The Slayer of Souls

Robert W. Chambers



The night grew sweet with the scent of orange bloom, and all the perfumed darkness was vibrant with the feathery whirr of hawkmoths' wings.
          Tressa had taken her moon-lute to the hammock, but her fingers rested motionless on the strings.
          Cleves and Recklow, shoulder to shoulder, paced the moonlit path along the hedges of oleander and hibiscus which divided garden from jungle.
          And they moved cautiously on the white-shell road, not too near the shadow line.  For in the cypress swamp the bloated grey death was awake and watching under the moon; and in the scrub palmetto the diamond-dotted death moved lithely.
          And somewhere within the dark evil of the jungle a man in white might be watching.
          So Recklow's pistol swung lightly in his right hand and Cleves' weapon lay in his side-pocket, and they strolled leisurely around the drive and up and down the white-shell walks, passing Tressa at regular intervals, where she sat in her hammock with the moon-lute across her knees.
          Once Cleves paused to place two pink hibiscus blossoms in her hair above her ears; and the girl smiled gravely at him in the light.
          Again, pausing beside her hammock on one of their tours of the garden, Recklow said in a low voice: "If the beast would only show himself, Mrs. Cleves, we'd not miss him.  Have you caught a glimpse of anything white in the woods?"
          "Only the night mist rising from the branch and the white ibis stealing through it."
          Cleves came nearer: "Do you think the Yezidee is in the woods watching us, Tressa?"
          "Yes, he is there," she said calmly.
          "You know it?"
          Recklow stared at the woods.  "We can't go in to hunt for him," he said.  "That fellow would get us with his Lewisite gas before we could discover and destroy him."
          "Suppose he waits for a west wind and squirts his gas in this direction?" whispered Cleves.
          "There is no wind," said Tressa tranquilly.  "He has been waiting for it, I think.  The Yezidee is very patient.  And he is a Shaman sorcerer."
          "My God!" breathed Recklow.  "What sort of hellish things has the Old World been dumping into America for the last fifty years?  An ordinary anarchist is bad enough, but this new breed of devil--these Yezidees--this sect of Assassins---?"
          "Hush!" whispered Tressa.
          All three listened to the great cat-owl howling from the jungle.  But Tressa had heard another sound--the vague stir of leaves in the live-oaks.  Was it a passing breeze?  Was a night wind rising?  She listened.  But heard no brittle clatter from the palm-fronds.
          "Victor," she said.
          "Yes, Tressa."
          "If a wind comes, we must hunt him.  That will be necessary."
          "Either we hunt him and get him, or he kills us here with his gas," said Recklow quietly.
          "If the night wind comes," said Tressa, "we must hunt the darkness for the Yezidee."  She spoke coolly.
          "If he'd only show himself," muttered Recklow, staring into the darkness.
          The girl picked up her lute, caught Cleves' worried eyes fixed on her, suddenly comprehending that his anxiety was on her account, and blushed brightly in the moonlight.  And he saw her teeth catch at her underlip; saw her look up again at him, confused.
         "If I dared leave you," he said, "I'd go into the hammock and start that reptile.  This won't do--this standing pat while he comes to some deadly decision in the woods there."
          "What else is there to do?" growled Recklow.
          "Watch," said the girl.  "Out-watch the Yezidee.  If there is no night-wind he may tire of waiting.  Then you must shoot fast--very, very fast and straight.  But if the night-wind comes, then we must hunt him in darkness."
          Recklow, pistol in hand, stood straight and sturdy in the moonlight, gazing at the forest.  Cleves sat down at his wife's feet.
          She touched her moon-lute tranquilly and sang in her childish voice:

                    "Ring, ring, Buddha bells,
                    Gilded gods are listening,
                    Swing, swing, lily bells,
                    In my garden glistening.
                    Now I hear the Shaman drum;
                    Now the scarlet horsemen come;
                    Through the chanting of the throng
                    Thunders now the temple gong.

                    "Let the gold gods listen!
