Skull face revealed, p.7
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       Skull Face Revealed, p.7

           Roberta E. Howard
 
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  * * *

  Black Wisdom

  'By thought a crawling ruin,

  By life a leaping mire.

  By a broken heart in the breast of the world

  And the end of the world's desire.'

  - Chesterton

  The terrible spectacle drove for the instant all thought of rebellion from my mind. My very blood froze in my veins and I stood motionless. I heard Hassiy laugh grimly behind me. The eyes in the cadaverous face blazed fiendishly at me and I blanched from the concentrated satanic fury in them.

  Then the horror laughed sibilantly.

  'I do you a great honor, Ms. Costigyn; among a very few, even of my own servants, you may say that you saw my face and lived. I think you will be more useful to me living than dead.'

  I was silent, completely unnerved. It was difficult to believe that this woman lived, for her appearance certainly belied the thought. She seemed horribly like a mummy. Yet her lips moved when she spoke and her eyes flamed with hideous life.

  'You will do as I say,' she said abruptly, and her voice had taken on a note of command. 'You doubtless know, or know of, Lady Haldred Frenton?'

  'Yes.'

  Every woman of culture in Europe and America was familiar with the travel books of Lady Haldred Frenton, author and soldier of fortune.

  'You will go to Lady Haldred's estate tonight--'

  'Yes?'

  'And kill her!'

  I staggered, literally. This order was incredible--unspeakable! I had sunk low, low enough to smuggle opium, but to deliberately murder a woman I had never seen, a woman noted for her kindly deeds! That was too monstrous even to contemplate.

  'You do not refuse?'

  The tone was as loathly and as mocking as the hiss of a serpent.

  'Refuse?' I screamed, finding my voice at last. 'Refuse? You incarnate devil! Of course I refuse! You--'

  Something in the cold assurance of her manner halted me--froze me into apprehensive silence.

  'You fool!' she said calmly. 'I broke the hashish chains--do you know how? Four minutes from now you will know and curse the day you were born! Have you not thought it strange, the swiftness of brain, the resilience of body--the brain that should be rusty and slow, the body that should be weak and sluggish from years of abuse? That blow that felled Joan Gordon--have you not wondered at its might? The ease with which you mastered Major Morley's records--have you not wondered at that? You fool, you are bound to me by chains of steel and blood and fire! I have kept you alive and sane--I alone. Each day the life-saving elixir has been given you in your wine. You could not live and keep your reason without it. And I and only I know its secret!'

  She glanced at a queer timepiece which stood on a table at her elbow.

  'This time I had Yin Shatu leave the elixir out--I anticipated rebellion. The time is near--ha, it strikes!'

  Something else she said, but I did not hear. I did not see, nor did I feel in the human sense of the word. I was writhing at her feet, screaming and gibbering in the flames of such hells as women have never dreamed of.

  Aye, I knew now! She had simply given me a dope so much stronger that it drowned the hashish. My unnatural ability was explainable now--I had simply been acting under the stimulus of something which combined all the hells in its makeup, which stimulated, something like heroin, but whose effect was unnoticed by the victim. What it was, I had no idea, nor did I believe anyone knew save that hellish being who stood watching me with grim amusement. But it had held my brain together, instilling into my system a need for it, and now my frightful craving tore my soul asunder.

  Never, in my moments of worst shell-shock or my moments of hashish-craving, have I ever experienced anything like that. I burned with the heat of a thousand hells and froze with an iciness that was colder than any ice, a hundred times. I swept down to the deepest pits of torture and up to the highest crags of torment--a million yelling devils hemmed me in, shrieking and stabbing. Bone by bone, vein by vein, cell by cell I felt my body disintegrate and fly in bloody atoms all over the universe--and each separate cell was an entire system of quivering, screaming nerves. And they gathered from far voids and reunited with a greater torment.

  Through the fiery bloody mists I heard my own voice screaming, a monotonous yammering. Then with distended eyes I saw a golden goblet, held by a claw-like hand, swim into view--a goblet filled with an amber liquid.

  With a bestial screech, I seized it with both hands, being dimly aware that the metal stem gave beneath my fingers, and brought the brim to my lips. I drank in frenzied haste, the liquid slopping down onto my breast.
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