. . . And it is
recorded that in the Elder Times, Om Oris, mightiest of the wizards, laid
crafty snare for the demon Avaloth, and pitted dark magic against him; for
Avaloth plagued the earth with a strange growth of ice and snow that crept as
if alive, ever southward, and swallowed up the forests and the mountains. And
the outcome of the contest with the demon is not known; but wizards of that
day maintained that Avaloth, who was not easily discernable, could not be
destroyed save by a great heat, the means whereof was not then known, although
certain of the wizards foresaw that one day it should be. Yet, at this time
the ice fields began to shrink and dwindle and finally vanished; and the earth
bloomed forth afresh.
--- Fragment from the
For nearly an hour
Wesson Clark had been studying the sealed casket, his shrewd black eyes feasting
avidly on its crudely carved metal contours. It lay before him in the pool of
light from the desk lamp; the light which illumined his classic, calculating
features with a pallid glow, while making a shadowy obscurity of the cavernous,
book-lined study. Outside, the high March wind shrilled, and plucked with icy
fingers at the cornices and gables of the old house. It gave Clark a pleasing,
luxurious sense of security to relax in the overheated gloom of the upstairs
study and listen to the rising moan without. Careless, slipshod old Simpkins had
gone for the night, after stoking the ancient furnace to capacity; and Clark was
alone in the house, as he had wished to be for this occasion.
He smiled slightly and
hummed a snatch from the latest Gershwin hit, as his gaze returned to his prize.
The casket was small and compact, perhaps sixteen inches long by six or seven
wide, and formed of a dull, age-tarnished metal that defied casual
identification. The crude, writhing images carved into its surface offered no
aid to classification; Clark failed to assign them to any known period of early
A gratifying legacy to a
connoisseur of antiques was this ancient box. Old Martucci had never suspected,
then. There had been times when Clark had wondered --- and feared --- as he
carried on his surreptitious affair with Martucci’s youthful wife. Not that it
mattered now --- the sinister old scientist, with his perverted sense of humor,
was dead; and Nonna, though filled as ever with Latin fire, seemed much less
fascinating, now that legal barriers were removed. Also, she was growing a bit
proprietary, a little too assured. Clark knew the signs. He smiled ironically as
he studied the casket. While Martucci lived, Clark had cultivated his friendship
and enjoyed the conquest of Nonna at stealthy assignations, employing the
greatest caution. But now there was nothing to fear. For the moment, at least,
he had surfeited with Nonna’s charms; and he felt free to discard her as he
saw fit, without the haunting dread of discovery and vengeance by the suspicious
old archeologist. Besides, he needed freedom to reel in his new catch; one more
alluring than the Italian girl had ever been, and endowed with a fortune that
ran into almost mythical figures. His intentions were very serious here.
His smile deepened as he
recalled the peculiar clause that formed a part of the codicil to the last
testament of Martucci --- the clause which was the instrument conveying the
"And I do hereby
bequeath to my one-time friend, Wesson Clark, the ancient coffer of Alu-Tor;
and urge him only to leave the leaden seal thereon intact, as I have done for
Clark chuckled softly.
Martucci had been a naive fool in spite of his dubious reputation in scientific
circles, where certain ruthless and unethical practices attributed to him were
frowned on heavily. He had kept the seal intact had he? And no guessing what
rare treasures of antiquity might be hidden inside! He had spent his life
delving in the earth and incidentally acquiring the meager fortune (now almost
dissipated) with which he had retired, while, quite possibly, real wealth waited
in the casket. But then, the Italian had been a strange character --- one of
those rare, incomprehensible creatures who appear to place little importance on
the mere possession of money. The aggrandizement of his name in scientific
discoveries, the search for the forbidden in hidden occult lore, the cynical
study of human nature, had seemed to mean much more to him. Certainly he had
never opened the casket, for the splotch of melted lead that sealed it was black
with age and bore no signs of having been tampered with.
With all the leisurely
indolence of his sybaritic nature, Clark lay back and gloated over his
acquisition. He scrutinized more closely the cryptic, wavering symbols, vague
and spidery, which had been impressed at some remote time on the leaden seal, no
doubt while the metal was still hot. They were quite unfamiliar in that they
resembled nothing he could recall having seen before; but there was something
indefinably disturbing in their almost sentient lines. They brought to mind some
utterly impossible living thing. He laughed at the absurdity of the
But whatever they
represented, the symbols were very old. Their primitive crudeness suggested an
antiquity antedating the Phoenician alphabet, or even the Mayan inscriptions.
