The Slayer of Souls

Robert W. Chambers



The way to Fool's Acre was under a tangled canopy of thorns, under rotting windfalls of grey mirch, through tunnel after tunnel of fallen débris woven solidly by millions of strands of tough cat-briers which cut the flesh like barbed wire.
          There was blood on Tressa, where her flannel shirt had been pierced in a score of places.  Cleves and Selden had been painfully slashed.
          Silent, thread-like streams flowed darkling under the tangled mass that roofed them.  Sometimes they could move upright; more often they were bent double; and there were long stretches where they had to creep forward on hands and knees through sparse wild grasses, soft, rotten soil, or paths of sphagnum which cooled their feverish skin in velvety, icy depths.
          At noon they rested and ate, lying prone under the matted roof of their tunnel.
          Cleves and Selden had their rifles.  Tressa lay like a slender boy, her brier-torn hands empty.
          And, as she lay there, her husband made a sponge of a handful of sphagnum moss, and bathed her face and her arms, cleansing the dried blood from the skin, while the girl looked up at him out of grave, inscrutable eyes.

          The sun hung low over the wilderness when they came to the woods of Fool's Acre.  They crept cautiously out of the briers, among ferns and open spots carpeted with pine needles and dead leaves which were beginning to burn ruddy gold under the level rays of the sun.
          Lying flat behind an enormous oak, they remained listening for a while.  Selden pointed through the woods, eastward, whispering that the house stood there not far away.
          "Don't you think we might risk the chance and use our rifles?" asked Cleves in a low voice.
          "No.  It is the Tchor_Dagh that confronts us.  I wish to talk to Sansa," she murmured.
          A moment later Selden touched her arm.
          "My God," he breathed, "who is that!"
          "It is Sansa," said Tressa calmly, and sat up among the ferns.  And the next instant Sansa stepped daintily out of the red sunlight and seated herself among them without a sound.
          Nobody spoke.  The newcomer glanced at Selden, smiled slightly, blushed, then caught a glimpse of Cleves where he lay in the brake, and a mischievous glimmer came into her slanting eyes.
          "Did I not tell my lord truths?" she inquired in a demure whisper.  "As surely as the sun is a dragon, and the flaming pearl burns between his claws, so surely burns the soul of Heart of Flame between thy guarding hands.  There are as many words as there are demons, my lord, but it is written that Niaz is the greatest of all words save only the name of God."
          She laughed without any sound, sweetly malicious where she sat among the ferns.
          "Heart of Flame," she said to Tressa, "you called me and I made the effort."
          "Darling," said Tressa in her trilling voice, "the Yezidees are making living things out of dust,--as Sanang Noïane made that thing in the Temple. . . . And slew it before our eyes."
          "The Tchor-Dagh," said Sansa calmly.
          "The Tchor-Dagh," whispered Tressa.
          Sansa's smooth little hands crept up to the collar of her odd, blue tunic; grasping it.
          "In the name of God the Merciful," she said without tremor, "listen to me, Heart of Flame, and may my soul be ransom for yours!"
          "I hear you, Sansa."
          Sansa said, her fingers still grasping the embroidered collar of her tunic:
