliff,” she sobbed. “I knew that man was a monster. I was afraid that if an alarm was sounded, he'd kill Mary to hide his crime. That's why I lied to you, told you I'd been going out with Len. But what happened to you, Cliff?”

Slade told her briefly, omitting the more terrifying parts. “But don't worry,” he added, “if he leaves us alone awhile we'll manage to get out, or to attract someone's attention to us.”

He said it, but he didn't believe it himself. He reached back, began fumbling with the padlock that held the chain about his throat. Even as he felt that solid heavy lock he sensed the hopelessness of it. Abruptly he jerked his head up, the blood congealing in his veins, his throbbing, distended eyes glued to the door of the vault. The tumblers of a lock clicked; the door was opening. . . .

TERROR gripped his body then in a straitjacket of ice; he heard Esther sob brokenly, but he did not look at her. The door swung open, and framed against the pale luminescence of the night was the Thing from the graveyard.

There was a body beneath the folds of that sheet. He could see it now, could understand the awful illusion the thing had produced against a dark background. For the legs, the arms and hands, the face itself, were covered by a skintight sheath of black.

It came in, closed the door, stood peering at them, through the tiny slits where gleaming eyes were visible. Slade swallowed the hard lump in his throat.

“Daak,” he flung at the ghoul through gritted teeth, “you can drop the flummery and come out in the open. What's your game?”

The words broke off with a brittle snap on his lips. For a cackle of dry, senile laughter had bubbled from behind the black sheath that hid the head, and a voice which Slade instantly recognized, said:

“Ye don't recognize me, eh, Cliff Slade?” Surely this was a nightmare! It couldn't be true. But the fiend had now thrown the sheet aside, had reached up and pulled the black hood from his head. The bony, grey-haired head of Peter Marsden!

“It can't be!” Slade hushed. “You're—you're a paralytic—”

“Eh? I was a paralytic,” the old man croaked. “But I fooled 'em all. Fer months I set there in that chair a thinkin', an' I fooled 'em all. I heared the doctors a sayin' that there paralysis was a hysterical affliction, a thing of th' mind. So 'twas, I found out, tryin' my legs out on the sly an' a curin' myself. Only I didn't tell nobody. There was too many things I had to do in secret, a lookin' after Emmett, a tryin' to git him well again . . .”

Emmett! Get him well again! Slade's brain was reeling; he lifted horrified eyes to the hideous, mummy-like thing that sat on the packing box. Emmett! That was the old man's elder son who had been killed by the mob five years ago!

“You're a lookin' at Emmett, I see,” the old man went on, an insane pride twinkling in his sunken eyes. “Ain't very pretty now, Emmett ain't. But I reckon I kin keep him alive till the resurrection.”

“Alive? But he's been dead five years!” Slade blurted out before he could check himself.

“Eh?” old Marsden said, seating himself comfortably on the box beside the lantern. “Oh, you might call him dead, but I ain't so sure. There ain't no corruption in Emmett. Right after that there mob killed him I done somethin' to him. I used to sneak here in the dead o' night—fore that paralysis hit me—an' I smoked him an' fixed him up with Indian herbs so's he wouldn't putrefy. I done a good job, too. He ain't all dead, Emmett ain't. He eats.”

“Eats!” The word ripped from Slade's throat in a convulsive sob. The thing in all its horror was dawning on his mind. This old man, whom everyone had thought harmlessly insane, was a homicidal maniac of the most dreadful type. Swiftly, wildly, Slade's brain was gropin' for some way in which to get control over that deranged mind.

“I don't understand,” he said, fighting to keep his voice steady. “You mean you've been feeding him all these years?”

“Well,” the old man said, “I reckon he got awful hungry for a spell. That was after I sold the place an' while my legs was still paralyzed. But I was a workin' out my plan, an' little by little I was knittin' me this here black suit, so's I could slip through the dark to feed Emmett. First I fed him vittles from the house, but that didn't seem to do him no good. I knowed what he needed was meat. Then for a time I fed him on chickens, rabbits an' such-like. It was after this here Merro Daak bought my place that I seen how I could git him fresh meat an' make folks thing the astrologer done it. I know that the olden soothsayers sometimes cut the livers from animals. Then, too, I thought the livers would be good meat for Emmett, since I couldn't take time to bother with the whole carcass . . .”

