“So!” he exclaimed; “it is you? Well, well. It is good to see you again. I did not expect to be so honored. I thought Fortune had been very kind to me when she returned the two young women. And now you have come! What a merry party we shall have!”
With the last words his tone, which had been sarcastically bantering, changed; he fairly hissed that gay sentence. And the expression on his face changed too. It became suddenly malevolent, and his eyes glittered with the same mad fire of insanity that I had seen there before.
Behind him stood Duare, her wide eyes fixed upon me with incredulity mixed with terror. “Oh, why did you come, Carson?” she cried. “Now he will kill you.”
“I will tell you why he came,” said Skor. “He came for the other girl, for Nalte, not for you. You have been here a long time, but he did not come. To-night one of my people seized the girl, Nalte, in Havatoo; and he came immediately to try to rescue her, the fool. I have known for a long time that they were in Havatoo. My spies have seen them there together. I do not know how he got here, but here he is—and here he stays, forever.”
He poked me in the belly with the point of his sword. “How would you like to die, fool?” he snarled. “A quick thrust through the heart, perhaps. That would mutilate you least. You will make a fine specimen. Come, now, what have you to say? Remember this will be the last chance you will have to think with your own brain; hereafter I shall do your thinking for you. You will sit in my banquet hall, and you will laugh when I tell you to laugh. You will see the two women who loved you, but they will shrink from the touch of your clammy hands, from your cold, dead lips. And whenever you see them they will be with Skor in whose veins flows the bright blood of life.”
My plight seemed quite hopeless. The sword at my belly was long, keen, and two-edged. I might have grasped it, but its edges were so sharp that it would have slipped through my fingers, severing them as it plunged into my body. Yet that I intended doing. I would not wait like a sheep the lethal blow of the butcher.
“You do not reply,” said Skor. “Very well, we will have it over quickly!” He drew back his sword hand for the thrust.
Duare was standing behind him beside a table littered with the sort of junk to which Skor seemed partial—his crazy objects d’art. I was waiting to seize the blade when he thrust. Skor hesitated a moment, I presume to better enjoy my final agony; but in that he was disappointed. I would not give him that satisfaction; and so, to rob him of most of his pleasure, I laughed in his face.
At that moment Duare raised a heavy vase from the table, held it high above her, and crashed it down on Skor’s head. Without a sound he sank to the floor.
I leaped across his body to take Duare into my arms, but with a palm against my breast she pushed me away.
“Do not touch me!” she snapped. “If you want to get out of Kormor there is no time to be wasted. Come with me! I know where the girl you came to rescue is imprisoned.”
Her whole attitude toward me seemed to have changed, and my pride was piqued. In silence I followed her from the room. She led me into the corridor along which we had approached the room to which I had followed her and Skor. Opening a door at one side, she hurried along another corridor and stopped before a heavily bolted door.
“She is in here,” she said.
I drew the bolts and opened the door. Standing in the middle of the room beyond, looking straight at me, was Nalte. As she recognized me she gave a little cry of joy and, running toward me, threw her arms about me.
“Oh, Carson! Carson!” she cried. “I knew that you would come; something told me that you would surely come.”
“We must hurry,” I told her. “We must get out of here.”
I turned toward the door. Duare stood there, her chin in the air, her eyes flashing; but she said nothing. Nalte saw her then and recognized her. “Oh, it is you!” she exclaimed. “You are alive! I am so glad. We thought that you had been killed.”
Duare seemed puzzled by the evident sincerity of Nalte’s manner, as though she had not expected that Nalte would be glad that she was alive. She softened a little. “If we are to escape from Kormor, though I doubt that we can, we must not remain here,” she said. “I think that I know a way out of the castle—a secret way that Skor uses. He showed me the door once during some strange mood of his insanity; but he has the key to the door on his person, and we must get that before we can do anything else.”
We returned to the room where we had left Skor’s body, and as I entered it I saw the jong of Morov stir and try to rise. He was not dead, though how he had survived that shattering blow I do not know.
I ran toward him and threw him down. He was still only half conscious and made little or no resistance. I suppose I should have killed him, but I shrank from killing a defenseless man—even a fiend like Skor. Instead I bound and gagged him; then I searched him and found his keys.
