The Slayer of Souls

Robert W. Chambers



Cleves opened his eyes.  He was lying on his left side.  In the pink glow of the night-lamp he saw his wife in her night-dress, seated sideways on the farther edge of the bed, talking to a young girl.
          The strange girl wore what appeared to be a chamber-robe of frail gold tissue that clung to her body and glittered as she moved.  He had never before seen such a dress; but he had seen the girl; he recognised her instantly as the girl he had seen turn to look back at Tressa as she crossed the phantom bridge over that misty Florida river.  And Cleves comprehended that he was looking at Yulun.
          But this charming young thing was no ghost, no astral projection.  This girl was warm, living, breathing flesh.  The delicate scent of her strange garments and of her hair, her very breath, was in the air of the room.  Her half-hushed but laughing voice was deliciously human; her delicate little hands, caressing Tressa's, were too eagerly real to doubt.
          Both talked at the same time, their animated voices mingling in the breathless delight of the reunion.  Their exclamations, enchanting laughter, bubbling chatter, filled his ears.  But not one word of what they
were saying to each other could he understand.
          Suddenly Tressa looked over her shoulder and met his astonished eyes.
          "Tokhta!" she exclaimed.  "Yulun!  My lord is awake!"
          Yulun swung around swiftly on the edge of the bed and looked laughingly at Cleves. But when her red lips unclosed she spoke to Tressa: and, "Darling," she said in English, "I think your dear lord remembers that he saw me on the Bridge of Dreams.  And heard the bells of Yian across the mist."
          Tressa said, laughing at her husband: "This is Yulun, flame-slender, very white, loveliest in Yian.  On the rose-marble steps of the Yezidee Temple she flung a stemless rose upon Djamouk's shroud, where he had spread it like a patch of snow in the sun.
          "And at the Lake of the Ghosts, where there is freedom to love, for those who desire love, came Yaddin, Tougtchi to Djamouk the Fox, in search of love--and Yulun, flame-slim, and flower-white. . . . Tell my dear lord, Yulun!"
          Yulun laughed at Cleves out of her dark eyes that slanted charmingly at the corners.
          "Kai!" she cried softly, clapping her palms.  "I took his roses and tore them with my hands till their petals rained on him and their golden hearts were a powdery cloud floating across the water.
          "I said: 'Even the damned do not mate with demons, my Tougtchi!  So go to the devil, my Banneret, and may Erlik seize you!'"
          Cleves, his ears ringing with the sweet confusion of their girlish laughter, rose from his pillow, supporting himself on one arm.
          "You are Yulun.  You are alive and real---?"  He looked at Tressa: "She is real, isn't she?"  And, to Yulun: "Where do you come from?"
          The girl replied seriously: "I come from Yian."  She turned to Tressa with a dazzling smile: "Thou knowest, my heart's gold, how it was I came.  Tell thy dear lord in thine own way, so that it shall be simple for  is understanding. . . . And now--because my visit is ending--I think thy dear lord should sleep.  Bid him sleep, my heart's gold!"
          At that calm suggestion Cleves sat upright on the bed,--or attempted to.  But sank back gently on his pillow and met there a dark, delicious rush of drowsiness.
          He made an effort--or tried to: the smooth, sweet tide of sleep swept over him to the eyelids, leaving him still and breathing evenly on his pillow.
          The two girls leaned over and looked down at him.
          "Thy dear lord," murmured Yulun.  "Does he love thee, rosebud of Yian?"
          "No," said Tressa, under her breath.
          "Does he know thou art damned, heart of gold?"
          "He says no soul is ever really harmed," whispered Tressa.
          "Kai!  Has he never heard of the Slayer of Souls?" exclaimed Yulun incredulously.
          "My lord maintains that neither the Assassin of Khorassan nor the Sheiks-el-Djebel of the Eight Towers, nor their dark prince Erlik, can have power over God to slay the human soul."
          "Tokhta, Rose of Yian!  Our souls were slain there in the Yezidee temple."
          Tressa looked down at Cleves:
          "My dear lord says no," she said under her breath.
