I crossed to a chest of drawers and investigated it. It was filled with odds and ends of worn and useless apparel bits of string, a few lengths of rope which, I had an ugly suspicion, might once have served as bonds. I paced the floor worrying about Duare. I was helpless. I could do nothing. It would be vain to pound upon the door or call for release. The will that had incarcerated me was supreme here. Only by the voluntary act of that will could I be released.
Seating myself on a rude bench before a small table I tried to plan; I sought to discover some loophole for escape. Apparently there was none. I arose and once again examined the window bars and the sturdy door; they were impregnable.
Finally I crossed to a rickety couch that stood against the wall and lay down upon the worn and odorous hide that covered it. Absolute silence reigned—the silence of the tomb. For a long time it was unbroken; then I heard a sound above me. I listened, trying to interpret it. It was like the slow padding of naked feet—back and forth, to and fro above my head.
I had thought that I was on the top floor of the tower, but now I realized that there must be another room above the one in which I had been placed—if the sound I heard was that of human feet.
Listening to that monotonous padding had a soporific effect upon my jaded nerves. I caught myself dozing a couple of times. I did not wish to go to sleep; something seemed to warn me that I must remain awake, but at last I must have succumbed.
How long I slept I do not know. I awoke with a start, conscious that something touched me. A dim figure was leaning over me. I started to rise. Instantly strong fingers, clutched my throat—cold, clammy fingers—the fingers of Death they seemed.
Struggling, I sought the throat of my antagonist. I closed upon it—it, too, was cold and clammy. I am a strong man, but the Thing upon my chest was stronger. I struck at it with closed fists. From the doorway came a low, hideous laugh. I felt my scalp stiffen to the horror of it all.
I sensed that death was close, and a multitude of thoughts raced through my mind. But uppermost among them were thoughts of Duare, and harrowing regret that I must leave her here in the clutches of the fiend I was now certain was the instigator of this attack upon me. I guessed that its purpose was to dispose of me and thus remove the only possible obstacle that might stand between himself and Duare.
I was still struggling when something struck me on the head; then came oblivion.
It was daylight when I regained consciousness. I still lay upon the couch, sprawled upon my back. Staring up at the ceiling, trying to collect my thoughts and memories, I perceived a crack just above me such as might have been made by a trap door partially raised; and through the crack two eyes were peering down at me.
Some new horror? I did not move. I lay there fascinated, watching the trap door slowly open. Presently a face was revealed. It was the face of a girl, a very beautiful girl; but it was strained and drawn and the eyes were terrified, frightened eyes.
In a whisper, the girl spoke. “You are alive?” she asked.
I raised myself on an elbow. “Who are you?” I demanded. “Is this some new trick to torture me?”
“No. I am a prisoner, too. He has gone away. Perhaps we can escape.”
“How?” I asked. I was still skeptical, believing her a confederate of Skor.
“Can you get up here? There are no bars on my windows; that is because they are so high that no one could jump from them without being killed or badly injured. If we only had a rope!”
I considered the matter for a moment before I replied. What if it was a trick? Could I be any worse off in one room in this accursed castle than in another?
“There is rope down here,” I said. “I will get it and come up. Perhaps there is not enough to be of any use to us, but I will bring what there is.”
“How will you get up?” she asked.
“That will not be difficult. Wait until I get the rope.”
I went to the chest of drawers and took out all the rope and string that I had discovered there the previous night; then I shoved the chest across the floor until it was directly beneath the trap door.
From the top of the chest I could easily reach the edge of the floor above. Handing the rope up to the girl, I quickly drew myself up into the room with her; then she closed the trap and we stood facing each other.
Despite her disheveled and frightened appearance, I found her even more beautiful than I had at first thought her; and as her fine eyes met mine in mutual appraisal my fears of treachery vanished. I was sure no duplicity lurked behind that lovely countenance.
“You need not doubt me,” she said as though she had read my thoughts, “though I cannot wonder that you doubt every one in this terrible place.”
“Then how can you trust me?” I asked. “You know nothing of me.”
“I know enough,” she replied. “From that window I saw you when you and your companion came yesterday with Skor, and I knew that he had two more victims. I heard them bring you to the room below last night. I did not know which one of you it was. I wanted to warn you then, but I was afraid of Skor. I walked the floor for a long time trying to decide what to do.”
“Then it was you I heard walking?”
“Yes. Then I heard them come again; I heard sounds of a scuffle and Skor’s awful laugh. Oh, how I hate and fear that laugh! After that it was quiet. I thought they had killed you, if it was you, or taken the girl away, if it was she they had imprisoned in the room below. Oh, the poor thing! And she is so beautiful. I hope she got away safely, but I am afraid there can be little hope of that.”
