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The Menace Of The Dead

From: The Chessmen Of Mars

The night was still young when there came one to the entrance of
the banquet hall where O-Tar of Manator dined with his chiefs,
and brushing past the guards entered the great room with the
insolence of a privileged character, as in truth he was. As he
approached the head of the long board O-Tar took notice of him.

"Well, hoary one!" he cried. "What brings you out of your beloved
and stinking burrow again this day. We thought that the sight of
the multitude of living men at the games would drive you back to
your corpses as quickly as you could go."

The cackling laugh of I-Gos acknowledged the royal sally. "Ey,
ey, O-Tar," squeaked the ancient one, "I-Gos goes out not upon
pleasure bound; but when one does ruthlessly desecrate the dead
of I-Gos, vengeance must be had!"

"You refer to the act of the slave Turan?" demanded O-Tar.

"Turan, yes, and the slave Tara, who slipped beneath my hide a
murderous blade. Another fraction of an inch, O-Tar, and I-Gos'
ancient and wrinkled covering were even now in some apprentice
tanner's hands, ey, ey!"

"But they have again eluded us," cried O-Tar. "Even in the palace
of the great jeddak twice have they escaped the stupid knaves I
call The Jeddak's Guard." O-Tar had risen and was angrily
emphasizing his words with heavy blows upon the table, dealt with
a golden goblet.

"Ey, O-Tar, they elude thy guard but not the wise old calot,

"What mean you? Speak!" commanded O-Tar.

"I know where they are hid," said the ancient taxidermist. "In
the dust of unused corridors their feet have betrayed them."

"You followed them? You have seen them?" demanded the jeddak.

"I followed them and I heard them speaking beyond a closed door,"
replied I-Gos; "but I did not see them."

"Where is that door?" cried O-Tar. "We will send at once and
fetch them," he looked about the table as though to decide to
whom he would entrust this duty. A dozen warrior chiefs arose and
laid their hands upon their swords.

"To the chambers of O-Mai the Cruel I traced them," squeaked
I-Gos. "There you will find them where the moaning Corphals
pursue the shrieking ghost of O-Mai; ey!" and he turned his eyes
from O-Tar toward the warriors who had arisen, only to discover
that, to a man, they were hurriedly resuming their seats.

The cackling laughter of I-Gos broke derisively the hush that had
fallen on the room. The warriors looked sheepishly at the food
upon their plates of gold. O-Tar snapped his fingers impatiently.

"Be there only cravens among the chiefs of Manator?" he cried.
"Repeatedly have these presumptuous slaves flouted the majesty of
your jeddak. Must I command one to go and fetch them?"

Slowly a chief arose and two others followed his example, though
with ill-concealed reluctance. "All, then, are not cowards,"
commented O-Tar. "The duty is distasteful. Therefore all three of
you shall go, taking as many warriors as you wish."

"But do not ask for volunteers," interrupted I-Gos, "or you will
go alone."

The three chiefs turned and left the banquet hall, walking slowly
like doomed men to their fate.

Gahan and Tara remained in the chamber to which Tasor had led
them, the man brushing away the dust from a deep and comfortable
bench where they might rest in comparative comfort. He had found
the ancient sleeping silks and furs too far gone to be of any
service, crumbling to powder at a touch, thus removing any chance
of making a comfortable bed for the girl, and so the two sat
together, talking in low tones, of the adventures through which
they already had passed and speculating upon the future; planning
means of escape and hoping Tasor would not be long gone. They
spoke of many things--of Hastor, and Helium, and Ptarth, and
finally the conversation reminded Tara of Gathol.

"You have served there?" she asked.

"Yes," replied Turan.

"I met Gahan the Jed of Gathol at my father's palace," she said,
"the very day before the storm snatched me from Helium--he was a
presumptuous fellow, magnificently trapped in platinum and
diamonds. Never in my life saw I so gorgeous a harness as his,
and you must well know, Turan, that the splendor of all Barsoom
passes through the court at Helium; but in my mind I could not
see so resplendent a creature drawing that jeweled sword in
mortal combat. I fear me that the Jed of Gathol, though a pretty
picture of a man, is little else."

