The entrance to the pits of Horz was in a small, windowless building near the rear wall of the citadel. It was closed by massive gates that creaked on corroded hinges as two of the warriors who had accompanied us pushed them open.
“It is dark in there,” said Pan Dan Chee. “We’ll break our necks without a light.”
Lan Sohn Wen, being a good fellow, sent one of his men for some torches; and when he returned, Pan Dan Chee and I entered the gloomy cavern.
We had taken but a few steps toward the head of a rock hewn ramp that ran downward into Stygian darkness, when Lan Sohn Wen cried, “Wait! Where is the key to these gates?”
“The keeper of the keys of some great jeddak who lived thousands of years ago may have known,” replied Pan Dan Chee, “but I don’t.”
“But how am I going to lock you in?” demanded Lan Sohn Wen.
“The Jeddak didn’t tell you to lock us in,” said Pan Dan Chee. “He said to take us to the pits and leave us there for the night. I distinctly recall his very words.”
Lan Sohn Wen was in a quandary, but at last he hit upon an avenue of escape.
“Come,” he said, “I shall take you back to the Jeddak and explain that there are no keys; then it will be up to him.”
“And you know what he will do!” said Pan Dan Chee.
“What?” asked Lan Sohn Wen.
“He will order us destroyed at once. Come, Lan Sohn Wen, do not condemn us to immediate death. Post a guard here at the gates, with orders to kill us if we try to escape.”
Lan Sohn Wen considered this for a moment, and finally nodded his head in acquiescence. “That is an excellent plan,” he said, and then he detailed two warriors to stand guard; and arranged for their relief, after which he wished us good night and departed with his warriors.
I have never seen such courteous and considerate people as the Orovars; it might almost be a pleasure to have one’s throat slit by one of them, he would be so polite about it. They are the absolute opposites of their hereditary enemies, the green men; for these are endowed with neither courtesy, consideration, nor kindness. They are cold, cruel, abysmal brutes to whom love is unknown and whose creed is hate. Nevertheless, the pits of Horz was not a pleasant place. The dust of ages lay upon the ramp down which we walked. From its end a corridor stretched away beyond the limits of our torchlight. It was a wide corridor, with doors opening from it on either side. These, I presumed, were the dungeons where ancient jeddaks had confined their enemies. I asked Pan Dan Chee.
“Probably,” he said, “though our jeddaks have never used them.”
“Have they never had enemies?” I asked.
“Certainly, but they have considered it cruel to imprison men in dark holes like this; so they have always destroyed them immediately they were suspected of being enemies.”
“Then why are the pits here?” I demanded.
“Oh, they were built when the city was built, perhaps a million years ago, perhaps more. It just chanced that the citadel was built around the entrance.”
I glanced into one of the dungeons. A mouldering skeleton lay upon the floor, the rusted irons that had secured it to the wall lying among its bones. In the next dungeon were three skeletons and two magnificently carved, metal bound chests. As Pan Dan Chee raised the lid of one of them I could scarce repress a gasp of astonishment and admiration. The chest was filled with magnificent gems in settings of elaborate beauty, specimens of forgotten arts, the handicraft of master craftsmen who had lived a million years ago. I think that nothing that I had ever seen before had so impressed me. And it was depressing, for these jewels had been worn by lovely women and brave men who had disappeared into an oblivion so complete that not even a memory of them remained.
My reverie was interrupted by the sound of shuffling feet behind me. I wheeled; and, instinctively, my hand flew to where the hilt of a sword should have been but was not. Facing me, and ready to spring upon me, was the largest ulsio I had ever seen.
These Martian rats are fierce and unlovely things. They are many legged and hairless, their hide resembling that of a new-born mouse in repulsiveness. Their eyes are small and close set and almost hidden in deep, fleshy apertures. Their most ferocious and repulsive features, however, are their jaws, the entire bony structure of which protrudes several inches beyond the flesh, revealing five sharp, spadelike teeth in each jaw, the whole suggesting the appearance of a rotting face from which much of the flesh has sloughed away. Ordinarily they are about the size of an Airedale terrier, but the thing that leaped for me in the pits of Horz that day was as large as a small puma and ten times as ferocious.
As the creature leaped for my throat, I struck it a heavy blow on the side of its head and knocked it to one side; but it was up at once and at me again; then Pan Dan Chee came into the scene. They had not disarmed him, and with short-sword he set upon the ulsio.
It was quite a battle. That ulsio was the most ferocious and most determined beast I had ever seen, and it gave Pan Dan Chee the fight of his life. He had knocked off two of its six legs, an ear, and most of its teeth before the ferocity of its repeated attacks abated at all. It was almost cut to ribbons, yet it always forced the fighting. I could only stand and look on, which is not such a part in a fight as I like to take. At last, however, it was over; the ulsio was dead, and Pan Dan Chee looked at me and smiled.
He was looking around for something upon which he might wipe the blood from his blade. “Perhaps there is something in this other chest,” I suggested; and, walking to it, I lifted the lid.
The chest was about seven feet long, two and a half wide and two deep. In it lay the body of a man. His elaborate harness was encrusted with jewels. He wore a helmet entirely covered with diamonds, one of the few helmets I had ever seen upon Mars. The scabbards of his long-sword, his shortsword, and his dagger were similarly emblazoned.
He had been a very handsome man, and he was still a handsome corpse. So perfectly was he preserved that, in so far as appearances went, he might still have been alive but for the thin layer of dust overlying his features. When I blew this away he looked quite as alive as you or I.
“You bury your dead here?” I asked Pan Dan Chee, but he shook his head.
“No,” he replied. “This chap may have been here a million years.”
“Nonsense!” I exclaimed. “He would have dried up and blown away thousands of years ago.”
“I don’t know about that,” said Pan Dan Chee. “There were lots of things that those old fellows knew that are lost arts today. Embalming, I know, was one of them. There is the legend of Lee Um Lo, the most famous embalmer of all time. It recounts that his work was so perfect that not even the corpse, himself, knew that he was dead; and upon several occasions they arose and walked out during the funeral services. The end of Lee Um Lo came when the wife of a great jeddak failed to realize that she was dead, and walked right in on the jeddak and his new wife. The next day Lee Um Lo lost his head.”
“It is a good story,” I said, laughing; “but I hope this chap realizes that he is dead; because I am about to disarm him. Little could he have dreamed a million years ago that one day he was going to rearm The Warlord of Barsoom.”
Pan Dan Chee helped me raise the corpse and remove its harness; and we were both rather startled by the soft, pliable texture of the flesh and its normal warmth.
“Do you suppose we could be mistaken?” I asked. “Could it be that he is not dead?”
Pan Dan Chee shrugged. “The knowledge and the arts of the ancients are beyond the ken of modern man,” he said.
“That doesn’t help a bit,” I said. “Do you think this chap can be alive?”
“His face was covered with dust,” said Pan Dan Chee, “and no one has been in these pits for thousands and thousands of years. If he isn’t dead, he should be.”
I quite agreed, and buckled the gorgeous harness about me without more ado. I drew the swords and the dagger and examined them. They were as bright and fine as the day they had received their first polish, and their edges were keen. Once again, I felt like a whole man, so much is a sword a part of me.
As we stepped out into the corridor I saw a light far away. It was gone almost in the instant. “Did you see that?” I asked Pan Dan Chee.
“I saw it,” he said, and his voice was troubled. “There should be no light here, for there are no people.”
We stood straining our eyes along the corridor for a repetition of the light.
There was none but from afar there echoed down that black corridor a hollow laugh.