After that Duare led us to the second floor of the palace and to a large room furnished in the bizarre taste that was Skor’s. She crossed the apartment and drew aside a grotesque hanging, revealing a small door behind
“Here is the door,” she said; “see if you can find a key to fit the lock.”
I tried several keys, and at last found the right one. The opened door revealed a narrow corridor which we entered after rearranging the hangings, and then closed the door behind us. A few steps brought us to the top of a spiral staircase. I went first, carrying Skor’s sword which I had taken from him with his keys. The two girls followed closely behind me.
The stairway was lighted, for which I was glad, since it permitted us to move more rapidly and with greater safety. At the bottom was another corridor. I waited there until both girls stood beside me.
“Do you know where this corridor leads?” I asked Duare.
“No,” she replied. “All that Skor said was that he could get out of the castle this way without any one seeing him—he always came and went this way. Practically everything that he did, the most commonplace things in life, he veiled with mystery and secrecy.”
“From the height of that stairway,” I said, “I believe that we are below the ground level of the palace. I wish that we knew where this corridor ends, but there is only one way to find out. Come on!”
This corridor was but dimly illuminated by the light from the stairway, and the farther we went from the stairway the darker it became. It ran straight for a considerable distance, ending at the foot of a wooden stairway. Up this I groped my way only a few steps, when my head came in contact with a solid substance above me. I reached up and felt of the obstruction. It consisted of planking and was obviously a trap door. I tried to raise it, but could not. Then I searched around its edges with my fingers, and at last I found that which I sought—a latch. Tripping it, I pushed again; and the door gave. I opened it only an inch or two, but no light showed in the crack. Then I opened it wider and raised my head through the aperture.
Now I could see more, but not much more—only the dark interior of a room with a single small window through which the night light of Amtor showed dimly. Grasping the sword of the jong of Morov more tightly I ascended the stairway and entered the room. I heard no sound.
The girls had followed me and now stood just behind me. I could hear them breathing. We stood waiting, listening. Slowly my eyes became accustomed to the darkness, and I made out what I thought was a door beside the single window. I crossed to it and felt; it was a door.
Cautiously I opened it and looked out into one of the sordid streets of Kormor. I peered about in an effort to orient myself and saw that the street was one of those that extended directly away from the palace which I could see looming darkly behind its wall at my right.
“Come!” I whispered, and with the girls behind me I stepped out into the street and turned to the left. “If we meet any one,” I cautioned, “remember to walk like the dead, shuffle along as you will see me do. Keep your eyes on the ground; it is our eyes that will most surely betray us.”
“Where are we going?” asked Duare in a whisper.
“I am going to try to find the house through which I came into the city,” I replied; “but I don’t know that I can do so.”
“And if you can’t?”
“Then we shall have to make an attempt to scale the city wall; but we shall find a way, Duare.”
“What difference will it make?” she murmured, half to herself. “If we escape from here there will only be something else. I think I would rather be dead than go on any more.”
The note of hopelessness in her voice was so unlike Duare that it shocked me. “You mustn’t feel like that, Duare,” I expostulated. “If we can get back to Havatoo you will be safe and happy, and I have a surprise there for you that will give you new hope.” I was thinking of the plane in which we might hope to find Vepaja, the country that I could see she had about despaired of ever seeing again.
She shook her head.”There is no hope, no hope of happiness, ever, for Duare.”
Some figures approaching us along the dusty street put an end to our conversation. With lowered eyes and shuffling feet we neared them.
They passed, and I breathed again in relief.
It would be useless to recount our futile search for the house I could not find. All the remainder of the night we searched, and with the coming of dawn I realized that we must find a place to hide until night came again.
I saw a house with a broken door, no unusual sight in dismal Kormor; and investigation indicated that it was tenantless. We entered and ascended to the second floor. Here, in a back room, we prepared to await the ending of the long day that lay ahead of us.
We were all tired, almost exhausted; and so we lay down on the rough planks and sought to sleep. We did not talk; each seemed occupied with his own dismal thoughts. Presently, from their regular breathing, I realized that the girls were both asleep; and very shortly thereafter I must have fallen asleep myself.
How long I slept I do not know. I was awakened by footsteps in an adjoining room. Some one was moving about, and I heard mutterings as of a person talking to himself.