          "Yonder, behind walls, two Tower Chiefs meddle with the Tchor-Dagh, making living things out of the senseless dust they scrape from the garden."
          Selden moistened his dry lips.  Sansa said:
          "The Yezidees who have come into the wilderness are Arrak Sou-Sou, the Squirrel; and Tiyang Khan. . . . May God remember them in Hell!"
          "May God remember them," said Tressa mechanically.
          "And these two Yezidee Sorcerers," continued Sansa coolly, "have advanced thus far in the Tchor-Dagh; for they now roam these woods, digging like demons for the roots of Ginseng; and thou knowest, O Heart of Flame, what that indicates."
          "Does Ginseng grow in these woods!" exclaimed Tressa with a new terror in her widening eyes.
          "Ginseng grows here, little Rose-Heart, and the roots are as perfect as human bodies.  And Tiyang Khan squats in the walled garden moulding the ginseng roots in his unclean hands, while Sou-Sou the Squirrel scratches among the dead leaves of the woods for roots as perfect as a naked human body.
          "All day long the Sou-Sou rummages among the trees; all day long Tiyang pats and rubs and moulds the Ginseng roots in his skinny fingers.  It is the Tchor-Dagh, Heart of Flame.  And these Sorcerers must be destroyed."
          "Are their bodies here?"
          "Arrak is in the body.  And thus it shall be accomplished: listen attentively, Rose Heart Afire!--I shall remain here with---?" she looked at Selden and flushed a trifle, "--with you, my lord.  And when the Squirrel comes a-digging, so shall my lord slay him with a bullet. . . . And when I hear his soul bidding his body farewell, then I shall make prisoner his soul. . . . And send it to the Dark Star. . . . And the rest shall be in the hands of Allah."
          She turned to Tressa and caught her hands in both of her own:
          "It is written on the Iron Pages," she whispered, "that we belong to Erlik and we return to him.  But in the Book of Gold it is written otherwise: 'God preserve us from Satan who was stoned!' . . . Therefore, in the name of Allah!  Now then, Heart of Flame, do your duty!"
          A burning flush leaped over Tressa's features.
          "It my soul, then, my own!"
          "It belongs to God," said Sansa gravely.
          "God is greatest."
          "But--was God there--at the Lake of the Ghosts?"
          "God is everywhere.  It is so written in the Book of Gold," replied Sansa, pressing her hands tenderly.
          "Recite the Fatha, Heart of Flame.  Thy lips shall not stiffen; God listens."
          Tressa rose in the sunset glory and stood as though dazed, and all crimsoned in the last fiery bars of the declining sun.
          Cleves also rose.
          Sansa laughed noiselessly: "My lord would go whither thou goest, Heart of Fire!" she whispered.  "And thy ways shall be his ways!"
          Tressa's cheeks flamed and she turned and looked at Cleves.
          Then Sansa rose and laid a hand on Tressa's arm and on her husbands's:
          "Listen attentively.  Tiyang Khan must be destroyed.  The signal sounds when my lord's rifle-shot makes a loud noise here among the trees."
          "Can I prevail against the Tchor-Dagh?" asked Tressa, steadily.
          "Is not that event already in God's hands, darling?" said Sansa softly.  She smiled and resumed her seat behind Selden, amid the drooping fern fronds.
          "Bid your dear lord leave his rifle here," she added quietly.
          Cleves laid down his weapon. Selden pointed eastward in silence.
          So they went together into the darkening woods.

