“I am quite sure of it,” I agreed, with a smile. If we were sufficiently well lost, we might not find the entrance before the next noon; in which event Pan Dan Chee would be free to go where he pleased, and I had a pretty good idea of where he pleased to go.
Now, I am no matchmaker; nor neither do I believe in standing in the way to prevent the meeting of a man and a maid. I believe in letting nature take her course. If Pan Dan Chee thought he was in love with Llana of Gathol and wished to go to Gathol and try to win her, I would only have discouraged the idea had he been a man of low origin or of a dishonorable nature. He was neither. The race to which he belonged is the oldest of the cultured races of Barsoom, and Pan Dan Chee had proved himself a man of honor.
I had no reason to believe that his suit would meet with any success. Llana of Gathol was still very young, but even so the swords of some of the greatest houses of Barsoom had been lain at her feet. Like nearly all Martian women of high degree she knew her mind. Like so many of them, she might be abducted by some impetuous suitor; and she would either love him or slip a dagger between his ribs, but she would never mate with a man she did not love. I was more fearful for Pan Dan Chee than I was for Llana of Gathol.
We retraced our steps and tried another corridor, yet still no entrance. We lay down and rested; then we tried again. The result was the same.
“It must be nearly morning,” said Pan Dan Chee.
“It is,” I said, consulting my chronometer. “It is almost noon.”
Of course I didn’t use the term noon; but rather the Barsoomian equivalent, 25 xats past the 3rd zode, which is 12 noon Earth time.
“We must hurry!” exclaimed Pan Dan Chee.
A hollow laugh sounded behind us; and, turning quickly, we saw a light in the distance. It disappeared immediately. “Why should we hurry?” I demanded. “We have done the best we could. That we did not find our way back to the citadel and death is no fault of ours.”
Pan Dan Chee nodded. “And no matter how much we may hurry, there is little likelihood that we shall ever find the entrance.”
Of course this was wishful thinking, but it was also quite accurate thinking. We never did find the entrance to the citadel.
“This is the second time we have heard that laugh and seen that light,” said Pan Dan Chee. “I think we should investigate it. Perhaps he who makes the light and voices the laugh may be able to direct us to the entrance.”
“I have no objection to investigating,” I said, “but I doubt that we shall find a friend if we find the author.”
“It is most mystifying,” said Pan Dan Chee. “All my life I have believed, as all other inhabitants of Horz have believed, that the pits of Horz were deserted. A long time ago, perhaps ages, some venturesome men entered the pits to investigate them. These incursions occurred at intervals, and none of those who entered the pits ever returned. It was assumed that they became lost, and starved to death. Perhaps they, too, heard the laughter and saw the lights!”
“Perhaps,” I said.
Pan Dan Chee and I lost all sense of time, so long were we in the pits of Horz without food or water. It could not have been more than two days, as we still had strength; and more than two days without water will sap the strength of the best of men. Twice more we saw the light and heard the laughter. That laugh! I can hear it yet. I tried to think that it was human. I didn’t want to go mad.
Pan Dan Chee said, “Let’s find it and drink its blood!”
“No, Pan Dan Chee,” I counseled. “We are men, not beasts.”
“You are right,” he said. “I was losing control.”
“Let’s use our heads,” I said. “He knows always where we are, because always he can see the light of our torch. Suppose we extinguish it, and creep forward silently. If he has curiosity, he will investigate. We shall listen attentively, and we shall hear his footfalls.” I had it all worked out beautifully, and Pan Dan Chee agreed that it was a perfect plan. I think he still had in mind the drinking of the creature’s blood, when we should find it. I was approaching a point when I might have taken a drink myself. God! If you have never suffered from hunger and thirst, don’t judge others too harshly.
We extinguished the torch. We each had one, but there was no use in keeping both lighted. The light of one could have been raised to a brilliancy that would have blinded. We crept silently forward in the direction that we had last seen the light. Our swords were drawn. Three times already we had been set upon by the huge ulsios of these ancient pits of Horz, but at these times we had had the advantage of the light of our torch. I could not but wonder how we would come out if one of them attacked us now.
The darkness was total, and there was no sound. We clung to our weapons so that they would not clank against our metal. We lifted our sandaled feet high and placed them gently on the stone flooring. There was no scuffing. There was no sound. We scarcely breathed.
Presently a light appeared before us. We halted, waiting, listening. I saw a figure. Perhaps it was human, perhaps not. I touched Pan Dan Chee lightly on the arm, and moved forward. He came with me. We made no sound— absolutely no sound.
I think that we each held his breath.
The light grew brighter. Now I could see a head and shoulder protruding from a doorway at the side of the corridor. The thing had the contour of humanity at least. I could imagine that it was concerned over our sudden disappearance. It was wondering what had become of us. It withdrew within the doorway where it had stood, but the light persisted. We could see it shining from the interior of the cell or room into which the THING had withdrawn.
We crept closer. Here might lie the answer to our quest for water and for food.
If the THING were human, it would require both; and if it had them, we should have them.
Silently we approached the doorway from which the light streamed out into the corridor. Our swords were drawn. I was in the lead. I felt that if the THING had any warning of our approach, it would disappear. That must not happen. We must see IT. We must seize IT, and we must force IT to give us water—food and water!
I reached the doorway, and as I stepped into the opening I had a momentary glimpse of a strange figure; and then all was plunged into darkness and a hollow laugh reverberated through the Stygian blackness of the pits of Horz.
In my right hand I held the long-sword of that long dead Orovaran from whose body I had filched it. In my left hand I held the amazing torch of the Horzans.
When the light in the chamber was extinguished, I pushed up the thumb button of my torch; and the apartment before me was flooded with light.