“Got away? What do you mean?” I demanded.
“She escaped very early this morning. I do not know how she got out of her room, but from the window I saw her cross the outer courtyard. She climbed the wall on the river side, and she must have dropped into the river. I did not see her again.”
“Duare has escaped! You are sure it was she?”
“It was the beautiful girl who came here with you yesterday. About an hour after she got away Skor must have discovered that she was gone. He came out of the castle in a terrible rage. He took with him all of the miserable creatures that watch the gate, and all his fierce kazars, and set out in pursuit. Possibly never again may we have such an opportunity to escape.”
“Let’s get busy, then!” I exclaimed. “Have you a plan?”
“Yes,” she replied. “With the rope we can lower ourselves to the castle roof and from there to the courtyard. There is no one watching the gate; the kazars are gone. If we are discovered we shall have to trust to our legs, but there are only three or four of Skor’s retainers left in the castle and they are not very alert when he is not here.”
“I have my weapons,” I reminded her. “Skor did not take them from me, and if any of his people try to stop us I will kill them.”
She shook her head. “You cannot kill them,” she whispered, shuddering.
“What do you mean?” I demanded. “Why can I not kill them?”
“Because they are already dead.”
I looked at her in astonishment as the meaning of her words slowly filtered to my shocked brain to explain the pitful creatures that had filled me with such disgust on the previous day.
“But,” I exclaimed, “how can they be dead? I saw them move about and obey the commands of Skor.”
“I do not know,” she replied; “it is Skor’s terrible secret. Presently you will be as they, if we do not escape; and the girl who came with you, and I—after a while. He will keep us a little longer in the flesh for the purpose of his experiments. Every day he takes a little blood from me. He is seeking the secret of life. He says that he can reproduce body cells, and with these he has instilled synthetic life into the poor creatures that he has resurrected from the grave. But it is only a parody on life; no blood flows in those dead veins, and the dead minds are animated only by the thoughts that Skor transmits to them by some occult, telepathic means.
“But what he most desires is the power to reproduce germ cells and thus propagate a new race of beings fashioned according to his own specifications. That is why he takes blood from me; that is why he wanted the girl you call Duare. When our blood has become so depleted that death is near, he will kill us and we will be like these others. But he would not keep us here; he would take us to the city where he rules as jong. Here he keeps only a few poor, degraded specimens; but he says that in Kormor he has many fine ones.”
“So he is a jong? I doubted it.”
“He made himself a jong and created his own subjects,” she said.
“And he kept you only to draw blood from you?”
“Yes. He is not like other men; he is not human.”
“How long have you been here?”
“A long time; but I am still alive because Skor has been away most of the time in Kormor.”
“Well, we must get away, too, before he returns. I want to search for Duare.”
I went to one of the windows, none of which was barred, and looked down on the castle roof below, a distance of about twenty feet. Then I got the rope and examined it carefully. There were several pieces, in all about forty feet—more than enough; also it was stout rope. I tied the pieces together and then returned to the window. The girl was at my elbow.
“Can anyone see us from here?” I asked.
“The creatures are not very alert,” she replied. “Those that Skor left here are the servants. They remain in a room on the first floor on the other side of the castle. When he is away they just sit. After a while two of them will bring food for us; and we should get away before they come, for sometimes they forget to go back to their quarters; then they sit around outside my door for hours. You will notice that there is a grille in the door; they would see us if we attempted to escape while they were there.”
“We’ll start now,” I said. Then I made a loop in one end of the rope and passed it around the girl’s body so that she could sit in it while I lowered her to the roof.
Without an instant’s hesitation she stepped to the sill of the window and lowered herself over the edge until she was seated securely in the loop. Bracing my feet against the wall, I let her down rapidly until I felt the rope go slack in my hands.
I then dragged her cot close beneath the window, passed the free end of the rope beneath it and out the window, letting it fall toward the roof below. This gave me two strands of rope reaching to the roof with the middle part of the rope passing around the cot which was too large to be dragged through the window by my weight as I descended.
Grasping both strands firmly in my two hands, I slipped through the window and slid quickly to the side of the waiting girl; then I pulled in rapidly on one end of the rope, dragging the free end around the cot until it fell to the roof. Thus I retrieved the rope for use in descending the remainder of the way to the ground.
We crossed the roof quickly to the edge overlooking the outer courtyard into which we expected to descend. There was no one in sight, and I was just about to lower the girl over the edge when a loud shout from behind us startled us both.
Turning, we saw three of Skor’s creatures looking at us from an upper window of the castle on the opposite side of the inner court. Almost as we turned, the three left the window and we could hear them shouting through the castle.
