Darkness and Dawn Book I: The Vacant World
Chapter 29: The Battle On The Stairs
Almost like the echo of his shout, a faint snarling cry rose from the corridor, outside. They heard a clicking, sliding, ominous sound; and, with instant comprehension, knew the truth.
“They’ve got up, some of them--somehow!” Stern cried. “They’ll be at our throats, here, in a moment! Load! Load! You shoot--I’ll give ‘em Pulverite!”
No time, now, for caution. While the girl hastily threw in more cartridges, Stern gathered up all the remaining vials of the explosive.
These, garnered along his wounded arm which clasped them to his body, made a little bristling row of death. His left hand remained free, to fling the little glass bombs.
“Come! Come, meet ‘em--they mustn’t trap us, here!”
And together they crept noiselessly into the other room and thence to the corridor-door.
Out they peered.
“Look! Torches!” whispered he.
There at the far end of the hallway, a red glare already flickered on the wall around the turn by the elevator-shaft. Already the confused sounds of the attackers were drawing near.
“They’ve managed to dig away the barricade, somehow,” said Stern. “And now they’re out for business--clubs, poisoned darts and all--and fangs, and claws! How many of ‘em? God knows! A swarm, that’s all!”
His mouth felt hot and dry, with fever, and the mad excitement of the impending battle. His skin seemed tense and drawn, especially upon the forehead. As he stood there, waiting, he heard the girl’s quick breathing. Though he could hardly see her in the gloom, he felt her presence and he loved it.
“Beatrice,” said he, and for a moment his hand sought hers, “Beatrice, little girl o’ mine, if this is the big finish, if we both go down together and there’s no to-morrow, I want to tell you now--”
A yapping outcry interrupted him. The girl seized his arm. Brighter the torchlight grew.
“Allan!” she whispered. “Come back, back, away from here. We’ve got to get up those stairs, there, at the other end of the hall. This is no kind of place to meet them--we’re exposed, here. There’s no protection!”
“You’re right.” he answered. “Come!”
Like ghosts they slid away, noiselessly, through the enshrouding gloom.
Even as they gained the shelter of the winding stairway, the scouts of the Horde, flaring their torches into each room they passed, came into view around the corner at the distant end.
Shuffling, hideous beyond all words by the fire-gleam, bent, wizened, blue, the Things swarmed toward them in a vague and shifting mass, a ruck of horror.
The defenders, peering from behind the broken balustrade, could hear the guttural jabber of their beast-talk, the clicking play of their fangs; could see the craning necks, the talons that held spears, bludgeons, blow-guns, even jagged rocks.
Over all, the smoky gleams wavered in a ghastly interplay of light and darkness. Uncanny shadows leaped along the walls. From every corner and recess and black, empty door, ghoulish shapes seemed creeping.
Tense, now, the moment hung.
Suddenly the engineer bent forward, staring.
“The chief!” he whispered. And as he spoke, Beatrice aimed.
There, shambling among the drove of things, they saw him clearly for a moment: Uglier, more incredibly brutal than ever he looked, now, by that uncanny light.
Stern saw--and rejoiced in the sight--that the obeah’s jaw hung surely broken, all awry. The quick-blinking, narrow-ridded eyes shuttled here, there, as the creature sought to spy out his enemies. The nostrils dilated, to catch the spoor of man. Man, no longer god, but mortal.