          In the dusk of heavy foliage overhanging the garden, Tressa lay flat as a lizard on the top of the wall.  Beside her lay her husband.
          In the garden below them flowers bloomed in scented thickets, bordered by walks of flat stone slabs split from boulders.  A little lawn, very green, centred the garden.
          And on this lawn, in the clear twilight still tinged with the sombre fires of sundown, squatted a man dressed in a loose white garment.
          Save for a twisted breadth of white cloth, his shaven head was bare.  His sinewy feet were naked, too, the lean, brown toes buried in the grass.
          Tressa's lips touched her husband's ear.
          "Tiyang Khan," she breathed.  "Watch what he does!"
          Shoulder to shoulder they lay there, scarcely daring to breathe.  Their eyes were fastened on the Mongol Sorcerer, who, squatted below on his haunches, grave and deliberate as a great grey ape, continued busy with the obscure business which so intently preoccupied him.
          In a short semi-circle on the grass in front of him he had placed a dozen wild Ginseng roots.  The roots were enormous, astoundingly shaped like the human body, almost repulsive in their weird symmetry.
          The Yezidee had taken one of these roots into his hands.  Squatting there in the semi-dusk, he began to massage it between his long, muscular fingers, rubbing, moulding, pressing the root with caressing deliberation.
          His unhurried manipulation, for a few moments, seemed to produce no result.  But presently the Ginseng root became lighter in colour and more supple, yielding to his fingers, growing ivory pale, sinuously limber in a newer and more delicate symmetry.
          "Look!" gasped Cleves, grasping his wife's arm.  "What is that man doing!"
          "The Tchor-Dagh!" whispered Tressa.  "Do you see what lies twisting there in his hands!"
          The Ginseng root had become the tiny naked body of a woman--a little ivory-white creature, struggling to escape between the hands that had created it--dark, powerful, masterly hands, opening leisurely now, and releasing the living being they had fashioned.
          The thing scrambled between the fingers of the Sorcerer, leaped into the grass, ran a little way and hid, crouched down, panting, almost hidden by the long grass.  The shocked watchers on the wall could still see the creature.  Tressa felt Cleves' body trembling beside her.  She rested a cool, steady hand on his.
          "It is the Tchor-Dagh," she breathed close to his face.  "The Mongol Sorcerer is becoming formidable."
          "Oh, God!" murmured Cleves, "that thing he made is alive!  I saw it.  I can see it hiding there in the grass.  It's frightened--breathing!  It's alive!"
          His pistol, clutched in his right hand, quivered.  His wife laid her hand on it and cautiously shook her head.
          "No," she said, "that is of no use."
          "But what that Yezidee is doing is--is blasphemous---?"
          "Watch him!  His mind is stealthily feeling its way among the laws and secrets of the Tchor-Dagh.  He has found a thread.  He is following it through the maze into hell's own labyrinth!  He has created a tiny thing in the image of the Creator.  He will try to create a larger being now.  Watch him with his Ginseng roots!"
          Tiyang, looming ape-like on his haunches in the deepening dusk, moulded and massaged the Ginseng roots, one after another.  And one after another, tiny naked creatures wriggled out of his palms between his fingers and scuttled away into the herbage.
          Already the dim lawn was alive with them, crawling, scurrying through the grass, creeping in among the flower-beds, little, ghostly-white things that glimmered from shade into shadow like moonbeams.
          Tressa's mouth touched her husband's ear:
          "It is for the secret of Destruction that the Yezidee seeks.  But first he must learn the secret of creation.  He is learning. . . . And he must learn no more than he has already learned."
          "That Yezidee is a living man.  Shall I fire?"
          "I can kill him with the first shot."
          "Hark!" she whispered excitedly, her hand closing convulsively on her husband's arm.
          The whip-crack of a rifle-shot still crackled in their ears.
          Tiyang had leaped to his feet in the dusk, a Ginseng root, half-alive, hanging from one hand and beginning to squirm.
          Suddenly the first moonbeam fell across the wall.  And in its lustre Tressa rose to her knees and flung up her hand.
          Then it was as though her palm caught and reflected the moon's ray, and hurled it in one blinding shaft straight into the dark visage of Tiyang-Khan.
          The Yezidee fell as though he had been pierced by a shaft of steel, and lay sprawled there on the grass in the ghastly glare.
          And where his features had been there gaped only a hole into the head.
          Then a dreadful thing occurred; for everywhere the grass swarmed with the little naked creatures he had made, running, scrambling, scuttling, darting into the black hole which had been the face of Tiyang-Khan.
          They poured into the awful orifice, crowding, jostling one another so violently that the head jerked from side to side on the grass, a wabbling, inert, soggy mass in the moonlight.
          And presently the body of Tiyang-Khan, Warden of the Rampart of Gog and Magog, and Lord of the Seventh Tower, began to burn with white fire--a low, glimmering combustion that seemed to clothe the limbs like an incandescent mist.
          On the wall knelt Tressa, the glare from her lifted hand streaming over the burning form below.
          Cleves stood tall and shadowy beside his wife, the useless pistol hanging in his grasp.
          Then, in the silence of the woods, and very near, they heard Sansa laughing.  And Selden's anxious voice:
          "Arrak is dead.  The Sou-Sou hangs across a rock, head down, like a shot squirrel.  Is all well with you?"
          "Tiyang is on his way to his star," said Tressa calmly.  "Somewhere in the world his body has bid its mind farewell. . . . And so his body may live for a little, blind, in mental darkness, fed by others, and locked in all day, all night, until the end."
          Sansa, at the base of the wall, turned to Selden.
          "Shall I bring my body with me, one day, my lord?" she asked demurely.
          "Oh, Sansa---?" he whispered, but she placed a fragrant hand across his lips and laughed at him in the moonlight. 


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