Mal Shaff tore madly up the slope, topped the crest, and threw himself flat on the ground, almost exhausted.
A queer feeling stole over him, a queer feeling of well-being. New strength was flowing into him, the old thrill of battle was pounding through his blood once more.
Not only were queer things happening to his body, but also to his brain. The world about him looked queer, held a sort of an intangible mystery he could not understand. A half question formed in the back of his brain. Who and what was he? Queer thoughts to be thinking! He was Mal Shaff, but had he always been Mal Shaff?
He remembered a brittle column of light, creatures with bodies unlike his body, walking into it. He had been one of those creatures. There was something about dimensions, about different planes, a plan for one plane to attack another!
He scrambled to his bowed legs and beat his great chest with mighty, long-nailed hands. He flung back his head and from his throat broke a sound to curdle the blood of even the bravest.
On the moor below Ouglat heard the cry and answered it with one equally ferocious.
Mal Shaff took a step forward, then stopped stock-still. Through his brain went a sharp command to return to the spot where he had stood, to wait there until attacked. He stepped back, shifting his feet impatiently.
He was growing larger; every second fresh vitality was pouring into him. Before his eyes danced a red curtain of hate and his tongue roared forth a series of insulting challenges to the figure that was even now approaching the foot of the hill.
As Ouglat climbed the hill, the night became an insane bedlam. The challenging roars beat like surf against the black cliffs.
Ouglat's lips were flecked with foam, his red eyes were mere slits, his mouth worked convulsively.
They were only a few feet apart when Ouglat charged.
Mal Shaff was ready for him. There was no longer any difference in their size and they met like the two forward walls of contending football teams.
Mal Shaff felt the soft throat of the other under his fingers and his grip tightened. Maddened, Ouglat shot terrific blow after terrific blow into Mal Shaff's body.
Try as he might, however, he could not shake the other's grip.
It was silent now. The night seemed brooding, watching the struggle on the hilltop.
Larger and larger grew Mal Shaff, until he overtopped Ouglat like a giant.
Then he loosened his grip and, as Ouglat tried to scuttle away, reached down to grasp him by the nape of his neck.
High above his head he lifted his enemy and dashed him to the ground. With a leap he was on the prostrate figure, trampling it apart, smashing it into the ground. With wild cries he stamped the earth, treading out the last of Ouglat, the Black Horror.
When no trace of the thing that had been Ouglat remained, he moved away and viewed the trampled ground.
Then, for the first time he noticed that the crest of the hill was crowded with other monstrous figures. He glared at them, half in surprise, half in anger. He had not noticed their silent approach.
"It is Mal Shaff!" cried one.
"Yes, I am Mal Shaff. What do you want?"
"But, Mal Shaff, Ouglat destroyed you once long ago!"
"And I, just now," replied Mal Shaff, "have destroyed Ouglat."
The figures were silent, shifting uneasily. Then one stepped forward.
"Mal Shaff," it said, "we thought you were dead. Apparently it was not so. We welcome you to our land again. Ouglat, who once tried to kill you and apparently failed, you have killed, which is right and proper. Come and live with us again in peace. We welcome you."
Mal Shaff bowed.
Gone was all thought of the third dimension. Through Mal Shaff's mind raced strange, haunting memories of a red desert scattered with scarlet boulders, of silver cliffs of gleaming metallic stone, of huge seas battering against towering headlands. There were other things, too. Great palaces of shining jewels, and weird nights of inhuman joy where hellish flames lit deep, black caverns.
He bowed again.
"I thank you, Bathazar," he said.
Without a backward look he shambled down the hill with the others.
"Yes?" said the editor. "What's that you say? Doctor White is dead! A suicide! Yeah, I understand. Worry, hey! Here, Roberts, take this story."
He handed over the phone.
"When you write it," he said, "play up the fact he was worried about not being able to bring the men back to the third dimension. Give him plenty of praise for ending the Black Horror. It's a big story."
"Sure," said Roberts, then spoke into the phone: "All right, Bill, shoot the works."
by HENRY SLESAR
The woman in the doorway looked so harmless. Who was to tell she had some rather startling interests?
The woman in the doorway looked like Mom in the homier political cartoons. She was plump, apple-cheeked, white-haired. She wore a fussy, old-fashioned nightgown, and was busily clutching a worn house-robe around her expansive middle. She blinked at Sol Becker's rain-flattened hair and hang-dog expression, and said: "What is it? What do you want?"
"I'm sorry--" Sol's voice was pained. "The man in the diner said you might put me up. I had my car stolen: a hitchhiker; going to Salinas ..." He was puffing.
"Hitchhiker? I don't understand." She clucked at the sight of the pool of water he was creating in her foyer. "Well, come inside, for heaven's sake. You're soaking!"
"Thanks," Sol said gratefully.
With the door firmly shut behind him, the warm interior of the little house covered him like a blanket. He shivered, and let the warmth seep over him. "I'm terribly sorry. I know how late it is." He looked at his watch, but the face was too misty to make out the hour.