Slowly I rose to my feet, holding Skor’s sword in readiness. Its uselessness against the dead did not occur to me, yet had it, I still would have felt safer with the sword in my hand.
The footsteps approached the door to the room in which we had sought sanctuary, and a moment later an old woman stopped upon the threshold and looked at me in astonishment.
“What are you doing here?” she demanded. If she was surprised, no less was I; for old age was something I had never before seen in Amtor. Her voice awakened the girls, and I heard them rising to their feet behind me.
“What are you doing here?” repeated the old woman querulously. “Get out of my house, accursed corpses! I’ll have none of the spawn of Skor’s evil brain in my house!”
I looked at her in astonishment. “Aren’t you dead?” I demanded.
“Of course I’m not dead!” she snapped.
“Neither are we,” I told her.
“Eh? Not dead?” She came closer. “Let me see your eyes. No, they do not look like dead eyes; but they say that Skor has found some foul way in which to put a false light of life into dead eyes.”
“We are not dead,” I insisted.
“Then what are you doing in Kormor? I thought that I knew all of the living men and women here, and I do not know you. Are the women alive too?”
“Yes, we are all alive.” I thought quickly. I wondered if I might trust her with our secret and seek her aid. She evidently hated Skor, and we were already in her power if she wished to denounce us. l felt that we could not be much worse off in any event. “We were prisoners of Skor. We escaped. We want to get out of the city. We are at your mercy. Will you help us?—or will you turn us over to Skor?”
“I won’t turn you over to Skor,” she snapped. “I wouldn’t turn a dead mistal over to that fiend; but I don’t know how I can help you. You can’t get out of Kormor. The dead sentries along the wall never sleep.”
“I got into Kormor without being seen by a sentry,” I said. “If l could only find the house I could get out again.”
“What house?” she demanded.
“The house at the end of the tunnel that runs under Gerlat kum Rov to Havatoo.”
“A tunnel to Havatoo! I never heard of such a thing. Are you sure?”
“I came through it last night.”
She shook her head. “None of us ever heard of it—and if we who live here cannot find it, how could you, a stranger, hope to? But I’ll help as much as I can. At least I can hide you and give you food. We always help one another here in Kormor, we who are alive.”
“A few,” she replied. “Skor has not succeeded in hunting us all down yet. We live a mean life, always hiding; but it is life. If he found us he would make us like those others.”
The old woman came closer. “I cannot believe that you are alive,” she said. “Perhaps you are tricking me.” She touched my face, and then ran her palms over the upper part of my body. “You are warm,” she said, and then she felt my pulse. “Yes, you are alive.”
Similarly she examined Duare and Nalte, and at last she was convinced that we had told her the truth. “Come,” she said, “I will take you to a better place than this. You will be more comfortable. I do not use this house very often.”
She led us down stairs and out into a yard at the rear of which stood another house. It was a mean house, poorly furnished. She took us into a back room and told us to remain there.
“I suppose you want food,” she said.
“And water,” added Nalte. “I have had none since yesterday evening.”
“You poor thing,” said the old woman. “I’ll get it for you. How young and pretty you are. Once I was young and pretty too.”
“Why have you aged?” I asked. “I thought that all the people of Amtor held the secret of longevity.”
“Aye, but how may one obtain the serum in Kormor? We had it once, before Skor came; but he took it away from us. He said that he would create a new race that would not require it, for they would never grow old. The effects of my last innoculation have worn off, and now I am growing old and shall die. It is not so bad to die—if Skor does not find one’s corpse. We of the living here bury our dead in secret beneath the floors of our houses. My mate and our two children lie beneath this floor. But I must go and fetch food and water for you. I shall not be gone long.” And with that, she left us.
“Poor old creature,” said Nalte. “She has nothing to look forward to except the grave, with the chance that Skor may rob her of even that poor future.”
“How strange she lookedl” There was a shocked expression in Duare’s eyes as she spoke. “So that is old age! I never saw it before. That is the way I should look some day, were it not for the serum! How ghastly Oh, I should rather die than be like that. Old age! Oh, how terrible!”
Here was a unique experience. I was witnessing the reactions of a nineteen-year-old girl who had never before seen the ravages of old age, and I could not but wonder if the subconscious effect of old age on youth accustomed to seeing it was not similar. But these meditations were interrupted by the return of the old woman, and I caught a new insight into the character of Duare.