Clark regretted his scanty knowledge of such things; for here, he half
suspected, might lie a specimen of the very first primal writing; the groping
pictorial attempt to transcribe thought, from which had developed the earliest
known written characters. He would preserve the seal intact and have it examined
by an authority. Possibly it possessed a definite intrinsic value of its own.
Martucci must have known: his knowledge of epigraphy had been profound, and it
was whispered that all his developments in that field had not been turned over
to science. It was even possible that he had deciphered the inscription, if
inscription it were. But in the meantime Clark intended to open the thing.
Certainly he was going
to open it. It was quite characteristic of Martucci that, because of some
squeamish eccentricity or other, he had refrained from doing so himself. But had
he really thought the new owner would use such illogical restraint? Clark
Still, it was odd that
the Italian had never spoken of the casket, especially as he must have decided
on its disposal some months before. The date of the codicil showed that. No
doubt a little surprise for the "one-time friend" --- but odd, just
the same, for it was an object over which the failing scientist, with his wide
knowledge of antiquities, and Clark with his dilettante love for them, might
have had many of the discussions the archeologist had so seemed to enjoy.
And that was a strange
wording --- "one-time". It almost suggested that Martucci had
suspected when he dictated the sentence. But that was impossible. The very
assignment of such a rare relic was proof in itself of complete trust and good
feeling. After all, the import of the words, intended for reading after the
writer’s death, was plain enough.
Well, there was no need
for further delay. He had gloated long enough. His black eyes sparkled greedily
as he picked up the heavy brass paperknife from his desk and dug tentatively at
the seal. The leaden smear was surprisingly hard; perhaps it was some strange
alloy. He pried harder, finally succeeding in inserting the knife-point between
the seal and the age-blackened metal of the box itself. The lead refused to bend
further; it clung tenaciously to its age-old moorings. At length Clark left it
to rummage about the house for tools. He returned with a hammer, and carefully
relocked the study’s only door before he sat down.
He used the knife as a
wedge, and at the first blow the lead peeled neatly away, disclosing a patch of
dully shimmering metal beneath. He had not expected to find that the seal
covered a keyhole, and nothing of the sort was visible. Evidently the box was
far too ancient for that contrivance.
His heart was pounding.
He drew an anticipatory breath, and pried the knife-point under the lid. A
little leverage and it was done. The cover came up. The casket was empty.
Clark was genuinely
surprised. Strange that the box should be so tightly sealed when it held no
contents to be guarded. This lacked plausibility.
As he stared in puzzled
bewilderment at the burnished inner surface, he became aware of a faint, fetid
odor creeping into his nostrils. He sniffed, his nose wrinkling in distaste.
Slight though it was, the smell suggested vaguely the charnel emanation from
some long-closed tomb.
Then came the cold
Through the close air of
the study, which was gradually becoming oppressively hot, it breathed against
his face in a single icy gust, laden with a sudden augmentation of the
nauseating odor of putrescence. Then it was gone, and the heated air had closed
about him as if nothing had disturbed it.
Clark started up, then
sank back in the chair. He frowned, staring hard at door and windows half hidden
in the shadowy gloom beyond the circle of lamplight. He knew them to be locked
securely, and an uneasy disquiet stirred in his breast as his probing eyes
verified the fact.
His attention was drawn
back to the subtle odor of corruption which had gradually grown stronger. It
permeated the room now --- a dank, mephitic fetor, grotesquely out of place in
the quiet study. He rose slowly to his feet, alarm spreading over his features.
And as he did so, the icy, noisome chill puffed again upon his face like a
breeze from some glacial sepulcher. His head jerked back, and fear dawned in his
eyes. Here, in a locked room on the top floor of the old house he had lived in
for years, something utterly uncanny, something entirely beyond the realms of
sanity, was taking place. Clark started slowly across the study toward the door,
then stopped abruptly.
A faint sound had come
from the shadows at the far side of the room where the heavy Sarouk rug stopped
short a foot from the wall. It was an insidious, barely audible, rustling noise
--- such a noise as might be made by a great snake writhing along the uncarpeted
strip. And it came from between him and the door!
Clark had prided
himself, in the past, on his cold-blooded imperturbability; but his breath came
quickly now, and the wild, unreasoning fear of a trapped animal flooded his
mind. Whatever the nature of the Thing in the room with him --- could he doubt
its presence? --- it was intelligently cutting off his escape. It must be
watching his every movement with malignant, brooding eyes. A shudder of stark
horror convulsed him at the realization.