“What shall we do?” cried the girl. “We are lost!” They will come to the roof by the tower door, and they will have us trapped. They were not the servants; they were three of his armed men. I thought they had all accompanied him, but I was wrong.”
I said nothing, but I seized her hand and started toward the far end of the castle roof. A sudden hope had flared within me, born of an idea suggested by what the girl had told me of Duare’s escape.
We ran as fast as we could, and when we reached the edge we looked down upon the river lapping the castle wall two stories below. I passed the rope about the girl’s waist. She asked no question; she made no comment. Quickly she climbed over the low parapet, and I commenced lowering her toward the river below.
Hideous mouthings arose behind me. I turned and saw three dead men running toward me across the roof. Then I lowered away so rapidly that the rope burned my fingers, but there was no time to lose. I feared that they would be upon me before I could lower the girl to the dubious safety of the swirling waters.
Nearer and nearer sounded the hurrying footsteps and the incoherent yammerings of the corpses. I heard a splash, and the rope went slack in my fingers. I glanced behind. The nearest of the creatures was already extending his hands to seize me. It was one of those that I noticed at the gate the day before; I recognized it by the bloodless gash across its cheek. Its dead eyes were expressionless—glazed and staring—but its mouth was contorted in a ghastly snarl.
Immediate recapture faced me; there was but a single alternative. I sprang to the top of the parapet and leaped. I have always been a good diver, but I doubt that I ever made a prettier swan dive in my life than I did that day from the parapet of the gloomy castle of Skor, the jong of Morov.
As I rose to the surface of the river, shaking the water from my eyes, I looked about for the girl; she was nowhere to be seen. I knew that she could not have reached the river bank in the short time that had elapsed since I had lowered her into the water, for the masonry of the castle and the walls which extended it both above and below the building offered not even a hand-hold for hundreds of feet in both directions, and the opposite shore was too far away.
I cast about me in all directions as the current carried me down stream, and I saw her head rise above the surface of the water a short distance below me. Swiftly I struck out for her. She went down again just before I reached her, but I dived for her and brought her to the surface. She was still conscious but almost out.
Glancing back at the castle, I saw that my would-be captors had disappeared from the roof; and I guessed that they would shortly appear on the bank of the river ready to seize us when we emerged. But I had no intention of emerging on their side.
Dragging the girl with me, I struck out for the opposite shore. The river here was considerably deeper and broader than at the point we had first encountered it farther up stream. Now it was quite a river. What strange creatures inhabited its depths I had no means of knowing. I could only hope that none would discover us.
The girl lay very quiet; she did not struggle at all. I began to fear that she was dead and I exerted myself still more to reach the bank quickly. The current-bore us down stream, and I was glad of that, for it was taking us farther away from the castle and retainers of Skor.
At last I reached the bank and dragged the girl out onto a little patch of pale violet grass and set to work to resuscitate her, but even as I commenced she opened her eyes and looked up at me. A shadow of a smile touched her lips.
“I shall be all right in a minute,” she said weakly. “I was so frightened.”
“Don’t you know how to swim?” I asked.
She shook her head. “No.”
“And you let me lower you into the river without telling me!” I was amazed by the sheer bravery of her act.
“There was nothing else to do,” she said simply. “Had I told you, you would not have lowered me, and we both should have been recaptured. I do not see even now how you got down before they seized you.”
“I dived,” I explained.
“You jumped from the top of that castle! It is incredible!”
“You do not come from a land where there is much water,” I commented with a laugh.
“What makes you think so?”
“If you did you would have seen enough diving to know that mine was nothing extraordinary.”
“My country is in a mountainous district,” she admitted, “where the streams are torrents and there is little swimming.”
“And where is that?” I asked.
“Oh, it is very far,” she replied. “I do not even know where.”
“How did you happen to get into Skor’s country?”
“During a war in my country I was captured with others by the enemy. They carried us down out of the mountains into a great plain. One night two of us escaped. My companion was a soldier who had been long in the service of my father. He was very loyal. He tried to return me to my country, but we became lost. I do not know how long we wandered, but at last we came to a great river.
“Here were people who went in boats upon the river. They lived in the boats always, fighing. They sought to capture us, and my companion was killed defending me; then they took me. But I was not with them long. The first night several men were quarreling over me; each of them claimed me as his own. And while they quarreled, I slipped into a small boat tied to the larger one and floated away down the great river.
“I drifted for many days and nearly starved to death, although I saw fruits and nuts growing along the banks of the river. But the boat was without oars and was so heavy that I could not bring it in to shore.
“Finally it ran aground by itself on a sand bar where the river ran slowly about a great bend, and it chanced that Skor was hunting near and saw me. That is all. I have been here a long time.”