“Blood of the Gods” is an El Borak short story by Robert E. Howard. It was originally published in the July 1935 issue of the pulp magazine Top-Notch. Text from Project Gutenberg.
VI. — THE DEVIL OF THE NIGHT
GORDON stepped to the door of the Nest and said curtly: “Al Wazir’s gotten away. I’m going to search the Caves for him. Stay on the ledge and keep watch.”
“Why waste the last minutes of your life chasing a lunatic through a rat- run?” growled Hawkston. “It’ll be dark soon and the Arabs will be rushing us—”
“You wouldn’t understand,” snarled Gordon, turning away.
The task ahead of him was distasteful. Searching for a homicidal maniac through the darkening caves was bad enough, but the thought of having forcibly to subdue his friend again was revolting. But it must be done. Left to run at large in the Caves Al Wazir might do harm either to himself or to them. A stray bullet might strike him down.
A swift search through the lower tier proved fruitless, and Gordon mounted by the ladder into the second tier. As he climbed through the hole into the cave above he had an uncomfortable feeling that Al Wazir was crouching at the rim to break his head with a rock. But only silence and emptiness greeted him. Dusk was filling the caves so swiftly he began to despair of finding the madman. There were a hundred nooks and corners where Al Wazir could crouch unobserved, and Gordon’s time was short.
The ladder that connected the second tier with the third was in the chamber into which he had come, and glancing up through it Gordon was startled to see a circle of deepening blue set with a winking star. In an instant he was climbing toward it.
He had discovered another unsuspected exit from the Caves. The ladder of hand holds led through the ceiling, up the wall of the cave above, and up through a round shaft that opened in the ceiling of the highest cave. He went up, like a man climbing up a chimney, and a few moments later thrust his head over the rim.
He had come out on the summit of the cliffs. To the east the rock rim pitched up sharply, obstructing his view, but to the west he looked out over a jagged backbone that broke in gaunt crags outlined against the twilight. He stiffened as somewhere a pebble rattled down, as if dislodged by a groping foot. Had Al Wazir come this way? Was the madman somewhere out there, climbing among those shadowy crags? If he was, he was courting death by the slip of a hand or a foot.
As he strained his eyes in the deepening shadows, a call welled up from below: “I say, Gordon! The blighters are getting ready to rush us! I see them massing among the rocks!”
With a curse Gordon started back down the shaft. It was all he could do. With darkness gathering Hawkston would not be able to hold the ledge alone.
Gordon went down swiftly, but before he reached the ledge darkness had fallen, lighted but little by the stars. The Englishman crouched on the rim, staring down into the dim gulf of shadows below.
“They’re coming!” he muttered, cocking his rifle. “Listen!”
There was no shooting, this time—only the swift purposeful slap of sandalled feet over the stones. In the faint starlight a shadowy mass detached itself from the outer darkness and rolled toward the foot of the cliff. Steel clinked on the rocks. The mass divided into individual figures. Men grew up out of the darkness below. No use to waste bullets on shadows. The white men held their fire. The Arabs were on the trail, and they came up with a rush, steel gleaming dully in their hands. The path was thronged with dim figures; the defenders caught the glitter of white eyeballs, rolling upward.
They began to work their rifles. The dark was cut with incessant spurts of flame. Lead thudded home. Men cried out. Bodies rolled from the trail, to strike sickeningly on the rocks below. Somewhere back in the darkness, Shalan ibn Mansour’s voice was urging on his slayers. The crafty shaykh had no intentions of risking his hide within reach of those grim fighters holding the ledge.
Hawkston cursed him as he worked his rifle.
“Thibhahum, bism er rassul!” sobbed the blood-lusting howl as the maddened Bedouins fought their way upward, frothing like rabid dogs in their hate and eagerness to tear the Infidels limb from limb.
Gordon’s hammer fell with an empty click. He clubbed the rifle and stepped to the head of the path. A white-clad form loomed before him, fighting for a foothold on the ledge. The swinging rifle-butt crushed his head like an egg-shell. A rifle fired point-blank singed Gordon’s brows and his gun-stock shattered the rifleman’s shoulder.
Hawkston fired his last cartridge, hurled the empty rifle and leaped to Gordon’s side, scimitar in hand. He cut down a Bedouin who was scrambling over the rim with a knife in his teeth. The Arabs massed in a milling clump below the rim, snarling like wolves, flinching from the blows that rained down from rifle butt and scimitar.
