Page:Weird Tales volume 31 number 02.djvu/48

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his emaciated flesh, with uncombed hair and huge, staring, vacant eyes, the creature was only a living caricature of a man. His eyeballs were filmed like those of one who walked in his sleep, and his mouth was twisted as meaninglessly as an imbecile's. He cringed against the rocky wall to avoid the party as they passed. None of the female soldiers paid the least attention to him; they passed as if his humble figure was invisible to them, and turned another corner. Rald and Thwaine gazed at each other with dawning comprehension.

"If they are all like that–" said Rald.

"I begin to see!" exclaimed his comrade.

"Silence!" intoned the captain of the Guards, emphasizing her command by prodding Rald in the posterior with her sword. The captive grunted and swore–beneath his breath.

At length they emerged from underground into what at first appeared to be a great chamber cut from the solid rock but which might have been the crater of an ancient, long extinct volcano, as Rald believed it to be after he had gazed upward and seen the midday sun glaring fiercely above the immense hollow in the mountain. Sunlight was reflected from a million crystals embedded in the quartz composing the great walls, and the eyes of all were momentarily blinded until their optic nerves had readjusted themselves to the transition. At the point where the group halted, after emerging from the lower darkness, the wall of rock descended perpendicularly for a sheer thirty feet to the level sands of the crater's bottom, an area some hundred and fifty feet in diameter. Stout ropes had been wound about pillars, seemingly carven from living rock, to half the height of an average body, apparently as a safeguard for any incautious persons who might wander too close to the edge.

"Look!" exclaimed Thwaine. "There are seats cut into the stone walls all around this bowl! Do you know what this is? It's an amphitheater, a gladiator pit! Rald, my friend, we are gladiators again!"

"And I presume we will fight–women?"

"Do they not appear capable? There's something out there on the sands–there in the center of the pit. I can't make out just what it is–this brazen sunlight blinds me!"

Rald peered with no greater success. "An image or something of the kind, I think."

"Quiet!" admonished the captain as she again pressed a painful point against the larger mercenary's rear.

Some signal not perceived by the captives was evidently received, for suddenly the guard came to life again and the helpless two were prodded forward along a pathway that encircled the lip of the pit. After proceeding probably a quarter of the way around its circumference they arrived at a point where the rock had been cut away from the wall, an area comprising perhaps thirty square feet. Against the farther end of this break in the mountain's otherwise perfect oval stood an ornate, bejeweled throne and on it sat a woman garbed in glittering mail. Her poise was regal.

"Cene! The queen!" growled Thwaine. "Be diplomatic!"

"How can I be diplomatic while this cursed female is gouging me in the rear with a sword?" roared Rald in ear-shattering tones.

The ex-thief was rapidly reaching a state wherein he could not control himself as he recalled his capture and imprisonment, and observed the indignity of his present position. All of these occurrences