                    In my garden; what care I
                    Where my lily bells hang mute!
                              Snowy-sweet they glisten
                    Where I'm singing to my lute.
                    In my garden; what care I
                              Who is dead and who shall die?
                    Let the gold gods save or slay
                    Scented lilies bloom in May.
                              Boom, boom, temple gong!

          "What are you singing?" whispered Cleves.
          "'The Bells of Yian.'"
          "Is it old?"
          "Of the 13th century.  There were a few Buddhist bells in Yian then.  It is Lamaism that has destroyed the Mongols and that has permitted the creed of the Assassins to spread--the devil worship of Erlik."
          He looked at her, not understanding.  And she, pale, slim prophetess, in the moonlight, gazed at him out of lost eyes--eyes which saw, perhaps, the bloody age of men when mankind took the devil by the throat and all Mount Alamout went up in smoking ruin; and the Eight Towers were dark as death and as silent before the black of the silver clarions of Ghenghis Khan.
          "Something is stirring in the forest," whispered Tressa, her fingers to her lips.
          "Damnation," muttered Recklow, "it's the wind!"
          They listened.  Far in the forest they head the clatter of palm-fronds.  They waited.  The ominous warning grew faint, then rose again,--a long, low rattle of palm-fronds, which became a steady monotone.
          "We hunt," said Recklow bluntly.  "Come on!"
          But the girl sprang from the hammock and caught her husband's arm and drew Recklow back from the hibiscus hedge.
          "Use me," she said.  "You never could find the Yezidee.  Let me do the hunting; and then shoot very, very fast."
          "We've got to take her," said Recklow.  "We dare not leave her."
          "I can't let her lead the way into those black woods," muttered Cleves.
          "The wind is blowing in my face," insisted Recklow.  "We'd better hurry."
          Tressa laid one hand on her husband's arm.
          "I can find the Yezidee, I think.  You could never find him before he finds you!  Victor, let me use my own knowledge!  Let me find the way.  Please let me lead!  Please, Victor.  Because, if you don't, I'm afraid we'll all die here in the garden where we stand."
          Cleves cast a haggard glance at Recklow, then looked at his wife.
          "All right," he said.
          The girl opened the hedge gate.  Both men followed with pistols lifted.
          The moon silvered the forest.  There was no mist, but a night-wind blew mournfully through palm and cypress, carrying with it the strange, disturbing pungency of the jungle--wild, unfamiliar perfumes,--the acrid aroma of swamp and rotting mould.
          "What about snakes?" muttered Recklow, knee deep in wild phlox.
          But there was a deadlier snake to find and destroy, somewhere in the blotched shadows of the forest.
          The first sentinel trees were very near, now; and Tressa was running across a ghostly tangle, where once had been an orange grove, and where aged and dying citrus stumps rose stark amid the riot of encroaching jungle.
          "She's circling to get the wind at our back," breathed Recklow, running forward beside Cleves.  "That's our only chance to kill the dirty rat--catch him with the wind at our backs!"
          Once, traversing a dry hammock where streaks of moonlight alternated with velvet-black shadow a rattlesnake sprang his goblin alarm.
          They could not locate the reptile.  They shrank together and moved warily, chilled with fear.
          Once, too, clear in the moonlight, the Grey Death reared up from bloated folds and stood swaying rhythmically in a horrible shadow dance before them.  And Cleves threw one arm around his wife and crept past, giving death a wide berth there in the checkered moonlight.
          Now, under foot, the dry hammock lay everywhere and the night wind blew on their backs.
          Then Tressa turned and halted the two men with a gesture.  And went to her husband where he stood in the palm forest, and laid her hands on his shoulders, looking him very wistfully in the eyes.
          Under her searching gaze he seemed oddly to comprehend her appeal.
          "You are going to use--to use your knowledge," he said mechanically.  "You are going to find the man in white."
          "You are going to find him in a way we don't understand," he continued, dully.
          "Yes. . . . You will not hold me in--in horror-will you?"