          Tressa paled: "His mind and mine did battle.  I tore my heart from his grasp.  I have laid it, bleeding, at my dear lord's feet.  Let God judge between us, Yulun."
          "There was a day," whispered Yulun, "when Prince Sanang went to the Lake of the Ghosts."
          Tressa, very pallid, looked down at her sleeping husband.  She said:
          "Prince Sanang came to the Lake of the Ghosts.  The snow of the cherry-trees covered the young world.
          "The water was clear as sunlight; and the lake was afire with scarlet carp . . . Yulun--beloved--the nightingale sang all night long--all night long . . . Then I saw Sanang shining, all gold, in the moonlight . . . May God remember him in hell!" 
          "May God remember him."
          "Sanang Noïane.  May he be accursed in the Namaz Ga!"
          "May he be tormented in Jehaunum!--Sanang, Slayer of Souls."
          Tressa leaned forward on the bed, stretching herself out, and laid her face gently across her husband's feet, touching them with her lips.
          Then she straightened herself and sat up, supported by one hand, and looking silently down at the sleeping man.
          "No soul shall die," she said.  "Niaz!"
          "Is it written?" asked Yulun, surprised.
          "My lord had said it."
          "Allahou Ekber," murmured Yulun; "thy lord is only a man."
          Tressa said: "Neither the Tekbir nor the fatha, nor the warning of Khidr, nor the Yacaz of the Khagan, nor even the prayers of the Ten Imaums are of any value to me unless my dear lord confirms the truth of them with his own lips."
          "And Erlik?  Is he nothing, then?"
          "Erlik?" repeated Tressa insolently.  "Who is Erlik but the servant of Satan who was stoned?"
          Her beautiful, angry lips were suddenly distorted; her blue eyes blazed.  Then she spat, her mouth still tremulous with hatred.  She said in a voice shaking with rage:
          "Yulun, beloved!  Listen attentively.  I have slain two of the Slayers of the Eight Towers.  With God's help I shall slay them all--all!--Djamouk, Yaddin, Arrak Sou-Sou--all!--every one!--Tiyang Khan, Togrul,--all shall I slay, even to the last one among them!"
          "Sanang, also?"
          "I leave him to God.  It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God!"
          Yulun calmly paraphrased the cant phrase of the Assassins: "For it is written that we belong to God and we return to Him.  Heart of gold, I shall execute my duty!"
          Then Yulun slipped from the edge of the bed to the floor, and stood there looking oddly at Tressa, her eyes rain-bright as though choking back tears--or laughter.
          "Heart of a rose," she said in a suppressed voice, "my time is nearly ended. . . . So. . . . I go to the chamber of this strange young man who holds my soul like a pearl afire between his hands. . . . I think it is written that I shall love him."
          Tressa rose also and placed her lips close to Yulun's ear: "His name, beloved, is Benton.  His room is on this floor.  Shall we make the effort together?"
          "Yes," said Yulun.  "Lay your body down upon the bed beside your lord who sleeps so deeply. . . . And now stretch out. . . . And fold both hands. . . . And now put off thy body like a silken garment. . . . So!  And leave it there beside your lord, asleep."
          They stood together for a moment, shining like dewy shapes of tall flowers, whispering and laughing together in the soft glow of the night lamp.
          Cleves slept on, unstirring.  There was the white and sleeping figure of his wife lying on the bed beside him.
          But Tressa and Yulun were already melting away between the wall and the confused rosy radiance of the lamp.
          Benton, in night attire and chamber-robe belted in, fresh from his bath and still drying his curly hair on a rough towel, wandered back into his bedroom.
          When his short, bright hair was dry, he lighted a cigarette, took the automatic from his dresser, examined the clip, and shoved it under his pillow.
          Then he picked up the little leather-bound Testament, seated himself, and opened it.  And read tranquilly while his cigarette burned.
          When he was ready he turned out the ceiling light, leaving only the night lamp lighted.  Then he knelt beside his bed,--a custom surviving the nursery period,--and rested his forehead against his folded hands.
