Darkness and Dawn Book I: The Vacant World
Chapter 23: The Obeah
Together, as in a dream--a nightmare, dazed, incredible, grotesque--they advanced out into the dim-shaded forest aisles.
“Don’t look!” Stern exclaimed, shuddering at sight of the unspeakable hideousness of the Things, at glimpses of gnawed bones, grisly bits of flesh, dried gouts of blood upon the woodland carpet. “Don’t think--just come along!
“Five minutes, and we’re safe, there and back again. S-h-h-h! Don’t hurry! Count, now--count your steps--one, two, three--four, five, six--steady, steady!--”
Now they were ten yards from the tower, now twenty. Bravely they walked, now straight ahead among the trees, now circling some individual, some horrid group. Stern held the water-pail firmly. He gripped the revolver in a grasp of iron. The magazine-rifle lay in both the girl’s hands, ready for instant use.
Suddenly Stern fired again, three shots.
“Some of ‘em are moving, over there!” he said in a crisp, ugly tone. “I guess a little lead close to their ears will fix ‘em for a while!”
His voice went to a hoarse whisper.
“Gods!” he repeated. “Don’t forget it, for a moment; don’t lose that thought, for it may pull us through! These creatures here, if they’re descended from the blacks, must have some story, some tradition of the white man. Of his mastery, his power! We’ll use it now, by Heaven, as it never yet was used!”
Then he began to count again; and so, tense, watching with eager-burning eyes and taut muscles, the man and woman made their way of frightful peril.
A snuffling howl rose.
“You will, will you?” Stern cried, adding another kick to the one he had just dealt to one of the creatures, who had ventured to look up at their approach. “Lie down, ape!” And with the clangorous metal pail he smote the ugly, brutish skull.
Beatrice gasped with fear; but the bluff made good. The creature grovelled, and again the pair strode forward, masterfully. Masterfully they had to go, or not at all. Masterfully, or die. For now their all-in-all lay just in that grim, steel-hard sense of mastery.
Before the girl’s eyes a sort of haze seemed forming. Her heart beat thick and heavy. Stern’s counting sounded very far away and strange; she hardly recognized his voice. To her came wild, disjointed, confused impressions--now a bony and distorted back, now a simian head; again a group that crouched and cowered in its filthy squalor, hideously.
Then all at once, there right before her she saw the little woodland path that, slightly descending, led past a big oak she well knew, down to the margin of the pool.
“Steady, girl, steady!” came the engineer’s warning, tense as piano-wire. “Almost there, now. What’s that?“
For a brief instant he hesitated. The girl felt his arm grow even more taut, she heard his breath catch. Then she, too, looked--and saw.
It was enough, that sight, to have smitten with sick horror the bravest man who ever lived. For there, beside the smouldering embers of the great feast-fire, littered with bones and indescribable refuse, a creature was squatting on its hams--one of the Horde, indeed, yet vastly different, tremendously more venomous, more dangerous of aspect.
Stern knew at once that here, not prostrate nor yet crouching, was the chief of the blue Horde.
He knew it by the superior size and strength of the Thing, by the almost manlike cunning of the low, gorilla face, the gleam of intelligence in the reddened eye, the crude wreath of maple-leaves upon the head, the necklace of finger-bones strung around the neck.
But most of all, he knew it by a thing that shocked him more than the sight of stark, outright cannibalism would have done. A simple thing, yet how ominous! A thing that argued reason in this reversion from the human; a thing that sent the shuddering chills along the engineer’s spine.
For the chief, the obeah-man of this vile drove, rising now from beside the fire with a gibbering chatter and a look of bestial malice, held between his fangs a twisted brown leaf.
Stern knew at a glance the leaf was the rudely cured product of some degenerated tobacco-plant. He saw a glow of red at the tip of the close-rolled tobacco. Vapor issued from the chief’s slit-mouth.
“Good Lord--he’s--smoking!“ stammered the engineer. “And that means--means an almost human brain. And--quick, Beatrice, the water! I didn’t expect this! Thought they were all alike. Back to the tower, quick! Here, fill the pail--I’ll keep him covered!”