          Recklow came up, making no sound on the spongy palm litter underfoot.
          "Can you find this devil?" he whispered.
          "I--think so."
          "Does your super-instinct--finer sense--knowledge--whatever it is--give you any inkling as to his whereabouts, Mrs. Cleves?"
          "I think he is here in this hammock.  Only---?" she turned again, with swift impulse, to her husband.  "--only if you--if you do not hold me in--in horror--because of what I do---?"
          There was a silence; then:
          "What are you about to do?" he asked hoarsely.
          "Slay a man."
          "We'll do that," said Cleves with a shudder.  "Only show him to us and we'll shoot the dirty reptile to slivers---?"
          "Suppose we hit the jar of gas," said Recklow.
          After a silence, Tressa said:
          "I have got to give him back to Satan.  There is no other way.  I understood that from the first.  He can not die by your pistols, though you shoot very fast and straight.  No!"
          After another silence, Recklow said:
          "You had better find him before the wind changes.  We hunt down wind or--we die here together."
          She looked at her husband.
          "Show him to us in your own way," he said, "and deal with him as he must be dealt with."
          A gleam passed across her pale face and she tried to smile at her husband.
          Then, turning down the hammock to the east, she walked noiselessly forward over the fibrous litter, the men on either side of her, their pistols poised.
          They had halted on the edge of an open glade, ringed with young pines in fullest plumage.
          Tressa was standing very straight and still in a strange, supple, agonised attitude, her left forearm across her eyes, her right hand clenched, her slender body slightly twisted to the left.
          The men gazed pallidly at her with tense, set faces, knowing that the girl was in terrible mental conflict against another mind--a powerful, sinister mind which was seeking to grasp her thoughts and control them.
          Minute after minute sped: the girl never moved, locked in her psychic duel with this other brutal mind,--beating back its terrible thought-waves which were attacking her, fighting for mental supremacy, struggling in silence with an unseen adversary whose mental dominance meant death.
          Suddenly her cry rang out sharply in the moonlight, and then, all at once, a man in white stood there in the lustre of the moon--a young, graceful man dressed in white flannels and carrying on his right arm what seemed to be a long white cloak.
          Instantly the girl was transformed from a living statue into a lithe, supple, lightly moving things that passed swiftly to the west of the glade, keeping the young man in white facing the wind, which was blowing and tossing the plumy young pines.
          "So it is you, young man, with whom I have been wrestling here under the moon of the only God!" she said in a strange little voice, all vibrant and metallic with menacing laughter.
          "It is I, Keuke Mongol," replied the young man in white, tranquilly; yet his words came as though he were tired and out of breath, and the hand he raised to touch his small black moustache trembled as if from physical exhaustion.
          "Yarghouz!" she exclaimed.  "Why did I not know you there on the golf links, Assassin of the Seventh Tower?  And why do you come here with your shroud over your arm and hidden under it, in your right hand, a flask full of death?"
          He said, smiling:
          "I come because you are to die, Heavenly-Azure Eyes.  I bring you your shroud."  And he moved warily westward around the open circle of young pines.
          Instantly the girl flung her right arm straight upward.
          "I hear thee, Heavenly Azure."
          "Another step to the west and I shatter thy flask of gas."
          "With what?" he demanded; but stood discreetly motionless.
          "With what I grasp in an empty palm.  Thou knowest, Yarghouz."
          "I have heard," he said with smiling uncertainty, "but to hear of force that can be hurled out of an empty palm is one thing, and to see it and feel it is another.  I think you lie, Heavenly Azure."
          "So thought Gutchlug.  And died of a yellow snake."
          The young man seemed to reflect.  Then he looked up at her in his frank, smiling way.
          "Wilt thou listen, Heavenly Eyes?"
          "I hear thee, Yarghouz."
          "Listen then, Keuke Mongol.  Take life from us as we offer it.  Life is sweet.  Erlik, like a spider, waits in darkness for lost souls that flutter to his net."