I saw a large chamber filled with many chests. There was a simple couch, a bench, a table, bookshelves filled with books, an ancient Martian stove, a reservoir of water, and the strangest figure of a man my eyes had ever rested upon.
I rushed at him and held my sword against his heart, for I did not wish him to escape. He cowered and screamed, beseeching his life.
“We want water,” I said; “water and food. Give us these and offer us no harm, and you will be safe.”
“Help yourselves,” he said. “There is water and food here, but tell me who you are and how you got here to the pits of ancient Horz, dead Horz— dead for countless ages. I have been waiting for ages for some one to come, and now you have come. You are welcome. We shall be great friends. You shall stay here with me forever, as all the countless others have. I shall have company in the lonely pits of Horz.” Then he laughed maniacally.
It was evident that the creature was quite mad. He not only looked it, he acted it. Sometimes his speech was inarticulate gibber; often it was broken by meaningless and inopportune laughter—the hollow laugh that we had heard before.
His appearance was most repulsive. He was naked except for the harness which supported a sword and a dagger, and the skin of his malformed body was a ghastly white—the color of a corpse. His flabby mouth hung open, revealing a few yellow, snaggled fangs. His eyes were wide and round, the whites showing entirely around the irises. He had no nose; it appeared to have been eaten away by disease.
I kept my eye on him constantly while Pan Dan Chee drank; then he watched him while I slaked my thirst, and an the while the creature kept up a running fire of senseless chatter. He would take a word like calot, for instance, and keep repeating it over and over just as though he were carrying on a conversation.
You could detect an interrogatory sentence by his inflection, as also the declarative, imperative, and exclamatory. All the time, he kept gesturing like a Fourth of July orator.
At last he said, “You seem very stupid, but eventually you may understand. And now about food: You prefer your ulsio raw, I presume; or shall I cook it?”
“Ulsio!” exclaimed Pan Dan Chee. “You don’t mean to say that you eat ulsio!”
“A great delicacy,” said the creature.
“Have you nothing else?” demanded Pan Dan Chee.
“There is a little of Ro Tan Bim left,” said the THING, “but he is getting a bit high even for an epicure like me.”
Pan Dan Chee looked at me. “I am not hungry,” I said “Come! Let’s try to get out of here.” I turned to the old man. “Which corridor leads out into the city?” I asked.
“You must rest,” he said; “then I will show you. Lie down upon that couch and rest.”
I had always heard that it is best to humor the insane; and as I was asking a favor of this creature, it seemed the wise thing to do. Furthermore, both Pan Dan Chee and I were very tired; so we lay down on the couch and the old man drew up a bench and sat down beside us. He commenced to talk in a low, soothing voice.
“You are very tired,” he said, over and over again monotonously, his great eyes fixed first upon one of us and then upon the other. I felt my muscles relaxing.
I saw Pan Dan Chee’s lids drooping. “Soon you will be asleep,” whispered the old man of the pits. “You will sleep and sleep and sleep, perhaps for ages as have these others. You will only awaken when I tell you to or when I die—and I shall never die. You robbed Hor Kai Lan of his harness and weapons.” He looked at me as he spoke. “Hor Kai Lan would be very angry were he to awaken and find that you have stolen his weapons, but Hor Kai Lan will not awaken. He has been asleep for so many ages that even I have forgotten. It is in my book, but what difference does it make? What difference does it make who wears the harness of Hor Kai Lan? No one will ever use his swords again; and, anyway, when Ro Tan Bim is gone, maybe I shall use Hor Kai Lan. Maybe I shall use you. Who knows?”
His voice was like a dreamy lullaby. I felt myself sinking into pleasant slumber. I glanced at Pan Dan Chee. He was fast asleep. And then the import of the THING’S words reached my reasoning mind. By hypnosis we were being condemned to a living death! I sought to shake the lethargy from me. I brought to bear what remained to me of my will power. Always my mind has been stronger than that of any Martian against whose mind I have pitted it.
The horror of the situation lent me strength: the thought of lying here for countless ages collecting the dust of the pits of Horz, or of being eaten by this snaggled toothed maniac! I put every ounce of my will power into a final, terrific effort to break the bonds that held me. It was even more devastating than a physical effort. I broke out into violent perspiration. I felt myself trembling from head to feet. Would I succeed?
The old man evidently realized the battle I was making for freedom, as he redoubled his efforts to hold me. His voice and his eyes wrapped themselves about me with almost physical force. The THING was sweating now, so strenuous were its endeavors to enthrall my mind. Would it succeed?
I was winning! I knew that I was winning! And the THING must have known it, too; for I saw it slipping its dagger from the sheath at its side. If it couldn’t hold me in the semblance of death, it would hold me in actual death. I sought to wrench myself free from the last weakening tentacles of the THING’S malign mental forces before it could strike the fatal blow that would spell death for me and the equivalent of death for Pan Dan Chee.
The dagger hand rose above me. Those hideous eyes glared down into mine, lighted by the Hellish fires of insanity; and then, in that last instant, I won! I was free. I struck the dagger hand from me and leaped to my feet, the good longsword of Hor Kai Lan already in my hand.
The THING cowered and screamed. It screamed for help where there was no help, and then it drew its sword. I would not defile the fine art of my swordsmanship by crossing blades with such as this. I recalled its boast that Pan Dan Chee and I would sleep until it awoke us or it died. That alone was enough to determine me—I would be no duelist, but an executioner and a liberator.
I cut once, and the foul head rolled to the stone floor of the pits of Horz. I looked at Pan Dan Chee. He was awakening. He rolled over and stretched; then he sat up and looked at me, questioningly. His eyes wandered to the torso and the head lying on the floor.
“What happened?” he asked.
Before I could reply, I was interrupted by a volley of sound coming from the chamber in which we were and from other chambers in the pits of Horz.