Men began to slink back down the trail.
“Wallah!” wailed a man. “They are devils! Flee, brothers!”
“Dogs!” yelled Shalan ibn Mansour, an eery voice out of the darkness. He stood on a low knoll near the ridge, but he was invisible to the men on the cliff, what of the thick shadows. “Stand to it! There are but two of them! They have ceased firing, so their guns must be empty! If you do not bring me their heads I will flay you alive! They—ahhh! Ya allah—!” His voice rose to an incoherent scream, and then broke in a horrible gurgle. That was followed by a tense silence, in which the Arabs clinging to the trail and massed at its foot twisted their heads over their shoulders to glare in amazement in the direction whence the cry had come. The men on the ledge, glad of the respite, shook the sweat from their eyes and stood listening with equal surprise and interest.
Someone called: “Ohai, Shalan ibn Mansour! Is all well with thee?”
There was no reply, and one of the Arabs left the foot of the cliff and ran toward the knoll, shouting the shaykh’s name. The men on the ledge could trace his progress by his strident voice.
“Why did the shaykh cry out and fall silent?” shouted a man on the path. “What has happened, Haditha?”
Haditha’s reply came back plainly.
“I have reached the knoll whereon he stood—I do not see him—Wallah! He is dead! He lies here slain, with his throat torn out! Allah! Help!” He screamed, fired, and then came sounds of his frantic flight. And as he howled like a lost soul, for the flash of the shot had showed him a face stooping above the dead man, a wild grinning visage rendered inhuman by a matted tangle of hair—the face of a devil to the terrified Arab. And above his shrieks, as he ran, rose burst upon burst of maniacal laughter.
“Flee! Flee! I have seen it! It is the djinn of El Khour!”
Instant panic ensued. Men fell off the trail like ripe apples off a limb screaming: “The djinn has slain Shalan ibn Mansour! Flee, brothers, flee!” The night was filled with their clamor as they stampeded for the ridge, and presently the sounds of lusty whacking and the grunting of camels came back to the men on the ledge. There was no trick about this. The Ruweila, courageous in the face of human foes, but haunted by superstitious terrors, were in full flight, leaving behind them the bodies of their chief and their slain comrades.
“What the devil?” marveled Hawkston.
“It must have been Ivan,” muttered Gordon. “Somehow he must have climbed down the crags on the other side of the hill-God, what a climb it must have been!”
They stood there listening, but the only sound that reached their ears was the diminishing noise of the horde’s wild flight. Presently they descended the path, past forms grotesquely huddled where they had fallen. More bodies dotted the floor at the foot of the cliff, and Gordon picked up a rifle dropped from a dead hand, and assured himself that it was loaded. With the Arabs in flight, the truce between him and Hawkston might well be at an end. Their future relations would depend entirely upon the Englishman.
A few moments later they stood upon the low knoll on which Shalan ibn Mansour had stood. The Arab chief was still there. He sprawled on his back in a dark crimson puddle, and his throat had been ripped open as if by the claws of a wild beast. He was a grisly sight in the light of the match Gordon shaded over him.
The American straightened, blew out the match and flipped it away. He strained his eyes into the surrounding shadows and called: “Ivan!” There was no answer.
“Do you suppose it was really Al Wazir who killed him?” asked Hawkston uneasily.
“Who else could it have been? He must have sneaked on Shalan from behind. The other fellow caught a glimpse of him, and thought he was the devil of the caves, just as you said they would.” What erratic whim had impelled Al Wazir to this deed, Gordon could not say. Who can guess the vagaries of the insane? The primitive instincts of murder loosed by lunacy—a madman stealing through the night, attracted by a solitary figure shouting from a knoll—it was not so strange, after all.
“Well, let’s start looking for him,” growled Hawkston. “I know you won’t start back to the Coast until we’ve got him nicely tied up on that bally camel. So the sooner the better.”
“All right.” Gordon’s voice betrayed none of the suspicion in his mind. He knew that Hawkston’s nature and purposes had been altered none by what they had passed through. The man was treacherous and unpredictable as a wolf. He turned and started toward the cliff, but he took good care not to let the Englishman get behind him, and he carried his cocked rifle ready.