In the dim light Tara did not perceive the wry expression upon
the half-averted face of her companion.

"You thought little then of the Jed of Gathol?" he asked.

"Then or now," she replied, and with a little laugh; "how it
would pique his vanity to know, if he might, that a poor panthan
had won a higher place in the regard of Tara of Helium," and she
laid her fingers gently upon his knee.

He seized the fingers in his and carried them to his lips. "O,
Tara of Helium," he cried. "Think you that I am a man of stone?"
One arm slipped about her shoulders and drew the yielding body
toward him.

"May my first ancestor forgive me my weakness," she cried, as her
arms stole about his neck and she raised her panting lips to his.
For long they clung there in love's first kiss and then she
pushed him away, gently. "I love you, Turan," she half sobbed; "I
love you so! It is my only poor excuse for having done this wrong
to Djor Kantos, whom now I know I never loved, who knew not the
meaning of love. And if you love me as you say, Turan, your love
must protect me from greater dishonor, for I am but as clay in
your hands."

Again he crushed her to him and then as suddenly released her,
and rising, strode rapidly to and fro across the chamber as
though he endeavored by violent exercise to master and subdue
some evil spirit that had laid hold upon him. Ringing through his
brain and heart and soul like some joyous paean were those words
that had so altered the world for Gahan of Gathol: "I love you,
Turan; I love you so!" And it had come so suddenly. He had
thought that she felt for him only gratitude for his loyalty and
then, in an instant, her barriers were all down, she was no
longer a princess; but instead a--his reflections were
interrupted by a sound from beyond the closed door. His sandals
of zitidar hide had given forth no sound upon the marble floor he
strode, and as his rapid pacing carried him past the entrance to
the chamber there came faintly from the distance of the long
corridor the sound of metal on metal--the unmistakable herald of
the approach of armed men.

For a moment Gahan listened intently, close to the door, until
there could be no doubt but that a party of warriors was
approaching. From what Tasor had told him he guessed correctly
that they would be coming to this portion of the palace but for a
single purpose--to search for Tara and himself--and it behooved
him therefore to seek immediate means for eluding them. The
chamber in which they were had other doorways beside that at
which they had entered, and to one of these he must look for some
safer hiding place. Crossing to Tara he acquainted her with his
suspicion, leading her to one of the doors which they found
unsecured. Beyond it lay a dimly-lighted chamber at the threshold
of which they halted in consternation, drawing back quickly into
the chamber they had just quitted, for their first glance
revealed four warriors seated around a jetan board.

That their entrance had not been noted was attributed by Gahan to
the absorption of the two players and their friends in the game.
Quietly closing the door the fugitives moved silently to the
next, which they found locked. There was now but another door
which they had not tried, and this they approached quickly as
they knew that the searching party must be close to the chamber.
To their chagrin they found this avenue of escape barred.

Now indeed were they in a sorry plight, for should the searchers
have information leading them to this room they were lost. Again
leading Tara to the door behind which were the jetan players
Gahan drew his sword and waited, listening. The sound of the
party in the corridor came distinctly to their ears--they must be
quite close, and doubtless they were coming in force. Beyond the
door were but four warriors who might be readily surprised. There
could, then, be but one choice and acting upon it Gahan quietly
opened the door again, stepped through into the adjoining
chamber, Tara's hand in his, and closed the door behind them. The
four at the jetan board evidently failed to hear them. One player
had either just made or was contemplating a move, for his fingers
grasped a piece that still rested upon the board. The other three
were watching his move. For an instant Gahan looked at them,
playing jetan there in the dim light of this forgotten and
forbidden chamber, and then a slow smile of understanding lighted
his face.

"Come!" he said to Tara. "We have nothing to fear from these. For
more than five thousand years they have sat thus, a monument to
the handiwork of some ancient taxidermist."

