A Fighting Man of Mars
Chapter 7: The Death

Copyright© 2012 by Edgar Rice Burroughs

With Phao in the lead and Tavia between us, we traversed the dark corridor back toward the apartment of Yo Seno. When we reached the panel marking the end of our journey, Phao halted and together we listened intently for any sound that might evidence the presence of an occupant in the room beyond. All was silent as the tomb.

"I believe," said Phao, "that it will be safer if you and Tavia remain here until night. I shall return to my apartment and go about my duties in the usual manner and after the palace has quieted down, these levels will be almost deserted; then I can come and get you with far less danger of detection than were I to take you to the apartment now."

We agreed that her plan was a good one, and bidding us a temporary farewell, she opened the panel sufficiently to permit her to survey the apartment beyond. It was quite empty. She stepped from the corridor, closing the panel behind her, and once again Tavia and I were plunged into darkness.

The long hours of our wait in the darkness of the corridor should have seemed interminable, but they did not. We made ourselves as comfortable as possible upon the floor, our backs against one of the walls, and, leaning close together so that we might converse in low whispers, we found more entertainment than I should have guessed possible, both in our conversation and in the long silences that broke it, so that it really did not seem a long time at all before the panel was swung open and we saw Phao in the subdued light of the apartment beyond. She motioned us to follow her, and, in silence, we obeyed. The corridor beyond the chamber of Yo Seno was deserted, as also was the ramp leading to the level below and the corridor upon which it opened. Fortune seemed to favor us at every step and there was a prayer of thanksgiving upon my lips as Phao pushed open the door leading into the apartment of the prince and motioned us to enter.

But at the same instant my heart sank within me, for, as I entered the apartment with Tavia, I saw warriors standing upon either side of the room awaiting us. With an exclamation of warning I drew Tavia behind me and backed quickly toward the door, but as I did so I heard a rush of feet and the clank of accoutrements in the corridor behind me, and, casting a quick glance over my shoulder, I saw other warriors running from the doorway of an apartment upon the opposite side of the corridor.

We were surrounded. We were lost, and my first thought was that Phao had betrayed us, leading us into this trap from which there could be no escape. They hustled us back into the room and surrounded us, and for the first time I saw Yo Seno. He stood there, a sneering grin upon his face, and but for the fact that Tavia had assured me that he had not harmed her I should have leaped upon him there, though a dozen swords had been at my vitals the next instant.

"So!" sneered Yo Seno. "You thought to fool me, did you? Well, I am not so easily fooled. I guessed the truth and I followed you through the corridor and overheard all your plans as you discussed them with the woman, Tavia. We have you all now," and turning to one of the warriors, he motioned to the closet upon the opposite side of the chamber. "Fetch the other," he commanded.

The fellow crossed to the door and, opening it, revealed Nur An lying bound and gagged upon the floor.

"Cut his bonds and remove the gag," ordered Yo Seno. "It is too late now for him to thwart my plans by giving the others a warning."

Nur An came toward us, with a firm step, his head high and a glance of haughty contempt for our captors.

The four of us stood facing Yo Seno, the sneer upon whose face had been replaced by a glare of hatred.

"You have been sentenced to die The Death," he said. "It is the death for spies. No more terrible punishment can be inflicted. Could there be, it would be meted to you two," as he looked first at me and then at Nur An, "that you might suffer more for the murder of our two comrades."

So they had found the warriors we had dispatched. Well, what of it? Evidently it had not rendered our position any worse than it had been before. We were to die The Death and that was the worst that they could accord us.

"Have you anything to say?" demanded Yo Seno.

"We still live," I exclaimed, and laughed in his face.

"Before long you will be beseeching your first ancestors for death," hissed the keeper of the keys, "but you will not have death too soon, and remember that no one knows how long it takes to die The Death. We cannot add to your physical suffering, but for the torment of your mind let me remind you that we are sending you to The Death without letting you know what the fate of your accomplices will be," and he nodded toward Tavia and Phao.

That was a nice point, well chosen. He could not have hit upon any means more certain to inflict acute torture upon me than this, but I would not give him the satisfaction of witnessing my true emotion, and so, once again, I laughed in his face. His patience had about reached the limit of its endurance, for he turned abruptly to a padwar of the guard and ordered him to remove us at once.

As we were hustled from the room, Nur An called a brave good-bye to Phao.

"Good-bye, Tavia!" I cried, "and remember that we still live."

"We still live, Hadron of Hastor!" she called back. "We still live!" and then she was swept from my view as we were pushed along down the corridor.