As the old woman entered the room, her arms laden, Duare ran forward and took the things from her. “You should have let me come with you and help you,” she said. “I am younger and stronger.”
Then she placed the food and water upon a table, and with a sweet smile she put an arm about the withered shoulders of the old crone and drew her toward a bench. “Sit down,” she said. “Nalte and I will prepare the food. You just sit here and rest until it is ready, and then we shall all eat together.”
The old woman looked at her in astonishment for a moment and then burst into tears. Duare dropped to the bench beside her and put her arms about her.
“Why do you cry?” she asked.
“I don’t know why I cry,” sobbed the old creature. “I feel like singing, but I cry. It has been so long since I have heard kind words, since any one has cared whether I was happy or sad, tired or rested.”
I saw the tears come to Duare’s eyes and to Nalte’s, and they had to busy themselves with the preparation of the food to hide their emotions.
That night a dozen of the living of Kormor came to the house of Kroona, the old woman who had befriended us. They were all very old, some of them older than Kroona. They laughed at Kroona’s fears that Skor wanted them; and pointed out, as evidently they had many times before, that if it was old bodies Skor wanted he long since could have found them, for their old age was ample evidence that they were of the living. But Kroona insisted that they were all in danger; and I soon realized that it was her pet obsession, without which she would probably be more miserable than she was with it. She got a great thrill out of leading a life of constant danger and hiding first in one house and then in another.
But they were all of one opinion that we were in great danger, and the dear old things pledged themselves to help us in every way they could—to bring us food and water and hide us from our enemies. That was all that they could do, for none of them believed that it was possible to escape from Kormor.
Early the following morning a very old man, one of the visitors of the previous evening, hobbled into the house. He was perturbed and greatly excited. His palsied hands were trembling. “They are searching the city for you,” he whispered. “There is a terrible story of what you did to Skor and of what Skor will do to you when he finds you. All night and all day last night be lay bound and helpless where you left him; then one of his creatures found and released him. Now the whole city is being scoured for you. They may be here any minute.”
“What can we do?” asked Duare, “Where can we hide?”
“You can do nothing,” said the old man, “but wait until they come. There is no place in all Kormor that they will not search.”
“We can do something,” said Nalte; then she turned to our informant. “Can you get us paints such as the corpses use to make themselves appear like living men?”
“Yes,” said the old man.
“Well, go quickly and fetch them,” urged Nalte.
The old man hobbled out of the room, mumbling to himself.
“It is the only way, Nalte,” I cried. “I believe that if he returns in time we can fool them; dead men are not very bright.”
It seemed a long time before the old man came back; but he came finally, and he brought a large box of makeup with him. It was quite an elaborate affair which he said that he had obtained from a friend of his, a living man, whose craft was applying the makeup to corpses.
Quickly Nalte went to work on Duare and soon had transformed her into an old woman with lines and wrinkles and hollows. The hair was the most difficult problem to solve, but we finally succeeded in approximating the results we desired, though we used up all of the cosmetician’s white pigment, rubbing it into our hair.
Duare and I together worked on Nalte, for we knew that we had no time to spare, the old man having brought word when he returned with the make-up that the searchers were working in the next block and coming our way; then Nalte and Duare transformed me into a very sad looking old man.
Kroona said that we should each have some task that we could be performing when the searchers arrived, to that we might appear natural. She gave Duare and Nalte some old rags which they might pretend to be fashioning into garments, and she sent me out into the yard to dig a hole. It was fortunate that she did so, because the association of ideas resulting reminded me that I must hide Skor’s sword. Were that found we were doomed.
I wrapped it up in a piece of cloth and carried it out into the yard with me, and you may take my word for it that I dug one hole there in record time. When I had covered the sword with dirt I started digging another hole beside it and threw that dirt also on the spot above the weapon.
I had just finished when the yard gate was thrown open and a score of dead men came shuffling in. “We are looking for the strangers who escaped from the palace,” said one. “Are they here?”
I cupped my hand behind my ear and said, “Eh?”
The fellow repeated his question, shouting very loud, and again I did the same thing and said, “Eh?” Then he gave up and went on into the house, followed by the others.
I heard them searching in there, and every instant I expected to hear cries of excitement when one of them discovered and pierced the thin disguises of Duare and Nalte.