          "You think my soul was lost there in the temple, Yarghouz?"
          "Unutterably lost, little temple girl of Yian.  Therefore, live.  Take life as a gift!"
          "Whose gift?"
          "It is written," she said gravely, "that we belong to God and we return to him.  Now then, Yezidee, do your duty as I do mine!  Kai!"
          At the sound of the formula always uttered by the sect of Assassins when about to do murder, the young man started and shrank back.  The west wind blew fresh in his startled eyes.
          "Sorceress," he said less firmly, "you leave your Yiort to come all alone into this forest and seek me.  Why then have you come, if not to submit!--if not to take the gift of life--if not to turn away from your seducers who are hunting me, and who have corrupted you?"
          "Yarghouz, I come to slay you," she said quietly.
          Suddenly the man snarled at her, flung the shroud at her feet, and crept deliberately to the left.
          "Be careful!" she cried sharply; "look what you're about!  Stand still, son of a dog!  May your mother bewail your death!"
          Yarghouz edged toward the west, clasping in his right hand the flask of gas.
          "Sorceress," he laughed, "a witch of Thibet prophesied with a drum that the three purities, the nine perfections, and the nine times nine felicities shall be lodged in him who slays the treacherous temple girl, Keuke Mongol!  There is more magic in this bottle which I grasp than in thy mind and body.  Heavenly Eyes!  I pray God to be merciful to this soul I send to Erlik!"
          All the time he was advancing, edging cautiously around the circle of little plumy pines; and already the wind struck his left cheek.
          "Yarghouz Khan!" cried the girl in her clear voice.  "Take up your shroud and repeat the fatha!"
          "Backward!" laughed the young man, "--as do you, Keuke Mongol!"
          "Heretic!" she retorted.  "Do you also refuse to name the ten Imaums in your prayers?  Dog!  Toad!  Spittle of Erlik!  May all your cattle die and all your horses take the glanders and all your dogs the mange!"
          "Silence, sorceress!" he shouted, pale with fear and fury.  "Witch!  Mud worm!  May Erlik seize you!  May your skin be covered with putrefying sores!  May all the demons torment you!  May God remember you in hell!"
          "Yarghouz!  Stand still!"
          "Is your word then the Rampart of Gog and Magog, you young witch of Yian, that a Khan of the Seventh Tower need fear you!" he sneered, stealing stealthily westward through the feathery pines.
          "I give thee they last chance, Yarghouz Khan," she said in an excited voice that trembled.  "Recite thy prayer naming the ten, because with their holy names upon thy lips thou mayest escape damnation.  For I
am here to slay thee, Yarghouz!  Take up thy shroud and pray!"
          The young man felt the west wind at the back of his left ear.  Then he began to laugh.
          "Heavenly Eyes," he said, "thy end is come--together with the two police who hide in the pines yonder behind thee!  Behold the bottle magic of Yarghouz Khan!"
          And he lifted the glass flask in the moonlight as though he were about to smash it at her feet.
          Then a terrible thing occurred.  The entire flask glowed red hot in his grasp; and the man screamed and strove convulsively to fling the bottle; but it stuck to his hand, melted into the smoking flesh.
          Then he screamed again--or tried to--but his entire lower jaw came off and he stood there with the awful orifice gaping in the moonlight--stood, reeled a moment--and then--and then--his whole face slid off, leaving nothing but a bony mask out of which burst shriek after shriek---?
          Keuke Mongol fainted dead away.  Cleves took her into his arms.
          Recklow, trembling and deathly white, went over to the thing that lay among the young pines and forced himself to bend over it.
          The glass flask still stuck to one charred hand, but it was no longer hot.  And Recklow rolled the unspeakable thing into the white shroud and pushed it into the swamp.
          An evil ooze took it, slowly sucked it under and engulfed it.  A few stinking bubbles broke.
          Recklow went back to the little glade among the pines.
          A young girl lay sobbing convulsively in her husband's arms, asking God's pardon and his for the justice she had done upon an enemy of all mankind.


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