Down ramp after ramp we were conducted to the uttermost depths of the palace pits and then into a great chamber where I saw Haj Osis sitting upon a throne, surrounded again by his chiefs and his courtiers as he had been upon the occasion that he had interviewed me. Opposite the Jed, and in the middle of the chamber, hung a great iron cage, suspended from a heavy block set in the ceiling. Into this cage we were roughly pushed; the door was closed and secured with a large lock. I wondered what it was all about and what this had to do with The Death, and while I wondered a dozen men pushed a huge trap door from beneath the cage. A rush of cold, clammy air enveloped us and I experienced a chill that seemed to enter my marrow, as though I lay in the cold arms of death. Hollow moans and groans came faintly to my ears and I knew that we were above the pits where The Death lay.

No word was spoken within the chamber, but at a signal from Haj Osis strong men lowered the cage slowly into the aperture beneath us. Here the cold and the damp were more obvious and penetrating than before, while the ghastly sounds appeared to redouble in volume.

Down, down we slid into an abyss of darkness. The horror of the silence in the chamber above was forgotten in the horror of the pandemonium of uncanny sounds that rose from beneath.

How far we were lowered thus I may not even guess, but to Nur An it seemed at least a thousand feet and then we commenced to detect a slight luminosity about us. The moaning and the groaning had become a constant roar. As we approached, it seemed less like moans and groans and more like the sound of wind and rushing waters.

Suddenly, without the slightest warning, the bottom of the cage, which evidently must have been hinged upon one side, and held by a catch that could be sprung from above, swung downward. It happened so quickly that we hardly had time for conjecture before we were plunged into rushing water.

As I rose to the surface I discovered that I could see. Wherever we were, it was not shrouded in impenetrable darkness, but was lighted dimly.

Almost immediately Nur An's head bobbed up at arm's length from me. A strong current was bearing us onward and I realized at once that we were in the grip of a great underground river, one of those to which the remaining waters of dying Barsoom have receded. In the distance I descried a shoreline dimly visible in the subdued light, and, shouting to Nur An to follow me, I struck out toward it. The water was cold, but not sufficiently so to alarm me and I had no doubt but that we would reach the shore.

By the time that we had attained our goal and crawled out upon the rocky shore, our eyes had become accustomed to the dim light of the interior, and now, with astonishment, we gazed about us. What a vast cavern! Far, far above us its ceiling was discernible in the light of the minute radium particles with which the rock that formed its walls and ceiling was impregnated, but the opposite bank of the rushing torrent was beyond the range of our vision.

"So this is The Death!" exclaimed Nur An.

"I doubt if they know what it is themselves," I replied. "From the roaring of the river and the moaning of the wind, they have conjured something horrible in their own imaginations."

"Perhaps the greatest suffering that the victim must endure lies in his anticipation of what awaits him in these seemingly horrid depths," suggested Nur An, "whereas the worst that realization might bring would be death by drowning."

"Or by starvation," I suggested.

Nur An nodded. "Nevertheless," he said, "I wish I might return just long enough to mock them and witness their disappointment when they find that The Death is not so horrible after all."

"What a mighty river," he added after a moment's silence. "Could it be a tributary of Iss?"

"Perhaps it is Iss herself," I said.

"Then we are bound upon the last long pilgrimage down to the lost sea of Korus in the valley Dor," said Nur An gloomily. "It may be a lovely place, but I do not wish to go there yet."

"It is a place of horror," I replied.

"Hush," he cautioned; "that is sacrilege."

"It is sacrilege no longer since John Carter and Tars Tarkas snatched the veil of secrecy from the valley Dor and disposed of the myth of Issus, Goddess of Life Eternal." Even after I had told him the whole tragic story of the false gods of Mars, Nur An remained skeptical, so closely are the superstitions of religion woven into every fiber of our being.

We were both a trifle fatigued after our battle with the strong current of the river, and perhaps, too, we were suffering from reaction from the nervous shock of the ordeal through which we had passed. So we remained there, resting upon the rocky shore of the river of mystery. Eventually our conversation turned to what was uppermost in the minds of both and yet which each hesitated to mention--the fate of Tavia and Phao.

"I wish that they, too, had been sentenced to The Death," I said, "for then at least we might be with them and protect them."

"I am afraid that we shall never see them again," said Nur An gloomingly. "What a cruel fate that I should have found Phao only to lose her again irretrievably so quickly."

"It is indeed a strange trick of fate that after Tul Axtar stole her from you, he should have lost her too, and then that you should find her in Tjanath."

He looked at me with a slightly puzzled expression for a Moment and then his face cleared. "Phao is not the woman of whom I told you in the dungeon at Tjanath," he said. "Phao I loved long before; she was my first love. After I lost her I thought that I never could care for a woman again, but this other one came into my life and, knowing that Phao was gone forever, I found some consolation in my new love, but I realize now that was not the same, that no love could ever displace that which I felt for Phao."

"You lost her irretrievably once before," I reminded him, "but you found her again; perhaps you will find her once more."

"I wish that I might share your optimism," he said.

"We have little else to buoy us up," I reminded him.