He stood very still in
the center of the study, his mind racing in frenzied, terror-driven circles. A
sense of the crowding presence of some bestial, primordial depravity, of
overwhelming defilement, surged with paralyzing certainty through his brain.
Thoughts of escape were crowded out --- the imminence of the danger routed
reasoning power. And yet, through the waves of terror that beat through his
consciousness, he realized that his life --- yes, his very soul --- was menaced
by an unspeakable cosmic malevolence.
With a tremendous effort
he checked the rising, smothering hysteria and succeeded in regaining a partial
control of his thoughts. His eyes pierced the gloom ahead and about him. Nothing
stirred. What hideously ancient entity had been imprisoned in the casket? He
could not guess, nor did he wish to know. But Martucci had known --- Martucci,
the authority on ancient writings; the delver in hidden lore! Martucci had known
everything. He had schemed --- oh, so cunningly! --- for revenge, and this was
the result. If the dead could know, how the old man must be gloating to see his
crafty trap closing about his victim!
Now Clark felt cold
vibrations beating upon him; vibrations of inhuman, impersonal evil. His nerves
crawled and shrank as from a loathsome physical contact. He shifted uneasily,
and there came the sound of a stealthy, slithering movement toward him across
the rug. He backed away, until his shoulders bumped against the wall behind him.
Still the soft noises continued, slowly drawing near. They detoured to one side,
then to the other; then they were back in front of him, and much closer. His
eyes searched the shadows desperately. Empty, formless, mysterious, they were;
but nothing moved that his physical sight could detect. The lurking menace, its
presence proclaimed by every taut nerve in his body, was still invisible. If he
could trust his eyes, he was alone in the room. But he felt the close proximity
of something cold and yet alive; something which was a definite physical
presence, manifesting itself to him through prehuman senses, semi-atrophied by
eons of disuse. Whatever it was, it was absorbing the suffocating heat of the
room, actually lowering the temperature, and at a rapid rate.
Quite suddenly, the
utter horror of the impossible, incredible situation broke through the dam of
desperate resistance his mind had built up. Something snapped, and he laughed
--- a high-pitched cachinnation of rising hysteria that echoed wildly from lips
drawn back in a grinning frenzy of terror. He cringed, flinging up his arms in
an abject surrender to fear. A torrent of gibbering incoherency pushed the
terrible laughter from his lips. The dusky room swam about him and he did not
know that his knees had buckled and that he had plumped forward on them, his
arms rigid before his face to ward off the approaching danger.
Again came the icy
breath, rank with primeval filth, terrifying in its nearness. It passed lightly
over his face, making him retch with its overpowering fetor. Then he shrieked
once in paralyzed despair, as slender, groping tentacles, cold as outer space,
caressed his throat and body, their deathly chill striking through his clothing
as if he had been naked. A vast, flabby, amorphous coldness enveloped him.
Repulsively soft and bulky it was, but as he struggled it gripped him with the
resistless strength of chilled steel. He could feel the regularly spaced
vibrations of some utterly alien, incomprehensible life --- life so frightful
that he shrieked again and again as its purpose became apparent.
Then the murky room
whirled about him --- he had been whisked up, was staring with starting eyes at
the ceiling, through which little flames were eating, while the fetid horror
gradually compressed its icy folds.
He was falling down,
down, through endless shafts of icy blackness into a bottomless quagmire of
primordial slime. A vast roaring filled his ears. Monstrous phantasms leered
through the bursts of flame that punctuated the rushing descent. Then all was
silence and blackness and oblivion.
by the high wind, the flames had gutted the old house when firemen arrived.
Little remained to aid the coroner in his investigation. Naturally, he
discounted heavily the fantastic testimony of certain early arrivals regarding a
high-pitched, agonized whistling sound which they claimed had proceeded from the
upper part of the building, and the belching clouds of foul-smelling smoke which
had found an exit after the upper floors collapsed and the whistling stopped.
Simpkins’s admission that he had neglected to close the drafts of the furnace
cleared up the cause of the fire; but, privately, the coroner was exceedingly
puzzled by certain peculiarities that the postmortem disclosed in the charred
and blackened corpse, identified by a dentist as Wesson Clark’s. It was surely
a matter of wonder that virtually every bone in his body had been broken, as if
in the embrace of some gigantic snake of the constrictor species; and it was an
insoluble mystery how the veins and organs had been drained of every drop of