          Then, as he prayed, something snapped the thread of prayer as though somebody had spoken aloud in the still room; and, like one who has been suddenly interrupted, he opened his eyes and looked around and upward.
          The silent shock of her presence passed presently.  He got up from his knees, looking at her all the while.
          "You are Yulun," he said very calmly.
          The girl flushed brightly and rested one hand on the foot of the bed.
          "Do you remember in the moonlight where you walked along the hedge of white hibiscus and oleander--that night you said good-bye to Tressa in the South?"
          "Twice," she said, laughing, "you stopped to peer at the blossoms in the moonlight."
          "I thought I saw a face among them."
          "You were not sure whether it was flowers or a girl's face looking at you from the blossoming hedge of white hibiscus," said Yulun.
          "I know now," he said in an odd, still voice, unlike his own.
          "Yes, it was I," she murmured.  And of a sudden the girl dropped to her knees without a sound and laid her head on the velvet carpet at his feet.
          So swiftly, noiselessly was it done that he had not comprehended--had not moved--when she sat upright, resting on her knees, and grasped the collar of her tunic with both gemmed hands.
          "Have pity on me, lord of my lost soul!" she cried softly.
          Benton stooped in a dazed way to lift the girl; but found himself knee deep in a snowy drift of white hibiscus blossoms--touched nothing but silken petals--waded in them as he stepped forward.  And saw her standing before him still grasping the collar of her golden tunic.
          A great white drift of bloom lay almost waist deep between them; the fragrance of oleander, too, was heavy in the room.
          "There are years of life before the flaming gates of Jehaunum open.  And I am very young," said Yulun wistfully.
          Somebody else laughed in the room.  Turning his head, he saw Tressa standing by the empty fireplace.
          "What you see and hear need not disturb you," she said, looking at Benton out of brilliant eyes.  "There is no god but God; and His prophet has been called many names."  And to Yulun: "Have I not told you that nothing can harm our souls?"
          Yulun's expression altered and she turned to Benton: "Say it to me!" she pleaded.
          Yulun's hands fell from her tunic collar.  Very slowly she lifted her head, looking at him out of lovely, proud young eyes.
          She said, evenly, her still gaze on him: "I am Yulun of the Temple.  My heart is like a blazing pearl which you hold between your hands.  May the four Blessed Companions witness the truth of what I say."
          Then a delicate veil of colour wrapped her white skin from throat to temple; she looked at Benton with sudden and exquisite distress, frightened and ashamed at his silence.
          In the intense stillness Benton moved toward her.  Into his outstretched hands her two hands fell; but, bending above them, his lips touched only two white hibiscus flowers that lay fresh and dewy in his palms.
          Bewildered, he straightened up; and saw the girl standing by the mantel beside Tressa, who had caught her by the left hand.
          "Tokhta!  Look out!" she said distinctly.
          Suddenly he saw two men in the room, close to him--their broad faces, slanting eyes, and sparse beards thrust almost against his shoulder.
          "Djamouk!  Yaddin-ed-din!" cried Tressa in a terrible voice.  But quick as a flash Yulun tore a white sheet from the bed, flung it on the floor, and, whipping a tiny, jewelled knife from her sleeve, threw it glittering upon the sheet at the feet of the two men.
          "One shroud for two souls!" she said breathlessly.  "--and a knife like that to sever them from their bodies!"
          The two men sprang backward as the sheet touched their feet, and now they stood there as though confounded.
          "Djamouk, Khan of the Fifth Tower!" cried Tressa in a clear voice, "you have put off your body like a threadbare cloak, and your form that stands there is only in your mind!  And it is only the evil will of Yaddin in the shape of his body that confronts us in this room of a man you have doomed!"
          Yulun, intent as a young leopardess on her prey, moved soundlessly toward Yaddin.
          "Tougtchi!" she said coldly, "you did murder this day, my Banneret, and the Toug of Djamouk has been greased.  Now look out for yourself!"