As they approached more closely they saw that the lifelike
figures were coated with dust, but that otherwise the skin was in
as fine a state of preservation as the most recent of I-Gos'
groups, and then they heard the door of the chamber they had
quitted open and knew that the searchers were close upon them.
Across the room they saw the opening of what appeared to be a
corridor and which investigation proved to be a short passageway,
terminating in a chamber in the center of which was an ornate
sleeping dais. This room, like the others, was but poorly
lighted, time having dimmed the radiance of its bulbs and coated
them with dust. A glance showed that it was hung with heavy goods
and contained considerable massive furniture in addition to the
sleeping platform, a second glance at which revealed what
appeared to be the form of a man lying partially on the floor and
partially on the dais. No doorways were visible other than that
at which they had entered, though both knew that others might be
concealed by the hangings.

Gahan, his curiosity aroused by the legends surrounding this
portion of the palace, crossed to the dais to examine the figure
that apparently had fallen from it, to find the dried and
shrivelled corpse of a man lying upon his back on the floor with
arms outstretched and fingers stiffly outspread. One of his feet
was doubled partially beneath him, while the other was still
entangled in the sleeping silks and furs upon the dais. After
five thousand years the expression of the withered face and the
eyeless sockets retained the aspect of horrid fear to such an
extent, that Gahan knew that he was looking upon the body of
O-Mai the Cruel.

Suddenly Tara, who stood close beside him, clutched his arm and
pointed toward a far corner of the room. Gahan looked and looking
felt the hairs upon his neck rising. He threw his left arm about
the girl and with bared sword stood between her and the hangings
that they watched, and then slowly Gahan of Gathol backed away,
for in this grim and somber chamber, which no human foot had trod
for five thousand years and to which no breath of wind might
enter, the heavy hangings in the far corner had moved. Not gently
had they moved as a draught might have moved them had there been
a draught, but suddenly they had bulged out as though pushed
against from behind. To the opposite corner backed Gahan until
they stood with their backs against the hangings there, and then
hearing the approach of their pursuers across the chamber beyond
Gahan pushed Tara through the hangings and, following her, kept
open with his left hand, which he had disengaged from the girl's
grasp, a tiny opening through which he could view the apartment
and the doorway upon the opposite side through which the pursuers
would enter, if they came this far.

Behind the hangings there was a space of about three feet in
width between them and the wall, making a passageway entirely
around the room, broken only by the single entrance opposite
them; this being a common arrangement especially in the sleeping
apartments of the rich and powerful upon Barsoom. The purposes of
this arrangement were several. The passageway afforded a station
for guards in the same room with their master without intruding
entirely upon his privacy; it concealed secret exits from the
chamber; it permitted the occupant of the room to hide
eavesdroppers and assassins for use against enemies that he might
lure to his chamber.

The three chiefs with a dozen warriors had had no difficulty in
following the tracks of the fugitives through the dust of the
corridors and chambers they had traversed. To enter this portion
of the palace at all had required all the courage they possessed,
and now that they were within the very chambers of O-Mai their
nerves were pitched to the highest key--another turn and they
would snap; for the people of Manator are filled with weird
superstitions. As they entered the outer chamber they moved
slowly, with drawn swords, no one seeming anxious to take the
lead, and the twelve warriors hanging back in unconcealed and
shameless terror, while the three chiefs, spurred on by fear of
O-Tar and by pride, pressed together for mutual encouragement as
they slowly crossed the dimly-lighted room.

Following the tracks of Gahan and Tara they found that though
each doorway had been approached only one threshold had been
crossed and this door they gingerly opened, revealing to their
astonished gaze the four warriors at the jetan table. For a
moment they were on the verge of flight, for though they knew
what they were, coming as they did upon them in this mysterious
and haunted suite, they were as startled as though they had
beheld the very ghosts of the departed. But they presently
regained their courage sufficiently to cross this chamber too and
enter the short passageway that led to the ancient sleeping
apartment of O-Mai the Cruel. They did not know that this awful
chamber lay just before them, or it were doubtful that they would
have proceeded farther; but they saw that those they sought had
come this way and so they followed, but within the gloomy
interior of the chamber they halted, the three chiefs urging
their followers, in low whispers, to close in behind them, and
there just within the entrance they stood until, their eyes
becoming accustomed to the dim light, one of them pointed
suddenly to the thing lying upon the floor with one foot tangled
in the coverings of the dais.

