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SINISTER, HELL-RIDDEN FEATURE-LENGTH NOVELETTE

Black Pool For Hell Maidens

By Hal K. Wells

Deep in that dismal swamp there dwelt an abysmal Thing, a monstrous being of the ooze, gloating in its perfume of cadavers . . . Kent's horrified eyes must watch the girl he loved run stark naked to greet that grisly creature from hell!

CHAPTER I
THE CLAWED GHOUL

THE last rays of an unseen sun had faded until the wooded swamp was a fog- shrouded monochrome of somber shadows and swirling vapors. The dank chill of slime-wet air seeped coldly through the darkening gray mists. Larry Kent shivered and turned the collar of his coat higher around his neck.

Kent's deeply tanned face was grimly intent as he tried vainly to peer ahead through the murky gloom. Hidden cells deep within his sensitive brain quivered to the stimulus of a familiar and eerie warning. Somewhere in that chill curtain of twilight fog, Fear lurked, naked and abysmal!

Larry Kent had spent too many years in the dark corners of the world to ever be mistaken in that weirdly menacing aura of incarnate terror. He had felt it in the cold stone cells of North China where shuddering coolies waited wretchedly for dawn and the headsman's sword. He had sensed it in the sweating midnight of an African jungle kraal where close-packed blacks groveled in abject fear as Om-Jok, the Devil-God, stalked thundering through the night.

But never had Kent's quivering nerves sensed the crepitant feel of Fear more strongly than they now did in the desolate heart of the Alabama swampland. It came pulsing through the shrouding vapor in unseen waves of almost tangible force. The central point from which the eerie emanations came was apparently somewhere just ahead. They subtly increased with every forward step that Kent took.

The oozing muck of the narrow path made tiny sucking noises beneath his feet. On either side, scum-filmed pools of stagnant water glowed dimly in the gray dusk. Leprous-white streamers of Spanish moss hung in spectral festoons from the gnarled limbs of trees that rose from the swampy mire.

Dread was a chill hard lump in the back of Kent's brain. Was it into the forbidding depths of this almost trackless swamp that Dorothy Lane had so mysteriously vanished? Kent had succeeded in tracing her as far as the village of Sharby, some ten miles away. She had arrived there four days ago. Soon after she registered at the village hotel she had left with a man who was a stranger to the hotel proprietor. And from that point on, all trace had vanished of the girl who was Larry Kent's fiancée.

Kent flinched as the bloated body of a swamp moccasin crossed the path ahead of him and slid sluggishly into a pool. Dorothy hated snakes, and all the other squirming horrors that swarm in the dark recesses of swampland. What possible reason could have brought her from her Chicago home to this area of stark desolation?

The brief note that Kent had found awaiting him upon his return from a business trip had told him nothing beyond the bare fact that she was leaving town for a short time. It was the intangible feeling of terror between the lines of the hastily scrawled words that had sent Kent in worried pursuit of the missing girl.

There was a faint rustling through the swamp as the ghostly white ribbons of moss stirred in the first sighing breath of the night breeze. Kent suddenly froze to a halt, his body tensely stiff.

BORNE upon the dank wings of that breeze was a new and ghastly scent—the grim, pungent smell of Death!

Ahead of him a low strip of wooded land rose several feet above the swamp level. It was from there that the nauseous odor apparently came. Kent's eyes hardened to the brilliance of blue ice. His step was the lithely silent tread of a stalking jaguar as he glided swiftly forward.

A muffled sound came faintly through the fog, a strange whimpering murmur that was certainly not human, yet was like no animal sound that Kent had ever heard. The smell of putrescence came to his nostrils in increasing waves of sickening horror. He

drifted wraith-like through the tree trunks, then abruptly halted behind the sheltering bole of a big pine. There, barely ten feet from his staring eyes, was the spot from which the dread odor came.

Two dead bodies lay obscenely exposed amid scattered heaps of fresh earth. The water-saturated subsoil had made deep digging impossible, and the graves from which the corpses had been looted were little more than shallow trenches. Crouched gibbering over them was a creature that was a blasphemous caricature of a man.

It was naked except for a loincloth. Its hairless skull tapered grotesquely to a rounded point. Its eyes protruded so far from their shallow sockets that they almost seemed to be set upon movable stalks. The hand that grew from its right wrist was weirdly deformed. The fingers were fused into a single solid mass, while the thumb was massively overdeveloped, making the member look far more like the pincer-claw of a crayfish than a human hand.

A low whimpering monotone drooled from the creature's gaping mouth as it stared with its bulging eyes down at the two exhumed bodies. The cadavers had obviously been buried for days. There was no grave-clothing to conceal the sloughing horror of their discolored flesh, already far gone in the ravages of decay. One had apparently been that of a man about fifty. The other was the powerfully built figure of a young man in his twenties. Both bodies were maimed. The older man's legs were gone between the hips and the knees. The younger man's right arm ended at the elbow.

Kent's skin crawled in repugnance at the thought that the missing members had been devoured by the deformed ghoul that crouched above them. Then Kent saw that the amputations were old, with the stumps healed long before death.

If the creature had not already fed, however, there was little doubt that it intended to feed now, and quickly. Its claw-like right hand closed avidly upon the moldering flesh of the legless body. The pointed head dropped. A wordless babble of anticipation whimpered from the slavering lips.

Revulsion surged in a black flood through Kent's brain. He stepped from behind the tree trunk with clenched fists.

"Get away from that!" he rasped through white lips.

The creature gaped up at him for a brief second with goggling eyes. Then as Kent advanced toward it, it abruptly scrambled erect upon thin bony legs and fled whimpering into the fog. As it ran, Kent saw for the first time a steel circlet and a short length of broken chain dangling from the creature's ankle.

It did not run far. It had covered scarcely twenty feet before there was a crashing noise in the underbrush and three figures loomed dimly up through the fog in the creature's path.

THERE was a short, violent struggle that ended with the ghoulish fugitive clamped firmly in the grip of a stocky, swarthy thug with the barrel- chested build of a gorilla. The swarthy fellow's two companions paid slight attention to his brief struggle in subduing his squirming captive. Both were staring with narrowed eyes at Kent's tall figure. One of the men flashed a hand to his hip, bringing it up again with the heavy bulk of an automatic pistol leveled at Kent.

"Don't move, fellah!" he warned tersely. His eyes never left Kent as he jerked his head toward the swarthy-faced thug. "Take that fish-headed punk back to the house, Joe," he ordered. "Chain him this time so he'll stay! Doc and I'll take care of this fellah."

"O.K., Jeff," the thickset one grunted. "Come on, you!" He jerked the wiggling figure of his grotesque captive around, and they vanished into the fog. The other two men advanced toward Kent.

They were an oddly assorted pair. The one with the gun was tall, muscular, with brutish power etched in every line of his heavy-jawed face. His companion was small, wiry, with a thick shock of grayish hair. A dirty laboratory smock covered his slight figure. His gaunt, hawk-like face was nervously intense. The dilated pupils of his eyes glowed with feverish luster from far back in shadowed sockets.

They came to a halt a few steps from Kent. Their glance drifted momentarily to the exposed cadavers and looted graves beyond him, and their faces hardened in unmistakable menace.

"What are you doin' here, fellah?" the brute- faced man with the pistol demanded truculently.

Kent's temper flared at the arrogant insolence of the other's tone, but he choked back any thought of a heated retort when he met the man's eyes. They were the eyes of a born killer, cold, pale, utt...

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