Skull face revealed, p.2
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       Skull Face Revealed, p.2

           Roberta E. Howard
 
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  * * *

  The Mistress of Doom

  'And She that toss'd you down into the Field,

  She knows about it all--He knows! She knows!'

  - Omar Khayyam

  A hand shook me roughly as I emerged languidly from my latest debauch.

  'The Mistress wishes you! Up, swine!'

  Hassiy it was who shook me and who spoke.

  'To Hell with the Mistress!' I answered, for I hated Hassiy--and feared her.

  'Up with you or you get no more hashish,' was the brutal response, and I rose in trembling haste.

  I followed the huge black woman and she led the way to the rear of the building, stepping in and out among the wretched dreamers on the floor.

  'Muster all hands on deck!' droned a sailor in a bunk. 'All hands!'

  Hassiy flung open the door at the rear and motioned me to enter. I had never before passed through that door and had supposed it led into Yin Shatu's private quarters. But it was furnished only with a cot, a bronze idol of some sort before which incense burned, and a heavy table.

  Hassiy gave me a sinister glance and seized the table as if to spin it about. It turned as if it stood on a revolving platform and a section of the floor turned with it, revealing a hidden doorway in the floor. Steps led downward in the darkness.

  Hassiy lighted a candle and with a brusque gesture invited me to descend. I did so, with the sluggish obedience of the dope addict, and she followed, closing the door above us by means of an iron lever fastened to the underside of the floor. In the semi-darkness we went down the rickety steps, some nine or ten I should say, and then came upon a narrow corridor.

  Here Hassiy again took the lead, holding the candle high in front of her. I could scarcely see the sides of this cave-like passageway but knew that it was not wide. The flickering light showed it to be bare of any sort of furnishings save for a number of strange-looking chests which lined the walls--receptacles containing opium and other dope, I thought.

  A continuous scurrying and the occasional glint of small red eyes haunted the shadows, betraying the presence of vast numbers of the great rats which infest the Thames waterfront of that section.

  Then more steps loomed out of the dark in front of us as the corridor came to an abrupt end. Hassiy led the way up and at the top knocked four times against what seemed the underside of a floor. A hidden door opened and a flood of soft, illusive light streamed through.

  Hassiy hustled me up roughly and I stood blinking in such a setting as I had never seen in my wildest flights of vision. I stood in a jungle of palm trees through which wriggled a million vivid-hued dragons! Then, as my startled eyes became accustomed to the light, I saw that I had not been suddenly transferred to some other planet, as I had at first thought. The palm trees were there, and the dragons, but the trees were artificial and stood in great pots and the dragons writhed across heavy tapestries which hid the walls.

  The room itself was a monstrous affair--inhumanly large, it seemed to me. A thick smoke, yellowish and tropical in suggestion, seemed to hang over all, veiling the ceiling and baffling upward glances. This smoke, I saw, emanated from an altar in front of the wall to my left. I started. Through the saffron-billowing fog two eyes, hideously large and vivid, glittered at me. The vague outlines of some bestial idol took indistinct shape. I flung an uneasy glance about, marking the oriental divans and couches and the bizarre furnishings, and then my eyes halted and rested on a lacquer screen just in front of me.

  I could not pierce it and no sound came from beyond it, yet I felt eyes searing into my consciousness through it, eyes that burned through my very soul. A strange aura of evil flowed from that strange screen with its weird carvings and unholy decorations.

  Hassiy salaamed profoundly before it and then, without speaking, stepped back and folded her arms, statue-like.

  A voice suddenly broke the heavy and oppressive silence.

  'You who are a swine, would you like to be a woman again?'

  I started. The tone was inhuman, cold--more, there was a suggestion of long disuse of the vocal organs--the voice I had heard in my dream!

  'Yes,' I replied, trance-like, 'I would like to be a woman again.'

  Silence ensued for a space; then the voice came again with a sinister whispering undertone at the back of its sound like bats flying through a cavern.

  'I shall make you a woman again because I am a friend to all broken women. Not for a price shall I do it, nor for gratitude. And I give you a sign to seal my promise and my vow. Thrust your hand through the screen.'

  At these strange and almost unintelligible words I stood perplexed, and then, as the unseen voice repeated the last command, I stepped forward and thrust my hand through a slit which opened silently in the screen. I felt my wrist seized in an iron grip and something seven times colder than ice touched the inside of my hand. Then my wrist was released, and drawing forth my hand I saw a strange symbol traced in blue close to the base of my thumb--a thing like a scorpion.

  The voice spoke again in a sibilant language I did not understand, and Hassiy stepped forward deferentially. She reached about the screen and then turned to me, holding a goblet of some amber-colored liquid which she proffered me with an ironical bow. I took it hesitatingly.

  'Drink and fear not,' said the unseen voice. 'It is only an Egyptian wine with life-giving qualities.'

  So I raised the goblet and emptied it; the taste was not unpleasant, and even as I handed the beaker to Hassiy again, I seemed to feel new life and vigor whip along my jaded veins.

  'Remain at Yin Shatu's house,' said the voice. 'You will be given food and a bed until you are strong enough to work for yourself. You will use no hashish nor will you require any. Go!'

  As in a daze, I followed Hassiy back through the hidden door, down the steps, along the dark corridor and up through the other door that let us into the Temple of Dreams.

  As we stepped from the rear chamber into the main room of the dreamers, I turned to the Black wonderingly.

  'Master? Mistress of what? Of Life?'

  Hassiy laughed, fiercely and sardonically.

  'Master of Doom!'
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