Page:Weird Tales volume 31 number 02.djvu/60

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Rald laughed so loudly and with such barbarous mirth that all the inhabitants of Ceipe above gazed at their neighbors in wonderment and a faint flush reappeared on the white cheeks of a queen who had forsaken her throne. Screams, curses, cries of terror were commonly heard from the arena, even the horrible gurgling of hysteria and the cackling utterances of madness, but never before in the bloody circumference of the pit had such easy, natural laughter rung from the depths. It had not the tone of madness.

"Since this Hess is so slow in coming to me, I will go to her!" said Rald aloud, careless of the ears above. "Who am I, to slight a goddess? I weary of this waiting–and she called me, did she not?"

Naked sword in hand, he trod boldly out across the sand into the glow of moonlight. Though a faint tremor of fear still lingered in his heart, he had decided that if he must die his should not be a craven's death; once within the circle of the full rays his courage was renewed. He waved his blade derisively at the gaping faces on the rim of the pit and hoped its swing included the section occupied by Throal; felt a little proud, too, that Cene should witness his swashbuckling.

"He is right," said Thwaine, relinquishing Ating's arms. "Wait here. We will see what is yonder on the sands."

He grasped his weapon and set forth to follow his comrade, who was already some distance ahead of him, and was immediately aware of a slim form at his side.

"Yes," said Ating sadly; "we will see!"

A low hum, a whisper of sound, arose from the galleries and relapsed into silence again as a thousand warriors beheld Thwaine and the woman who had chosen to die with him enter the circle of revealing light. Rald looked quickly over his shoulder, scenting possible danger, and smiled when he saw the two. He did not lessen his stride; he intended to encounter whatever unknown danger threatened them within the arena–first.

As the intrepid three approached the bulky object resting upon the sands, they became aware of lines and contours impossible to perceive from a distance. The image was that of a great cat or black panther such as was to be encountered in the far eastern lands. It appeared to be a work of art, there beneath the soft rays of the moon, a magnificent conception by some sculptor of a forgotten eon; for the great curvature of the ebony back, the perfection of the outspread limbs, the superb poise of the upheld head, gave the impression to an onlooker that here a sleeping beast was just awakening to awareness of its surroundings. It was a monument to its creator, thought Rald, who had seen many varied forms of sculpture during his rovings. Even the ridges in the flesh-like stone of its fore-paws were plainly visible to the three, and the arch and structure of the entire form were so imitative of feline character that for a brief moment the mercenaries thought it alive. It rested as a cat does, with its forepaws stretched ahead of the body and the spine curved downward in the middle part of the sleek back. Thwaine saw a likeness to carvings made of the strange-headed idol known as the sphinx. The reclining body covered a full twenty-five feet of the sands, exceeding by ten any living and natural denizens of the forests in the lands infested by the black panthers. The image bore a regal air, possessed a certain calmness and royal bearing that held a hint of implacable omnipotence; Rald thought, inconsequently, of the face of a statue he had seen in his wanderings, an idol