"You are right," he said, and then with a laugh, added, "we still live!"

Presently, feeling rested, we set out along the shore in the direction that the river ran, for we had decided that that would be our course if for no other reason than that it would be easier going downhill than up. Where it would lead, we had not the slightest idea; perhaps to Korus; perhaps to Omean, the buried sea where lay the ships of the First Born.

Over tumbled rock masses we clambered and along level stretches of smooth gravel we pursued our rather aimless course, knowing not whither we were going, having no goal toward which to strive. There was some vegetation, weird and grotesque, but almost colorless for want of sunlight. There were tree-like plants with strange, angular branches that snapped off at the lightest touch, and as the trees did not look like trees, there were blossoms that did not look like flowers. It was a world as unlike the outer world as the figments of imagination are unlike realities.

But whatever musing upon the flora of this strange land I may have been indulging in was brought to a sudden termination as we rounded the shoulder of a jutting promontory and came face to face with as hideous a creature as ever I had laid my eyes upon. It was a great white lizard with gaping jaws large enough to engulf a man at a single swallow. At sight of us it emitted an angry hiss and advanced menacingly toward us.

Being unarmed and absolutely at the mercy of any creature that attacked us, we pursued the only plan that our intelligence could dictate--we retreated--and I am not ashamed to admit that we retreated rapidly.

Running quickly around the end of the promontory, we turned sharply up the bank away from the river. The bottom of the cavern rose sharply and as I clambered upward I glanced behind me occasionally to note the actions of our pursuer. He was now in plain sight, having followed us around the end of the promontory and there he stood looking about as though in search of us. Though we were not far from him, he did not seem to see us, and I soon became convinced that his eyesight was faulty; but not wishing to depend upon this I kept on climbing until presently we came to the top of the promontory, and, looking down upon the other side, I saw a considerable stretch of smooth gravel, stretching out into the dim distance along the river shore. If we could clamber down the opposite side of the barrier and reach this level stretch of gravel, I felt that we might escape the attentions of the huge monster. A final glance at him showed him still standing, peering first in one direction and then in another as though in search of us.

Nur An had followed close behind me and now together we slipped over the edge of the escarpment, and, though the rough rocks scratched us severely, we finally reached the gravel below, whereupon, having eluded our menacer, we set out upon a brisk run down the river. We had covered scarcely more than fifty paces when Nur An stumbled over an obstacle and as I stooped to give him a hand up, I saw that the thing that had tripped him was the rotting harness of a warrior and a moment later I saw the hilt of a sword protruding from the gravel. Seizing it, I wrenched it from the ground. It was a good long sword and I may tell you that the feel of it in my hand did more to restore my self-confidence than aught else that might have transpired. Being made of noncorrosive metal, as are all Barsoomian weapons, it remained as sound today as the moment that it had been abandoned by its owner.

"Look," said Nur An, pointing, and there at a little distance we saw another harness and another sword. This time there were two, a long sword and a short sword, and these Nur An took. No longer did we run. I have always felt that there is little upon Barsoom that two well-armed warriors need run from.

As we continued along our way across the level stretch of gravel we sought to solve the mystery of these abandoned weapons, a mystery that was still further heightened by our discovery of many more. In some cases the harness had rotted away entirely, leaving nothing but the metal parts, while in others it was comparatively sound and new. Presently we discerned a white mound ahead of us, but in the dim light of the cavern we could not at first determine of what it consisted. When we did, we were filled with horror, for the white mound was of the bones and skulls of human beings. Then, at last, I thought I had an explanation of the abandoned harness and weapons. This was the lair of the great lizard. Here he took his toll of the unhappy creatures that passed down the river, but how was it that armed men had come here. We had been cast into the cavern unarmed, as I was positive all of the condemned prisoners of Tjanath must have been. From whence came the others? I do not know, doubtless I shall never know. It was a mystery from the first. It will remain a mystery to the last.

As we passed on we found harness and weapons scattered all about, but there was infinitely more harness than weapons.

I had added a good short sword to my equipment, as well as a dagger, as had also Nur An, and I was stooping to examine another weapon which we had found--a short sword with a beautifully ornamented hilt and guard --when Nur An suddenly voiced an exclamation of warning.

"On guard," he cried, "Hadron! It comes!"

Leaping to my feet, I wheeled about, the short sword still in my hand, and there, bearing down upon us at considerable speed and with wide distended jaws, came the great white lizard hissing ominously. He was a hideous sight, a sight such as to make even a brave man turn and run, which I am now convinced is what practically all of his victims did; but here were two who did not run. Perhaps he was so close that we realized the futility of flight without giving the matter conscious thought, but be that as it may, we stood here--Nur An with his long sword in his hand, I with the ornately carved short sword that I had been examining, though instantly I realized that it was not the weapon with which to defend myself against this great hulking brute.

 
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