Complete Novelet of Fearsome Mystery
V: Battle for Life
My fingers closed on what felt like hardened
crust. I knew that beneath the superficial layer of hardness the plastic
material had not yet completely solidified.
My strong sculptor's hands clamped with powerful
tenacity. I twisted the wrist suddenly.
There was a shriek of bellowing pain and
I was dropped.
In that instant of freedom I lunged backward
into the forbidden room and slammed the door.
The key was on the inside. I turned it, ripped
off my coat. It protected my hands a little as I pulled and shoved the
giant cauldron over to barricade the door. The boiling green mess spilled
out all over the floor, hissing and steaming. But at last the vat was in
I leaned against the wall. No sound came
from the corridor outside. I could hear only the hissing of the stuff on
the floor and the crackling of the flames in the pit.
My eyes moved over, past the hanging skeletons,
to look at the empty pedestal where the statue had been.
But the pedestal was not empty!
Crouching there as it had always been, I
could see the dim outlines of the statue of Gribold!
I drew a hand across my eyes but the illusion
still persisted. Relief swept over me. It had been Rakor Gribold, after
all, who had pursued me down from my room through the corridors and dungeons.
It was Gribold who had crept toward me in m room.
But the three bullet holes?
I had seen them appear one by one just as
I had fired the gun -- three round bullet holes just above the left eye.
My explanation? I had none, unless the man's
unusually thick skull was not completely penetrated by the small .22 caliber
bullet. Perhaps the lead had not entered the cranial cavity nor pierced
But then I saw the stuff on the floor. I
moved ever closer. It was a green viscous fluid that was collecting in
the crack between two of the skulls that composed the floor. My eyes followed
the stream toward the base of the pedestal, up the dais to another little
pool of the stuff at the statue's feet. I followed the green drops up,
up to the base of the chin, where they dripped off the hideous face.
On the forehead my eyes stopped. A sudden,
choking cloud of smoke poured out of the cauldron. I gasped, rubbing at
my burning eyes!
Green ichor was oozing out of what appeared
to be -- three round bullet holes just above the left eye!
I have only a faint recollection of my escape
from t he dungeon. I must have upset the cauldron as I hurled it away from
the door. The brew ignited as it came into contact with the flames in the
pit. A strong draft nursed the flames when I flung wide the door. They
pursued me, crackling and spitting, up through the long, winding corridors
to the main floor.
The front door was partly open when I finally
dragged myself up to it. fresh air was pouring in.
I reeled down the huge, stone steps. A voice
called out below me.
Then came a shot, sharp and clear. Something
was shuffling swiftly toward me on the gravel walk. I threw myself to the
side of the path. The thing lurched by me, breathing heavily and groaning.
I lay there half dazed, watching it scramble like a huge spider up the
steps toward the blazing manor.
I staggered to my feet as the little wizened
sheriff puff ed up beside me, clutching a smoking revolver. He had turned
ghastly white. But his hand was steady enough. He raised the gun and fired
at the apparition that leered down at us from the top landing. I was certain
the bullet had found its mark.
But the sheriff fired until his gun was empty
and still the thing at the top of the steps never moved. It stood there,
silhouetted against the yellow flames that were belching out of the open
door at its back. The head was raised and the four arms were outstretched
as if in supplication to the heavens.
"What is it?" I asked. "Is it Gribold?"
"Dunno," the sheriff replied tensely.
We were standing below, at some little distance
from t he bottom of the steps. The creature ws well above us, with the
flames in back. It was impossible to recognize the features.
"I heard yuh fire three shots," yelled the
sheriff above the roaring flames. "I hoofed it up here as quick as I could
an' bumped square into that thing streakin' down the path. It turned around
an' ran back, but wouldn't stop when I ordered. So I had to shoot. Could
o' sworn I hit it!"
"Look!" I cried.
The flames were now leaping out around it,
engulfing the thing in great yellow waves. Even where we were standing,
some distance away, the head was terrific.
I was getting so dizzy that I had to lean
against the sheriff for support. I could feel him take in a deep breath.
"Come down here, Gribold!" he shouted at
the top of his lungs.
The thing on the landing looked down. Then
out of its mouth rose that same ungodly wail I had heard before -- the
thrill cry of a woman tortured by agony!
For a long, hideous moment that cry stabbed
out through the night, chilling my nerves even in the face of the almost
I could still hear the cry even after the
thing had turned. It leaped through the open doorway and was swallowed
up in that blazing inferno. I thought I could still hear it faintly, while
the sheriff was half carrying, half dragging me away from the manor. I
had collapsed to the ground at his feet.
Persistently that cry rang in my ears for
over two months after they had taken me to the sanitarium. When I was finally
able to speak coherently, I was invited to describe in detail my experiences
to the psychiatrist in residence.