“But look here,” Slade choked out, “you can see it hasn't done him any good, you can see—”

“Mebbe not,” old Marsden cut him short, “but it sort of kept him goin'. Still, I reckon there's somethin' in what you say. I figgered myself that what he needed was human flesh an' blood.”

THE whole shadowy crypt was spinning wildly before Slade's eyes. He saw the gradual progress of the old man's mania, from horror to horror, and now—

“But you're wrong!” he gasped wildly. “Emmett's dead. He can't eat. You know he can't eat!”

A cunning smile bared the old man's yellow teeth. “Oh, yes, he can,” he said. “You jest ain't seen him. He's gonna keep on eatin' fer many a year, keep on till he's eat the livers of half this town that tortured an' kilt him. No one won't never suspect me. I've learned to slip about like a shadder. Look how quick I got to the graveyard tonight after they left the house. I seen you there atop that arbor. But I can run like hell. You seen how I managed to slip into that basement tonight, too, in the dark, cut the liver from that girl, slugged Daak an' this here girl with a pipe an' dragged 'em into the furnace room to a secret hidin' place where I left 'em till I could git 'em safely here. I got you, too. I know my way about, I reckon. They won't git me!”

“But now,” Slade argued, “they'll be suspecting you.”

The old man grinned cunningly. “Ye're wrong again,” he chuckled. “They've blamed it all on Daak. Them people confessed that he carried girls off before an' held 'em prisoner. They think he run off with this here girl, after killin' the other one. They got that whole bunch of heathens in jail right now.”

Looking into that mad face, Slade felt the last faint spark of hope die to darkness in his heart. Beside him he could hear Esther sobbing softly. Dazedly he saw the old man rise from his seat, begin pulling an ancient coffin from one of the lower shelves. Wild horror choked Slade then, crushed his throat to frozen speechlessness. For old Marsden had dragged the coffin to the floor, swung back the lid, and with a hideous chuckle had reached in and dragged up a body by the hair—the body of Merro Daak!

“I'll show you if Emmett can eat,” the crazed man gloated. A razor was in his hands now. He bent over the body of the dead astrologer.

Esther screamed. Twisting about, Slade saw that she had slumped in a faint. He closed his own eyes then, retched with sick convulsions. He was a doctor, but this . . .

When he opened his eyes again the mutilated body of the astrologer lay in its own blood while the old man stood above it, the dark gory liver in his hand. Chuckling, he walked to the box where the mummified body of his son was propped grotesquely and laid his frightful prize beside it like an offering. Then he came back and sat down on the box facing Slade. “He won't eat it if I watch him,” he said, “but he'll eat.”

Slade watched, but his swollen eyes were dazed with unspeakable horror. His brain was spinning; red madness hovered over him with heavy wings. Then, confusedly, he saw the dark shape creep up from the shadows, blink rapidly with red eyes, and seize the bloody morsel. A rat! The thing's teeth sank into the gory prize, dragged it back into the shadows again.

Old Marsden turned, his mad face lighted with a look of triumph. “See, see?” he chortled. “It's gone. Emmett's shore hungry tonight!” Then he looked at the slumped figure of Esther, looked long and significantly.

“My God, Mr. Marsden,” Slade choked, “you're not going to do that—to us?”

“Eh?” the old man asked. “To us? No, I ain't goin' to do it to you. I don't reckon Emmett would want to eat one of Len's friends. I ain't goin' to kill you. I'm a-goin' to leave you in here to keep Emmett company. I reckon Emmett gits awful lonesome. You can eat with him, too. But that there girl . . .”

HIS words trailed off, swallowed by the abysmal roaring in Slade's skull. After he had seen Esther slaughtered, he would be left here; and when his mind was gone, his body wasted with hunger, he would be invited to share the ghoulish repast of the dead. . . .

Blackness smothered him in recurrent waves; the scene glimmered and faded before him. He would make one last struggle—hopeless, he knew—and then he would beg to be killed first.

Suddenly he sat up, his head swimming, tried to focus his crazed vision on the door of the vault which again was opening!

Old Marsden sprang to his feet, the bloody razor gripped tightly. The door opened. Was this the delirium of insanity, or was that Len Marsden standing in the doorway? It was, it was Len! A wild cry of crazed joy broke from Slade's lips, broke and dwindled to a whimper.

“Len, you here?” old Marsden sputtered.

Len's face was scarcely human—wax over bones. His shrunken eyes burned with the fever of madness. “I'm here—I came to warn you. They're looking for you.”