“I want to find the lower end of that shaft the Arabs came up,” said Gordon. “Ivan may be hiding there. It must be near the western end of that gully they were sneaking along when I first saw them.”
Not long later they were moving along the shallow gully, and where it ended against the foot of the cliff, they saw a narrow slit-like cleft in the stone, large enough to admit a man. Hoarding their matches carefully they entered and moved along the narrow tunnel into which it opened. This tunnel led straight back into the cliff for a short distance, then turned sharply to the right, running along until it ended in a small chamber cut out of solid rock, which Gordon believed was directly under the room in which he had fought the Arabs. His belief was confirmed when they found the opening of the shaft leading upward. A match held up in the well showed the angle still blocked by the boulder.
“Well, we know how they got into the Caves,” growled Hawkston. “But we haven’t found Al Wazir. He’s not in here.”
“We’ll go up into the Caves,” answered Gordon. “He’ll come back there for food. We’ll catch him then.”
“And then what?” demanded Hawkston.
“It’s obvious, isn’t it? We hit out for the caravan road. Ivan rides. We walk. We can make it, all right. I don’t believe the Ruweila will stop before they get back to the tents of their tribe. I’m hoping Ivan’s mind can be restored when we get him back to civilization.”
“And what about the Blood of the Gods?”
“Well, what about them? They’re his, to do what he pleases with them.”
Hawkston did not reply, nor did he seem aware of Gordon’s suspicion of him. He had no rifle, but Gordon knew the pistol at his hip was loaded. The American carried his rifle in the crook of his arm, and he maneuvered so the Englishman went ahead of him as they groped their way back down the tunnel and out into the starlight. Just what Hawkston’s intentions were, he did not know. Sooner or later, he believed, he would have to fight the Englishman for his life. But somehow he felt that this would not be necessary until after Al Wazir had been found and secured.
He wondered about the tunnel and the shaft to the top of the cliff. They had not been there a year ago. Obviously the Arabs had found the tunnel purely by accident.
“No use searching the Caves tonight,” said Hawkston, when they had reached the ledge. “We’ll take turns watching and sleeping. Take the first watch, will you? I didn’t sleep last night, you know.”
Gordon nodded. Hawkston dragged the sleeping-skins from the Nest and wrapping himself in them, fell asleep close to the wall. Gordon sat down a short distance away, his rifle across his knees. As he sat he dozed lightly, waking each time the sleeping Englishman stirred.
He was still sitting there when the dawn reddened the eastern sky.
Hawkston rose, stretched and yawned.
“Why didn’t you wake me to watch my turn?” he asked.
“You know damned well why I didn’t,” grated Gordon. “I don’t care to run the risk of being murdered in my sleep.”
“You don’t like me, do you, Gordon?” laughed Hawkston. But only his lips smiled, and a red flame smoldered in his eyes. “Well, that makes the feeling mutual, don’t you know. After we’ve gotten Al Wazir back to el-Azem, I’m looking forward to a gentlemanly settling of our differences—just you and I—and a pair of swords.”
“Why wait until then?” Gordon was on his feet, his nostrils quivering with the eagerness of hard-leashed hate.
Hawkston shook his head, smiling fiercely.
“Oh no, El Borak. No fighting until we get out of the desert.”
“All right,” snarled the American disgruntedly. “Let’s eat, and then start combing the Caves for Ivan.”
A slight sound brought them both wheeling toward the door of the Nest. Al Wazir stood there, plucking at his beard with his long black nails. His eyes lacked their former wild beast glare; they were clouded, plaintive. His attitude was one of bewilderment rather than menace.
“Ivan!” muttered Gordon, setting down his rifle and moving toward the wild man. Al Wazir did not retreat, nor did he make any hostile demonstration. He stood stolidly, uneasily tugging at his tangled beard.
“He’s in a milder mood,” murmured Gordon. “Easy, Hawkston. Let me handle this. I don’t believe he’ll have to be overpowered this time.”
“In that case,” said Hawkston, “I don’t need you any longer.”