On the day scheduled for my dismissal from
the sanitarium, I entered the doctor's office. The morning paper was clutched
in my hand. He waved me cordially into the big chair by his desk.
He listened attentively to my story and examined
the letter I had originally received from Rakor Gribold. The doctor was
especially interested in the skin sack containing the gold nuggets. He
declared it to be human skin, as I had suspected.
"From my observation of you here in the sanitarium,"
he said, "I am convinced that you are telling me exactly what you saw or
heard occur at Gribold Manor. There is only one unclear point in your story,
which I'll speak of later. There I believe our vision was distorted by
the nervous tension to which you were being subjected. Otherwise I think
it is a true account of actual experiences."
"You believe, then, that Rakor Gribold was
four armed? I asked.
"Yes. The Gribold family, since the archduke,
has probably exhibited a recessive quadrumanous tendency appearing only
in the male offspring. The old archduke's bride was undoubtedly driven
insane when she became aware of her husband's deformity on their wedding
night. Her insanity was mistaken by the villagers as bewitchment and Gribold
Manor and its occupant s were henceforth shunned.
"Believing the stories of her own bewitchery,
this insane woman began dabbling in the Black Arts. When her little son
was born four armed, she realized the full horror of the Gribold curse.
She probably killed her husband and modeled his likeness with some plastic
hardening substance that she had concocted in the cauldron after the formulas
in her old witchcraft books.
"This would be the famous Statue of Gribold,
perhaps seen at various times by carpenters or masons called up to repair
the aging manor. They must have begun the superstition. Because the Gribolds
were shunned, they were unable to get food honestly from the village market
or from the farmers. So they were forced to go forth at night and steal
livestock or whatever they could lay their hands on.
"Ostracized from the mores of society, the
step to cannibalism for the Gribolds was a natural one. They could recognize
little difference between men and beasts. So cannibalism became inculcated
in their religion. It was passed down by the old witch as part of necessity.
Human meat is very nourishing and the hunting of it would greatly relieve
the monotony of their stranded existence in the lonely manor."
I was following the doctor's opinions very
"Then you believe that Rakor Gribold's plan,
after he ate Mason, was to include me on his menu?"
Undoubtedly," replied the doctor. "You were
doomed to Mason's fate. But not until you had finished repairing the statue,
which he had called you to 'mend' or 'heal,' as e put it in his letter
to you. HIs reference in t he letter to 'a life depends upon our succeeding'
indicates that Gribold himself believed the statue to be alive. He paid
you, incidentally, with some of the old archduke's vast treasure.
"How the statue's wrist was broken we'll
never know. But when you were fighting Gribold and twisted his wrist he
bellowed with pain. It had been injured coincidentally, probably when Plow
Hendricks, the farmer, fired his shotgun at Gribold, who was out hunting
for meat and was peering in at the farmer.
With the exception of one point, that sounded
"But the pieces of green stuff that the sheriff
picked up next morning outside of Plow Hendricks' window -- " I asked.
"What were they?"
"Undoubtedly pieces from Gribold's cane,
which he carried as a weapon. The spraying buckshot form Henricks' shotgun
lodged in Gribold's wrist and shattered the upper part of his cane at the
same time. You said the cane was apparently fashioned not of wood or metal,
but of a greenish stone that had been broken.
"The cane was probably made from the same
stuff as the statue -- material that was highly inflammable, as proved
by the speed with which it ignited when you spilled the cauldron into the
flaming pit. That's why cigarettes were taboo around the statue. Also,
Gribold must have had the ability to make his voice assume a feminine quality."
"But the bullet holes?" I said. "I saw them
appear in the creature's forehead when I fired! And I saw them later in
identically the same place on the statue's head."
"This latter point is the one place where
your story strays from fact," said the doctor slowly. "The bullet holes
appeared in Gribold's forehead because he had an extremely thick skull,
and you were firing .22 caliber bullets. They lodged in t eh thick supraorbital
structure. But when you though you saw these same holes in the statue's
forehead in the dungeon, your vision was obscured by the smoke and flames
pouring out of the pit. And furthermore, Mr. Renton, your nerves were near
the breaking point.
"Probably this one delusion, more than anything
else, was responsible for your long confinement here in this sanitarium."
The doctor rose and extended his hand. "Good-bye, Mr. Renton -- and good
I shook hands with the doctor and thanked
him. Before I turned to leave I handed him the newspaper I had brought
in with me. I pointed to an obscure news item on the back page.
Gribold Village was stunned by the double murder of
its sheriff and a farmer known as "Plow" Hendricks here last night. Both
men were clubbed death while asleep in their homes near the outskirts of
the village. Their assailant is unknown.
"Interesting coincidence," I remarked, and
John Coleman and Jane