Isle of the Undead
By LLOYD ARTHUR ESHBACH
A gripping, thrilling, uncanny tale about the frightful fate that befell a yachting party on the dreadful island of living dead men
1. A Horror from the Past
drab gray sheet of cloud slipped stealthily from the moon's round face, like a shroud slipping from the face of one long dead, a coldly phosphorescent face from which the eyes had been plucked. Yellow radiance fell toward a calm, oily sea, seeking a narrow bank of fog lying low on the water, penetrating its somber mass like frozen yellow fingers.
Vilma Bradley shuddered and shrank against Clifford Darrell's brawny form. "It's—it's ghastly, Cliff!" she said.
"Ghastly?" Darrell leaned against the rail, laughing softly. "One cocktail too many—that's the answer. It's given you the jitters. Listen!" Faintly from the salon came strains of dance music and the rhythmic shuffle of feet. "A nifty yacht, a South Sea moon, a radio dance orchestra, dancers—and little Clifford! And you call it ghastly!" Almost savagely his arms tightened about her, and the bantering note left his voice. "I'm crazy about you, Vilma."
She tried to laugh, but it was an unconvincing sound. "It's the moon, Cliff—I guess. I never saw it like that before. Something's going to happen—something dreadful. I just know it!"
"Oh—be sensible, Vilma!" There was a hint of impatience in Cliff's deep voice. A gorgeous girl in his arms—dark-haired, dark-eyed, made for love—and she talked of dreadful things which were going to happen because the moon looked screwy.
She released herself and glanced out over the sea. "I know I'm silly, but——" Her voice froze and her slender body stiffened. "Cliff—look!"
Darrell spun around, and as he stared, he felt a dryness seeping into his throat, choking him....
Out of the winding-sheet of fog into the moonlight crept a strange, strange craft, her crumbling timbers blackened and rotted with incredible age. The corpse of a ship, she seemed, resurrected from the grave of the sea. Her prow thrust upward like a scimitar bent backward, hovering over the gaunt ruin of a cabin whose seaward sides were formed by port and starboard bows. From a shallow pit amidships jutted the broken arm of a mast, its splintered tip pointing toward the blindly watching moon. The stern, thickly covered with the moldering encrustations of age, curved inward above the strange high poop, beneath which lay another cabin. And along either side of her worm-eaten freeboard ran a row of apertures like oblong portholes. Out of these projected great oars, long, unwieldy, as somberly black as the rest of the ancient hulk.
Now a sound drifted across the waters, the steady, rhythmic br-rr-oom, br-rr-oom, br-rr-oom of a drum beating time for the rowers. Its hollow thud checked the heart, set it to throbbing in tempo with its own weary pulse. Ghostly fingers, dripping dread, crawled up Darrell's spine.
Stiff-lipped, Vilma gasped: "What—what is it?"
Cliff answered in a dry husky voice, the words seeming to trip over an awkward tongue. "It's—it's—it can't be, damn it!—but it's a galley, a ship from the days of Alexander the Great! What's it doing—here—now?"
Closer she came through the moon-path, a frothing lip of brine curling away from her swelling prow. Closer—her course crossing that of the Ariel—and the watchers saw her crew! They gasped, and the blood ebbed from their faces.
Men of ancient Persia, clad in leather kirtles and rusted armor, and they were hideous! In the yellow moon-glow Cliff could see them clearly now—a lookout standing motionless in the stem, the steersman on the poop-deck, the drummer squatting beside the broken mast, the rowers in the pit—and all, all were a bloodless white, the skin of their faces puffed and bloated and horribly wrinkled, like flesh that had been under water a long time.
Dead men ... men whose movements were stiffly wooden ... as dead as their faces. But most horrible was the fact that they were there, that they moved at all!
queer mirage, isn't it?" A hollow voice spoke suavely behind them.
Vilma gasped at the sudden sound, and they whirled. A foot away stood the tall, lean figure of the Ariel's captain, Leon Corio. A queer smile twisted his thin lips.
"What's the idea—sneaking up on us?" Darrell demanded angrily. He didn't like this man, hadn't liked him from the moment he had approached Cliff to sell him the yacht. But Cliff had bought the craft because she was a bargain, and in accordance with their agreement he had hired Corio as captain.
The tall man's smile remained fixed, and he bowed gravely. "Sorry, sir. I always walk softly. A habit, I suppose." He gestured toward the galley. "It looks quite life-like, don't you think so?"
"Life-like?" Cliff spoke between his teeth as he again faced the black ship. "It looks dead to me!"
The galley had almost reached them now, veering sharply to draw up beside the Ariel. The drum quieted, and the oars trailed in the water, motionless except for the swaying imparted by the waves. A musty, age-old odor filtered through the air like a breath from a grave. The music and dancing had stopped. A fear-filled hush shrouded the yacht.
Vilma drew Cliff's arm about her shoulder. He glanced back at the motionless captain.
"Do something, Corio!" he rasped. "Don't stand there like a dummy!"
Corio nodded with his same queer smile. His hand darted to an inside pocket, came out bearing a curious instrument like four twisted cones of silver bound together with silver thongs. As he raised this to his mouth, his eyelids were slits behind which burned the embers of his eyes.
Out over the sea crept a single note, deep, hollow, laden with eery minor wailings—a sound that summoned imperatively, yet a sound that repelled. It was a moan, hideous as the moan of a dying demon. It raked the heart with fear-tipped claws. It rose, and fell, and rose again, and as it died, it awakened the crew of the ancient galley to motion, sweeping them in a horde to the rail of the yacht.
Cliff swung toward Corio in bursting fury, fury mingled with dread. His fist lashed out at that glittering silver instrument and the face behind it, but Corio avoided him like a wraith, still smiling fixedly, the horn again at his lips. Cliff cursed, and hurled himself through the air. One hand caught a bony shoulder; he felt fingers like hooks close on his own throat. He wrenched free, landing a stunning blow on Corio's face—saw him reel and crash to the deck—and then he heard Vilma scream!
He whirled. She was struggling between two of the flabby-faced things from the galley! In an instant he was upon them, his fist thudding against icy flesh, burying itself in something horribly soft and yielding. Startled, Cliff swung a second blow; and an arm, tomb-cold and strong as the tentacle of an octopus, wrapped itself around him—a vise of thin-covered bone! A dead, drowned face peered over his shoulder, staring blankly. Other arms seized his legs, and though he struggled and writhed with the strength of a mounting fear, he was borne to the rail. Over they went, and dropped to the rotting deck of the galley.
A numbness was creeping through him like a contagion, spreading from those crushing hands of ice. His struggles ceased. With eyes that turned stiffly in their sockets he looked for Vilma, saw her raised high above the heads of two other pallid