"Must be nearly three," the woman sniffed. "You couldn't have come at a worse time. I was just on my way to court--"
The words slid by him. "If I could just stay overnight. Until the morning. I could call some friends in San Fernando. I'm very susceptible to head colds," he added inanely.
"Well, take those shoes off, first," the woman grumbled. "You can undress in the parlor, if you'll keep off the rug. You won't mind using the sofa?"
"No, of course not. I'd be happy to pay--"
"Oh, tush, nobody's asking you to pay. This isn't a hotel. You mind if I go back upstairs? They're gonna miss me at the palace."
"No, of course not," Sol said. He followed her into the darkened parlor, and watched as she turned the screw on a hurricane-style lamp, shedding a yellow pool of light over half a flowery sofa and a doily-covered wing chair. "You go on up. I'll be perfectly fine."
"Guess you can use a towel, though. I'll get you one, then I'm going up. We wake pretty early in this house. Breakfast's at seven; you'll have to be up if you want any."
"I really can't thank you enough--"
"Tush," the woman said. She scurried out, and returned a moment later with a thick bath towel. "Sorry I can't give you any bedding. But you'll find it nice and warm in here." She squinted at the dim face of a ship's-wheel clock on the mantle, and made a noise with her tongue. "Three-thirty!" she exclaimed. "I'll miss the whole execution ..."
"Goodnight, young man," Mom said firmly.
She padded off, leaving Sol holding the towel. He patted his face, and then scrubbed the wet tangle of brown hair. Carefully, he stepped off the carpet and onto the stone floor in front of the fireplace. He removed his drenched coat and suit jacket, and squeezed water out over the ashes.
He stripped down to his underwear, wondering about next morning's possible embarrassment, and decided to use the damp bath towel as a blanket. The sofa was downy and comfortable. He curled up under the towel, shivered once, and closed his eyes.
He was tired and very sleepy, and his customary nightly review was limited to a few detached thoughts about the wedding he was supposed to attend in Salinas that weekend ... the hoodlum who had responded to his good-nature by dumping him out of his own car ... the slogging walk to the village ... the little round woman who was hurrying off, like the White Rabbit, to some mysterious appointment on the upper floor ...
Then he went to sleep.
A voice awoke him, shrill and questioning.
"Are you nakkid?"
His eyes flew open, and he pulled the towel protectively around his body and glared at the little girl with the rust-red pigtails.
"Huh, mister?" she said, pushing a finger against her freckled nose. "Are you?"
"No," he said angrily. "I'm not naked. Will you please go away?"
"Sally!" It was Mom, appearing in the doorway of the parlor. "You leave the gentleman alone." She went off again.
"Yes," Sol said. "Please let me get dressed. If you don't mind." The girl didn't move. "What time is it?"
"Dunno," Sally shrugged. "I like poached eggs. They're my favorite eggs in the whole world."
"That's good," Sol said desperately. "Now why don't you be a good girl and eat your poached eggs. In the kitchen."
"Ain't ready yet. You going to stay for breakfast?"
"I'm not going to do anything until you get out of here."
She put the end of a pigtail in her mouth and sat down on the chair opposite. "I went to the palace last night. They had an exelution."
"Please," Sol groaned. "Be a good girl, Sally. If you let me get dressed, I'll show you how to take your thumb off."
"Oh, that's an old trick. Did you ever see an exelution?"
"No. Did you ever see a little girl with her hide tanned?"
"Sally!" Mom again, sterner. "You get out of there, or you-know-what ..."
"Okay," the girl said blithely. "I'm goin' to the palace again. If I brush my teeth. Aren't you ever gonna get up?" She skipped out of the room, and Sol hastily sat up and reached for his trousers.
When he had dressed, the clothes still damp and unpleasant against his skin, he went out of the parlor and found the kitchen. Mom was busy at the stove. He said: "Good morning."
"Breakfast in ten minutes," she said cheerfully. "You like poached eggs?"
"Sure. Do you have a telephone?"
"In the hallway. Party line, so you may have to wait."
He tried for fifteen minutes to get through, but there was a woman on the line who was terribly upset about a cotton dress she had ordered from Sears, and was telling the world about it.
Finally, he got his call through to Salinas, and a sleepy-voiced Fred, his old Army buddy, listened somewhat indifferently to his tale of woe. "I might miss the wedding," Sol said unhappily. "I'm awfully sorry." Fred didn't seem to be half as sorry as he was. When Sol hung up, he was feeling more despondent than ever.
A man, tall and rangy, with a bobbing Adam's apple and a lined face, came into the hallway. "Hullo?" he said inquiringly. "You the fella had the car stolen?"
The man scratched his ear. "Take you over to Sheriff Coogan after breakfast. He'll let the Stateys know about it. My name's Dawes."
Sol accepted a careful handshake.
"Don't get many people comin' into town," Dawes said, looking at him curiously. "Ain't seen a stranger in years. But you look like the rest of us." He chuckled.
Mom called out: "Breakfast!"