Gordon whipped around; the Englishman’s eyes were red with the killing lust, his hand rested on the butt of his pistol. For an instant the two men stood tensely facing one another. Hawkston spoke, almost in a whisper: “You fool, did you think I’d give you an even break? I don’t need you to help me get Al Wazir back to el-Azem. I know a German doctor who can restore his mind if anybody can—and then I’ll see that he tells me where to find the Blood of the Gods—”
Their right hands moved in a simultaneous blur of speed. Hawkston’s gun cleared its holster as Gordon’s scimitar flashed free. And the gun spoke just as the blade struck it, knocking it from the Englishman’s hand. Gordon felt the wind of the slug and behind him the madman in the door grunted and fell heavily. The pistol rang on the stone and bounced from the ledge, and Gordon cut murderously at Hawkston’s head, his eyes red with fury. A swift backward leap carried the Englishman out of range, and Hawkston tore out his scimitar as Gordon came at him in savage silence. The American had seen Al Wazir lying limp in the doorway, blood oozing from his head.
Gordon and Hawkston came together with a dazzling flame and crack of steel, in an unleashing of hard-pent passions, two wild natures a-thirst for each others’ lives. Here was the urge to kill, loosed at last, and backing every blow.
For a few minutes stroke followed stroke too fast for the eye to distinguish, had any eye witnessed that onslaught. They fought with a chilled- steel fury, a reckless abandon that was yet neither wild or careless. The clang of steel was deafening; miraculously, it seemed, the shimmer of steel played about their heads, yet neither edge cut home. The skill of the two fighters was too well matched.
After the first hurricane of attack, the play changed subtly; it grew, not less savage but more crafty. The desert sun, that had lighted the blades of a thousand generations of swordsmen, in a land sworn to the sword, had never shone on a more scintillating display of swordsmanship than this, where two aliens carved out the destinies of their tangled careers on a high-flung ledge between sun and desert.
Up and down the ledge—scruff and shift of quick-moving feet—gliding, not stamping—ring and clash of steel meeting steel—flame-lighted black eyes glaring into flinty grey eyes; flying blades turned crimson by the rising sun.
Hawkston had cut his teeth on the straight blade of his native land, and he was partial to the point and used it with devilish skill. Gordon had learned sword fighting in the hard school of the Afghan mountain wars, with the curved tulwar, and he fought with no set or orthodox style. His blade was a lethal, living thing that darted like a serpent’s tongue or lashed with devastating power.
Here was no ceremonious dueling with elegant rules and formalities. It was a fight for life, naked and desperate, and within the space of half a dozen minutes both men had attempted or foiled tricks that would have made a medieval Italian fencing master blink. There was no pause or breathing spell; only the constant slither and rasp of blade on blade—Hawkston failing in his attempt to maneuver Gordon about so the sun would dazzle his eyes; Gordon almost rushing Hawkston over the rim of the ledge, the Englishman saving himself by a sidewise leap.
The end came suddenly. Hawkston, with sweat pouring down his face, realized that the sheer strength in Gordon’s arm was beginning to tell. Even his iron wrist was growing numb under the terrific blows the American rained on his guard. Believing himself to be superior to Gordon in pure fencing skill, he began the preliminaries of an intricate maneuver, and meeting with apparent success, feinted a cut at Gordon’s head. El Borak knew it was a feint, but, pretending to be deceived by it, he lifted his sword as though to parry the cut. Instantly Hawkston’s point licked at his throat. Even as the Englishman thrust he knew he had been tricked, but he could not check the motion. The blade passed over Gordon’s shoulder as the American evaded the thrust with a swaying twist of his torso, and his scimitar flashed like white steel lightning in the sun. Hawkston’s dark features were blotted out by a gush of blood and brains; his scimitar rang loud on the rocky ledge; he swayed, tottered, and fell suddenly, his crown split to the hinges of the jawbone.
Gordon shook the sweat from his eyes and glared down at the prostrate figure, too drunken with hate and battle to fully realize that his foe was dead. He started and whirled as a voice spoke weakly behind him: “The same swift blade as ever, El Borak!”
Al Wazir was sitting with his back against the wall. His eyes, no longer murky nor bloodshot, met Gordon’s levelly. In spite of his tangled hair and beard there was something ineffably tranquil and seer-like about him. Here, indeed, was the man Gordon had known of old.
“Ivan! Alive! But Hawkston’s bullet—”
“Was that what it was?” Al Wazir lifted a hand to his head; it came away smeared with blood. “Anyway, I’m very much alive, and my mind’s clear—for the first time in God knows how long. What happened?”
