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.
We looked quickly around us. Lids were being raised on innumerable chests, and cries were coming from others the lids of which were held down by the chests on top of them. Armed men were emerging—warriors in gorgeous harness. Women, rubbing their eyes and looking about them in bewilderment.
From the corridor others began to converge upon the chamber, guided by our light.
“What is the meaning of this?” demanded a large man, magnificently trapped. “Who brought me here? Who are you?” He looked around him, evidently bewildered, as though searching for some familiar face.
“Perhaps I can enlighten you?” I said. “We are in the pits of Horz. I have been here only a few hours, but if this dead thing on the floor spoke the truth some of you must have been here for ages. You have been held by the hypnotic power of this mad creature. His death has freed you.”
The man looked down at the staring head upon the floor. “Lum Tar O!” he exclaimed. “He sent for me—asked me to come and see him on an important matter. And you have killed him. You must account to me—tomorrow. Now I must return to my guests.”
There was a layer of dust on the man’s face and body. By that I knew that he must have been here a long time, and presently my surmise was substantiated in a most dramatic manner.
The awakened men and women were forcing their way from the chests in which they had been kept. Some of those in the lower tiers were having difficulty in dislodging the chests piled on top of them. There was a great clattering and tumult as empty chests toppled to the floor. There was a babel of conversation.
There were bewilderment and confusion.
A dusty nobleman crawled from one of the chests. Instantly he and the large man who had just spoken recognized one another. “What is the matter with you?” demanded the latter. “You are all covered with dust. Why did you come down? Come! I must get back to my guests.”
The other shook his head in evident bewilderment. “Your guests, Kam Han Tor!” he exclaimed. “Did you expect your guests to wait twenty years for you to return.”
“Twenty years! What do you mean?”
“I was your guest twenty years ago. You left in the middle of the banquet and never returned.”
“Twenty years? You are mad!” exclaimed Kam Han Tor. He looked at me and then at the grinning head upon the floor, and he commenced to weaken. I could see it.
The other man was feeling of his own face and looking at the dust he wiped from it. “You, too, are covered with dust,” he said to Kam Han Tor.
Kam Han Tor looked down at his body and harness; then he wiped his face and looked at his fingers. “Twenty years!” he exclaimed, and then he looked down at the head of Lum Tar O. “You vile beast!” he exclaimed. “I was your friend, and you did this to me!” He turned then to me. “Forget what I said. I did not understand. Whoever you may be, permit me to assure you that my sword is always in your service.”
I bowed in acknowledgment.
“Twenty years!” repeated Kam Han Tor, as though he still could not believe it.
“My great ship! It was to have sailed from the harbor of Horz the day following my banquet—the greatest ship that ever had been built. Now it is old, perhaps obsolete; and I have never seen it. Tell me—did it sail well? Is it still a proud ship?”
“I saw it as it sailed out upon Throxeus,” said the other. “It was a proud ship indeed, but it never returned from that first voyage; nor was any word ever heard of it. It must have been lost with all hands.”
Kam Han Tor shook his head sadly, and then he straightcned up and squared his shoulders. “I shall build another,” he said, “an even greater ship, to sail the mightiest of Barsoom’s five seas.”
Now I commenced to understand what I had suspected but could not believe. It was absolutely astounding. I was looking at and conversing with men who had lived hundreds of thousands of years ago, when Throxeus and the other four oceans of ancient Mars had covered what are now the vast desert wastes of dead sea bottom; when a great merchant marine carried on the commerce of the fair-skinned, blond race that had supposedly been extinct for countless ages.
I stepped closer to Kam Han Tor and laid a hand upon his shoulder. The men and women who had been released from Lum Tar O’s malicious spell had gathered around us, listening. “I am sorry to disillusion you, Kam Han Tor,” I said; “but you will build no ship, nor will any ship ever again sail Throxeus.”
“What do you mean. he demanded. “Who is to stop Kam Han Tor, brother of the jeddak, from building ships and sailing them upon Throxeus?”
“There is no Throxeus, my friend,” I said.
“No Throxeus? You are mad!”
“You have been here in the pits of Horz for countless ages,” I explained, “and during that time the five great oceans of Barsoom have dried up. There are no oceans. There is no commerce. The race to which you belonged is extinct.”
“Man, you are mad!” he cried.
“Do you know how to get out of these pits?” I asked—“out into the city proper—not up through the—” I was going to say citadel but I recalled that there had been no citadel when these people had been lured to the pits.
“You mean not up through my palace?” asked Kam Han Tor.
“Yes,” I said, “not up through your palace, but out toward the quays; then I can show you that there is no longer a Throxeus.”
“Certainly I know the way,” he said. “Were these pits not built according to my plans!”
“Come, then,” I said.
A man was standing looking down on the head of Lum Tar O. “If what this man says is true,” he said to Kam Han Tor, “Lum Tar O must have lived many ages ago. How then could he have survived all these ages? How have we survived?”
“You were existing in a state of suspended animation,” I said; “but as for Lum Tar O—that is a mystery.”
“Perhaps not such a mystery after all,” replied the man. “I knew Lum Tar O well. He was a weakling and a coward with the psychological reactions of the weakling and the coward. He hated all who were brave and strong, and these he wished to harm. His only friend was Lee Um Lo, the most famous embalmer the world had ever known; and when Lum Tar O died, Lee Um Lo embalmed his body. Evidently he did such a magnificent job that Lum Tar O’s corpse never realized that Lum Tar O was dead, and went right on functioning as in life. That would account for the great span of years that the Thing has existed—not a human being; not a live creature, at all; just a corpse the malign brain of which still functioned.”
As the man finished speaking there was a commotion at the entrance to the chamber. A large man, almost naked, rushed in. He was very angry. “What is the meaning of this?” he demanded. “What am I doing here? What are you all doing here? Who stole my harness and my weapons?”
It was then that I recognized him—Hor Kai Lan, whose metal I wore. He was very much excited, and I couldn’t blame him much. He forced his way through the crowd, and the moment he laid eyes upon me he recognized his belongings.
“Thief!” he cried. “Give me back my harness and my weapons!”
“I’m sorry,” I said; “but unless you will furnish me with others, I shall have to keep these.”
“Calot!” he fairly screamed. “Do you realize to whom you are speaking? I am Hor Kai Lan, brother of the jeddak.”
Kam Han Tor looked at him in amazement. “You have been dead over five hundred years, Hor Kai Lan,” he exclaimed, “and so has your brother. My brother succeeded the last jeddak in the year 27M382J4.”
“You have all been dead for ages,” said Pan Dan Chee. “Even that calendar is a thing of the dead past.”
I thought Hor Kai Lan was going to burst a blood vessel then. “Who are you?” he screamed. “I place you under arrest. I place you all under arrest. Ho! the guard!”
Kam Han Tor tried to pacify him, and at least succeeded in getting him to agree to accompany us to the quays to settle the question of the existence of Throxeus, which would definitely prove or disprove the unhappy truths I had been forced to explain to them.
As we started out, led by Kam Han Tor, I noticed the lid of a chest moving slightly. It was raised little by little, and I could see two eyes peering out through the crack made by the lifting of the lid; then suddenly a girl’s voice cried, “John Carter, Prince of Helium! May my first ancestor be blessed!”