          "Don't stir!" came Tressa's warning voice, as Benton snatched his pistol from the pillow.  "Don't fire!  Those men have no real substance!  For God's sake don't fire!  I tell you they have no bodies!"
          Suddenly something--some force--flung Benton on the bed.  The two men did not seem to touch him at all, but he lay there struggling, crushed, held by something that was strangling him.
          Through his swimming eyes he saw Yaddin trying to drive a long nail into his skull with a hammer,--felt the piercing agony of the first crashing blow,--struggled upright, drenched in blood, his ears ringing with the screaming of Yaddin.
          Then, there in the little rococo bedroom of the Ritz-Carlton, began a strange and horrible struggle--the more dreadful because the struggle was not physical and the combatants never touched each other--scarcely moved at all.
          Yaddin, still screaming, confronted Yulun.  The girl's eyes were ablaze, her lips parted with the violence of her breathing.  And Yaddin writhed and screamed under the terrible concentration of her gaze, his inferior but ferocious mind locked with her mind in deadly battle.
          The girl said slowly, showing a glimmer of white teeth: "Your will to do evil to my young lord is breaking, Yaddin-ed-Din. . . . I am breaking it.  The nail and hammer were but symbols.  It was your brain that brooded murder--that willed he should die as though shattered by lightning when that blood-vessel burst in his brain!"
          "Sorceress!" shrieked Yaddin, "what are you doing to my heart, where my body lies asleep in a berth on the Montreal Express!"
          "Your heart is weak, Yaddin.  Soon the valves shall fail.  A negro porter shall discover you dead in your berth, my Banneret!"
          The man's swarthy face became livid with the terrific mental battle.
          "Let me go back to my body!" he panted.  "What are you doing to me that I can not go back?  I will go back!  I wish it!--I---?"
          "Let us go back and rejoin our bodies!" cried Djamouk in an agonised voice.  "There are teeth in my throat, deep in my throat, biting and tearing out the cords!"
          "Cancer," said Tressa calmly.  "Your body shall die of it while your soul stumbles on through darkness."
          "My Tougtchi!" shouted Djamouk, "I hear my soul bidding my body farewell!  I must go before my mind expires in the terrible gaze of this young sorceress!"
          He turned, drifting like something misty to the solid wall.
          "My soul be ransom for yours!" cried Yulun to Tressa.  "Bar that man's path to life!"
          Tressa flung out her right hand and, with her forefinger, drew a barrier through space, bar above bar.
          And Benton, half swooning on his bed, saw a cage of terrible and living light penning in Djamouk, who beat upon the incandescent bars and grasped them and clawed his way about, squealing like a tortured rat in a red-hot cage.
          Through the deafening tumult Yulun's voice cut like a sword:
          "Their bodies are dying, Heart of a Rose! . . . Listen!  I hear their souls bidding their minds farewell!"
          And, after a dreadful silence: "The train speeding north carries two dead men!  God is God.  Niaz!"
          The bars of living fire faded.  Two cinder-like and shapeless shadows floated and eddied like whitened ashes stirred by a wind on the hearth; then drifted through the lamp-light, fading, dissolving, lost gradually in thin air.
          Tressa, leaning back against the mantel, covered her face with both hands.
          Yulun crept to the bed where Benton lay, breathing evenly in deepest sleep.
          With the sheer sleeve of her tunic she wiped the blood from his face.  And, at her touch, the wound in the temple closed and the short, bright hair dried and curled over a forehead as clean and fresh as a boy's.
          Then Yulun laid her lips against his, rested so a moment.
          "Seek me, dear lord," she whispered.  "Or send me a sign and I shall come."
          And, after a pause, she said, her lips scarcely stirring: "Love me.  My heart is a flaming pearl burning between your hands."
          Then she lifted her head.
          But Tressa had rejoined her body, where it lay asleep beside her deeply sleeping husband.
          So Yulun stood a moment, her eyes remote.  Then, after a while, the little rococo bedroom in the Ritz-Carlton was empty save for a young man asleep on the bed, holding in his clenched hand a white hibiscus blossom.


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