“You stopped a slug meant for me,” grunted Gordon. “Let me see that wound.” After a brief investigation he announced: “Just a graze; ploughed through the scalp and knocked you out. I’ll wash it and bandage it.” While he worked he said tersely: “Hawkston was on your trail; after your rubies. I tried to beat him here, and Shalan ibn Mansour trapped us both. You were a bit out of your head and I had to tie you up. We had a tussle with the Arabs and finally beat them off.”
“What day is it?” asked Al Wazir. At Gordon’s reply he ejaculated: “Great heavens! It’s more than a month since I got knocked on the head!”
“What’s that?” exclaimed Gordon. “I thought the loneliness—”
Al Wazir laughed. “Not that, El Borak. I was doing some excavation work—I discovered a shaft in one of the lower caves, leading down to the tunnel. The mouths of both were sealed with slabs of rock. I opened them up, just out of curiosity. Then I found another shaft leading from an upper cave to the summit of the cliff, like a chimney. It was while I was working out the slab that sealed it, that I dislodged a shower of rocks. One of them gave me an awful rap on the head. My mind’s been a blank ever since, except for brief intervals—and they weren’t very clear. I remember them like bits of dreams, now. I remember squatting in the Nest, tearing tins open and gobbling food, trying to remember who I was and why I was here. Then everything would fade out again.
“I have another vague recollection of being tied to a rock in the cave, and seeing you and Hawkston lying on the ledge, and firing. Of course I didn’t know either of you. I remember hearing you saying that if somebody was killed the others would go away. There was a lot of shooting and shouting and that frightened me and hurt my ears. I wanted you all to go away and leave me in peace.
“I don’t know how I got loose, but my next disjointed bit of memory is that of creeping up the shaft that leads to the top of the cliff, and then climbing, climbing, with the stars over me and the wind blowing in my face—heavens! I must have climbed over the summit of the hill and down the crags on the other side!
“Then I have a muddled remembrance of running and crawling through the dark—a confused impression of shooting and noise, and a man standing alone on a knoll and shouting—” he shuddered and shook his head. “When I try to remember what happened then, it’s all a blind whirl of fire and blood, like a nightmare. Somehow I seemed to feel that the man on the knoll was to blame for all the noise that was maddening me, and that if he quit shouting, they’d all go away and let me alone. But from that point it’s all a blind red mist.”
Gordon held his peace. He realized that it was his remark, overheard by Al Wazir, that if Shalan ibn Mansour were slain, the Arabs would flee, which had taken root in the madman’s clouded brain and provided the impulse—probably subconsciously—which finally translated itself into action. Al Wazir did not remember having killed the shaykh, and there was no use distressing him with the truth.
“I remember running, then,” murmured Al Wazir, rubbing his head. “I was in a terrible fright, and trying to get back to the Caves. I remember climbing again—up this time. I must have climbed back over the crags and down the chimney again—I’ll wager I couldn’t make that climb clothed in my right mind. The next thing I remember is hearing voices, and they sounded somehow familiar. I started toward them—then something cracked and flashed in my head, and I knew nothing more until I came to myself a few moments ago, in possession of all my faculties, and saw you and Hawkston fighting with your swords.”
“You were evidently regaining your senses,” said Gordon. “It took the extra jolt of that slug to set your numb machinery going again. Such things have happened before.
“Ivan, I’ve got a camel hidden nearby, and the Arabs left some ropes of hay in their camp when they pulled out. I’m going to feed and water it, and then—well, I intended taking you back to the Coast with me, but since you’ve regained your wits, I suppose you’ll—”
“I’m going back with you,” said Al Wazir. “My meditations didn’t give me the gift of prophecy, but they convinced me—even before I got that rap on the head—that the best life a man can live is one of service to his fellow man. Just as you do, in your own way! I can’t help mankind by dreaming out here in the desert.” He glanced down at the prostrate figure on the ledge. “We’ll have to build a cairn, first. Poor devil, it was his destiny to be the last sacrifice to the Blood of the Gods.”
“What do you mean?”
“They were stained with men’s blood,” answered Al Wazir. “They have caused nothing but suffering and crime since they first appeared in history. Before I left el-Azem I threw them into the sea.”