"Look!" he gasped. "It is the corpse of O-Mai! Ancestor of
ancestors! we are in the forbidden chamber." Simultaneously there
came from behind the hangings beyond the grewsome dead a hollow
moan followed by a piercing scream, and the hangings shook and
bellied before their eyes.

With one accord, chieftains and warriors, they turned and bolted
for the doorway; a narrow doorway, where they jammed, fighting
and screaming in an effort to escape. They threw away their
swords and clawed at one another to make a passage for escape;
those behind climbed upon the shoulders of those in front; and
some fell and were trampled upon; but at last they all got
through, and, the swiftest first, they bolted across the two
intervening chambers to the outer corridor beyond, nor did they
halt their mad retreat before they stumbled, weak and trembling,
into the banquet hall of O-Tar. At sight of them the warriors who
had remained with the jeddak leaped to their feet with drawn
swords, thinking that their fellows were pursued by many enemies;
but no one followed them into the room, and the three chieftains
came and stood before O-Tar with bowed heads and trembling knees.

"Well?" demanded the jeddak. "What ails you? Speak!"

"O-Tar," cried one of them when at last he could master his
voice. "When have we three failed you in battle or combat? Have
our swords been not always among the foremost in defense of your
safety and your honor?"

"Have I denied this?" demanded O-Tar.

"Listen, then, O Jeddak, and judge us with leniency. We followed
the two slaves to the apartments of O-Mai the Cruel. We entered
the accursed chambers and still we did not falter. We came at
last to that horrid chamber no human eye had scanned before in
fifty centuries and we looked upon the dead face of O-Mai lying
as he has lain for all this time. To the very death chamber of
O-Mai the Cruel we came and yet we were ready to go farther; when
suddenly there broke upon our horrified ears the moans and the
shrieking that mark these haunted chambers and the hangings moved
and rustled in the dead air. O-Tar, it was more than human nerves
could endure. We turned and fled. We threw away our swords and
fought with one another to escape. With sorrow, but without
shame, I tell it, for there be no man in all Manator that would
not have done the same. If these slaves be Corphals they are safe
among their fellow ghosts. If they be not Corphals, then already
are they dead in the chambers of O-Mai, and there may they rot
for all of me, for I would not return to that accursed spot for
the harness of a jeddak and the half of Barsoom for an empire. I
have spoken."

O-Tar knitted his scowling brows. "Are all my chieftains cowards
and cravens?" he demanded presently in sneering tones.

From among those who had not been of the searching party a
chieftain arose and turned a scowling face upon O-Tar.

"The jeddak knows," he said, "that in the annals of Manator her
jeddaks have ever been accounted the bravest of her warriors.
Where my jeddak leads I will follow, nor may any jeddak call me a
coward or a craven unless I refuse to go where he dares to go. I
have spoken."

After he had resumed his seat there was a painful silence, for
all knew that the speaker had challenged the courage of O-Tar the
Jeddak of Manator and all awaited the reply of their ruler. In
every mind was the same thought--O-Tar must lead them at once to
the chamber of O-Mai the Cruel, or accept forever the stigma of
cowardice, and there could be no coward upon the throne of
Manator. That they all knew and that O-Tar knew, as well.

But O-Tar hesitated. He looked about upon the faces of those
around him at the banquet board; but he saw only the grim visages
of relentless warriors. There was no trace of leniency in the
face of any. And then his eyes wandered to a small entrance at
one side of the great chamber. An expression of relief expunged
the scowl of anxiety from his features.

"Look!" he exclaimed. "See who has come!"

Next: The Charge Of Cowardice

Previous: A Task For Loyalty

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