Skull face revealed, p.20
Skull Face Revealed, p.20Roberta E. Howard
* * *
The Breaking of the Chain!
'And like a soul belated,
In heaven and hell unmated;
By cloud and mist abated;
Come out of darkness morn.'
There is little need to linger on the scenes of horror of that terrible London morning. The world is familiar with and knows most of the details attendant to the great explosion which wiped out a tenth of that great city with a resultant loss of lives and property. For such a happening some reason must needs be given; the tale of the deserted building got out, and many wild stories were circulated. Finally, to still the rumors, the report was unofficially given out that this building had been the rendezvous and secret stronghold of a gang of international anarchists, who had stored its basement full of high explosives and who had supposedly ignited these accidentally. In a way there was a good deal to this tale, as you know, but the threat that had lurked there far transcended any anarchist.
All this was told to me, for when I sank unconscious, Gordon, attributing my condition to exhaustion and a need of the hashish to the use of which she thought I was addicted, lifted me and with the aid of the stunned policemen got me to her rooms before returning to the scene of the explosion. At her rooms she found Hansen, and Zuleik handcuffed to the bed as I had left him. She released his and left his to tend to me, for all London was in a terrible turmoil and she was needed elsewhere.
When I came to myself at last, I looked up into his starry eyes and lay quiet, smiling up at him. He sank down upon my chest, nestling my head in his arms and covering my face with his kisses.
'Steffie!' he sobbed over and over, as his tears splashed hot on my face.
I was scarcely strong enough to put my arms about his but I managed it, and we lay there for a space, in silence, except for the boy's hard, racking sobs.
'Zuleik, I love you,' I murmured.
'And I love you, Steffie,' he sobbed. 'Oh, it is so hard to part now--but I'm going with you, Steffie; I can't live without you!'
'My dear child,' said Joan Gordon, entering the room suddenly, 'Costigyn's not going to die. We will let her have enough hashish to tide her along, and when she is stronger we will take her off the habit slowly.'
'You don't understand, sahib; it is not hashish Steffie must have. It is something which only the Mistress knew, and now that she is dead or is fled, Steffie cannot get it and must die.'
Gordon shot a quick, uncertain glance at me. Her fine face was drawn and haggard, her clothes sooty and torn from her work among the debris of the explosion.
'She's right, Gordon,' I said languidly. 'I'm dying. Kathulis killed the hashish-craving with a concoction she called the elixir. I've been keeping myself alive on some of the stuff that Zuleik stole from her and gave me, but I drank it all last night.'
I was aware of no craving of any kind, no physical or mental discomfort even. All my mechanism was slowing down fast; I had passed the stage where the need of the elixir would tear and rend me. I felt only a great lassitude and a desire to sleep. And I knew that the moment I closed my eyes, I would die.
'A strange dope, that elixir,' I said with growing languor. 'It burns and freezes and then at last the craving kills easily and without torment.'
'Costigyn, curse it,' said Gordon desperately, 'you can't go like this! That vial I took from the Egyptian's table--what is in it?'
'The Mistress swore it would free me of my curse and probably kill me also,' I muttered. 'I'd forgotten about it. Let me have it; it can no more than kill me and I'm dying now.'
'Yes, quick, let me have it!' exclaimed Zuleik fiercely, springing to Gordon's side, his hands passionately outstretched. He returned with the vial which she had taken from her pocket, and knelt beside me, holding it to my lips, while he murmured to me gently and soothingly in his own language.
I drank, draining the vial, but feeling little interest in the whole matter. My outlook was purely impersonal, at such a low ebb was my life, and I cannot even remember how the stuff tasted. I only remember feeling a curious sluggish fire burn faintly along my veins, and the last thing I saw was Zuleik crouching over me, his great eyes fixed with a burning intensity on me. His tense little hand rested inside his blouse, and remembering his vow to take his own life if I died I tried to lift a hand and disarm him, tried to tell Gordon to take away the dagger he had hidden in his garments. But speech and action failed me and I drifted away into a curious sea of unconsciousness.
Of that period I remember nothing. No sensation fired my sleeping brain to such an extent as to bridge the gulf over which I drifted. They say I lay like a dead woman for hours, scarcely breathing, while Zuleik hovered over me, never leaving my side an instant, and fighting like a tigress when anyone tried to coax him away to rest. His chain was broken.
As I had carried the vision of his into that dim land of nothingness, so his dear eyes were the first thing which greeted my returning consciousness. I was aware of a greater weakness than I thought possible for a woman to feel, as if I had been an invalid for months, but the life in me, faint though it was, was sound and normal, caused by no artificial stimulation. I smiled up at my boy and murmured weakly:
'Throw away your dagger, little Zuleik; I'm going to live.'
He screamed and fell on his knees beside me, weeping and laughing at the same time. Men are strange beings, of mixed and powerful emotions, truly.
Gordon entered and grasped the hand which I could not lift from the bed.