Incredulous dismay stabbed Slade's brain. No word to him, not even a glance from Len. The breath was whistling harshly between old Marsden's teeth. He stared at his son uncertainly, fingered the razor. “Close the door,” he growled. “How did you find me?”

“I guessed it,” Len said. “I've heard you mumble about Emmett in your sleep. I've come to help you. I hate this town that tortured him, too.”

Slade's brain was shrieking in a mad delirium. Len, with the tainted blood in his veins, had cracked under the strain, had become a madman, too. Len closed the door now, shambled in and stood beside his father.

Peter Marsden turned toward his captives. “What we got to do, we got to do quick,” he said. “How about young Slade?”

“Kill them both!” Len snapped. “He stole the girl from me.” He made a quick dive toward Esther.

Shrieking a volley of curses, Slade kicked out at him. But Len got on the other side of Esther's unconscious body. “Throw me the keys!” he yelled.

Quick as a leaping rodent old Marsden sprang to a shelf, snatched up a ring with two keys on it and tossed it to Len. Len caught the keys. Slade, paralyzed with crushing terror, saw Len's fingers shake as he snapped the lock open, seized Esther's body and began dragging it with quick jerks to the center of the floor where he crouched above it like a wolf.

Slade threw himself against the wall. “The razor!” Len Marsden snapped. “Give me the razor. We'll feed Emmett again before we go.”

Light from the lantern flashed on the bloody blade as it passed from old Marsden's hand to Len's. Slade shut his eyes then and black madness claimed him.

It was old Marsden's cry that jarred him from his stupor of horror. His head jerked up; his eyes bugged. The razor lay on the floor beside Esther's body, and Len and Peter Marsden were struggling in the center of the crypt.

“Traitor!” the old man was screaming wildly as he fought with maniacal strength against Len's pinioning arms.

Slade held his breath. The old man's crazed strength was enormous. Time after time, he tore himself loose from Len's grip and threw his knotted fists into the younger man's face and body. Once Len stumbled, almost fell. He came back with a rush, and this time his right arm swung up from the floor. There was an audible crack as the blow connected and old Marsden, arms flailing the air, fell back. His head struck the concrete shelf behind him and he crumpled to the floor.

LEN staggered back, his mouth agape, staring with glassy fixity at his father's crumpled form. Then he slumped down on the box beside the lantern, buried his face in his arms and shook with bitter sobs.

“The keys!” Slade shouted. “Throw me the keys!”

Len straightened, fished the keys from the pocket into which he had thrust them and flung them to Slade. Then he staggered to his father's

body, knelt beside it. “Not dead,” he said presently with a gasp. “Thank the Lord, I didn't kill him!”

The chain fell away from Slade's throat and he stumbled to his feet. He threw himself down beside Esther, gathered her cold body in his arms. “You weren't a moment too soon,” he told Len. “How did you manage it?”

“After I left you,” Len explained, “I got into the house but was caught and tied by a couple of Daak's guards. I lay there unable to get loose until some of that crazed bunch got Corman and his posse to the place. They of course suspected Merro Daak, but they suspected you, too; and they weren't sure about me. They held me in jail until an hour or so ago. I went home then and found Father gone. I began to wonder then—about him. I remembered some wild talking he had done in his sleep, crazy stuff about feeding Emmett. I'd never paid any attention to it before, but now it gave me a clue and I came straight here. When I saw Father with the razor in his hand I knew I'd have to pretend to help him until I could get him under control. Poor Father, it'll be the madhouse for him now.”

Slade was lifting Esther from the floor. Len sprang to help him. But a sudden movement caused him to turn back to the huddled body of old Marsden. He had lifted himself, was sitting upright, the razor gripped in his hand. “Madhouse!” he shrilled. “You'll send me to the madhouse?”

Len leaped to seize the razor. But he was too late. With a swift stroke the old man drew the gleaming blade across his throat, fell back with bright blood gushing down upon his chest.

Hugging Esther's cold body to him, Slade staggered out of the crypt of death. The chill air was good against his face. In the east the first faint streaks of dawn were smudging the pale sky. The horror was over! And it was better that the old man had gone as he had, better for Len, too, whose tortured brain had borne enough!

With a surge of delirious joy, Slade pressed his burning lips to Esther's face. Her eyes opened, startled at first, then softening as she saw the brightening sky and Slade's face above hers. She didn't ask any questions then, just snuggled closer in his arms as he bore her with swift strides toward the house.