'You're a case for an ordinary human physician now, Costigyn,' she said. 'Even a layman like myself can tell that. For the first time since I've known you, the look in your eyes is entirely sane. You look like a woman who has had a complete nervous breakdown, and needs about a year of rest and quiet. Great heavens, woman, you've been through enough, outside your dope experience, to last you a lifetime.'
'Tell me first,' said I, 'was Kathulis killed in the explosion?'
'I don't know,' answered Gordon somberly. 'Apparently the entire system of subterranean passages was destroyed. I know my last bullet--the last bullet that was in the revolver which I wrested from one of my attackers--found its mark in the Master's body, but whether she died from the wound, or whether a bullet can hurt her, I do not know. And whether in her death agonies she ignited the tons and tons of high explosives which were stored in the corridors, or whether the Blacks did it unintentionally, we shall never know.
'My God, Costigyn, did you ever see such a honeycomb? And we know not how many miles in either direction the passages reached. Even now Scotland Yard women are combing the subways and basements of the town for secret openings. All known openings, such as the one through which we came and the one in Soho 48, were blocked by falling walls. The office building was simply blown to atoms.'
'What about the women who raided Soho 48?'
'The door in the library wall had been closed. They found the Chinese you killed, but searched the house without avail. Lucky for them, too, else they had doubtless been in the tunnels when the explosion came, and perished with the hundreds of Blacks who must have died then.'
'Every Black in London must have been there.'
'I dare say. Most of them are voodoo worshipers at heart and the power the Mistress wielded was incredible. They died, but what of her? Was she blown to atoms by the stuff which she had secretly stored, or crushed when the stone walls crumbled and the ceilings came thundering down?'
'There is no way to search among those subterranean ruins, I suppose?'
'None whatever. When the walls caved in, the tons of earth upheld by the ceilings also came crashing down, filling the corridors with dirt and broken stone, blocking them forever. And on the surface of the earth, the houses which the vibration shook down were heaped high in utter ruins. What happened in those terrible corridors must remain forever a mystery.'
My tale draws to a close. The months that followed passed uneventfully, except for the growing happiness which to m
'Since that day,' said Gordon, 'the world has been quiet. Africa has subsided and the East seems to have returned to his ancient sleep. There can be but one answer--living or dead, Kathulis was destroyed that morning when her world crashed about her.'
'Gordon,' said I, 'what is the answer to that greatest of all mysteries?'
My friend shrugged her shoulders.
'I have come to believe that mankind eternally hovers on the brinks of secret oceans of which it knows nothing. Races have lived and vanished before our race rose out of the slime of the primitive, and it is likely still others will live upon the earth after ours has vanished. Scientists have long upheld the theory that the Atlanteans possessed a higher civilization than our own, and on very different lines. Certainly Kathulis herself was proof that our boasted culture and knowledge were nothing beside that of whatever fearful civilization produced her.
'Her dealings with you alone have puzzled all the scientific world, for none of them has been able to explain how she could remove the hashish craving, stimulate you with a drug so infinitely more powerful, and then produce another drug which entirely effaced the effects of the other.'
'I have her to thank for two things,' I said slowly; 'the regaining of my lost womanhood--and Zuleik. Kathulis, then, is dead, as far as any mortal thing can die. But what of those others--those 'ancient masters' who still sleep in the sea?'
'As I said, perhaps mankind loiters on the brink of unthinkable chasms of horror. But a fleet of gunboats is even now patrolling the oceans unobtrusively, with orders to destroy instantly any strange case that may be found floating--to destroy it and its contents. And if my word has any weight with the English government and the nations of the world, the seas will be so patrolled until doomsday shall let down the curtain on the races of today.'
'At night I dream of them, sometimes,' I muttered, 'sleeping in their lacquered cases, which drip with strange seaweed, far down among the green surges--where unholy spires and strange towers rise in the dark ocean.'
'We have been face to face with an ancient horror,' said Gordon somberly, 'with a fear too dark and mysterious for the human brain to cope with. Fortune has been with us; he may not again favor the daughters of women. It is best that we be ever on our guard. The universe was not made for humanity alone; life takes strange phases and it is the first instinct of nature for the different species to destroy each other. No doubt we seemed as horrible to the Mistress as she did to us. We have scarcely tapped the breast of secrets which nature has stored, and I shudder to think of what that breast may hold for the human race.'
'That's true,' said I, inwardly rejoicing at the vigor which was beginning to course through my wasted veins, 'but women will meet obstacles as they come, as women have always risen to meet them. Now, I am beginning to know the full worth of life and love, and not all the devils from all the abysses can hold me.'
'You have it coming to you, old comrade. The best thing is to forget all that dark interlude, for in that course lies light and happiness.'
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Skull Face Revealed by Roberta E. Howard / Fantasy / Actions & Adventure have rating 2.6 out of 5 / Based on37 votes