Back to the Stone Age

Chapter II

The Pit of Horror

Edgar Rice Burroughs

AS VON HORST, lying there in that gloomy cavern of death, contemplated his situation, he wished that he had died when he had had the opportunity and the power for self-destruction. Now he was helpless. The horror of his situation grew on him until he feared that he should go mad. He tried to move a hand, but it was as though he had no hands. He could not feel them, nor any other part of his body below his neck. He seemed just a head lying in the dirt, conscious but helpless. He rolled his head to one side. He had been placed at the end of the row of bodies at one side of the gap that had been left in the circle. Across the gap from him lay the body of a man. He turned his head in the other direction and saw that he was lying close to the body of another man; then his attention was attracted by a cracking and pounding in the opposite direction. Again he rolled his head so that he could see what lived in this hall of the dead.

His eyes were attracted to one of the ivory colored spheres that lay almost directly behind the body at the far side of the gap. The sphere was jerking to and fro. The sounds seemed to be coming from its interior. They became louder, more insistent. The sphere bobbed and rolled about; then a crack appeared in it, a jagged hole was tom in its surface, and a head protruded. It was a miniature of the hideous head of the creature that had brought him here. Now the mystery of the spheres was solved—they were the eggs of the great marsupial reptile; but what of the bodies?

Von Horst, fascinated, watched the terrible little creature burst its way from its egg. At last, successful, it rolled out upon the floor of the crater, where it lay inert for some time, as though resting after its exertions. Then it commenced to move its limbs, tentatively trying them. Presently it rose to its four feet; then it sat upright upon its tail and spread its wings. It flapped them at first weakly, then vigorously for a moment. This done, it fell upon its discarded shell and devoured it. The shell gone, it turned without hesitation toward the body of the man at the far side of the gap. As it approached it, von Horst was horrified to see the head turn toward the creature, the eyes wide with terror. With a hissing roar the foul little creature leaped upon the body, and simultaneously a piercing scream of terror burst from the lips of the man von Horst had thought was dead. The horror-filled eyes, the contorted muscles of the face reflected the mad efforts of the brain to direct the paralyzed nerve centers, to force them to react to the will to escape. So obvious was the effort to burst the invisible bonds that held him that it seemed inevitable that he must succeed, but the paralysis was too complete to be overcome.

The hideous fledgling fell upon the body and commenced to devour it; and though the victim may have felt no pain, his screams and groans continued to reverberate within the hollow cone of horror until, presently, the other creatures awaiting, doubtless, a similar fate raised their voices in a blood-curdling cacophony of terror. Now, for the first time, von Horst realized that all of these creatures were alive, paralyzed as he was. He closed his eyes to shut out the gruesome sight, but he could not close his ears to the abominable, soul-searing din.

Presently he turned his head away from the feeding reptile, toward the man lying upon his right, and opened his eyes. He saw that the man had not joined in the frightful chorus and that he was regarding him through steady, appraising eyes. He was a young man with a shock of coal-black hair, fine eyes, and regular features. He had an air about him, an air of strength and quiet dignity, that attracted von Horst; and he was favorably impressed, too, because the man had not succumbed to the hysteria of terror that had seized the other inmates of the chamber. The young lieutenant smiled at him and nodded. For an instant a faint expression of surprise tinged the others countenance; then he, too, smiled. He spoke then, addressing von Horst in a language that was not understandable to the European.

“I’m sorry,” said von Horst “but I cannot understand you.” Then it was the other’s turn to shake his head in denial of comprehension.

Neither could understand the speech of the other; but they had smiled at one another, and they had a common bond in their expectancy of a common fate. Von Horst felt that he was no longer so much alone, almost that he had found a friend. It made a great difference, that slender contact of fellowship, even in the hopelessness of his situation. By comparison with what he had felt previously he was almost contented.

The next time he looked in the direction of the newly hatched reptile the body of its victim had been entirely devoured; there was not even a bone left, and with distended stomach the thing crawled into the round patch of brilliant sunlight beneath the crater opening and curled up for sleep.

The victims had relapsed into silence and again lay as though dead. Time passed; but how much time, von Horst could not even guess. He felt neither hunger nor thirst, a fact which he attributed to his paralysis; but occasionally he slept. Once he was awakened by the flapping of wings, and looked up to see the foul fledgling fly through the crater opening from the nest of horror in which it had been hatched.

After awhile the adult came with another victim, an antelope; and then von Horst saw how he and the other creatures had been paralyzed. Holding the antelope level with its great mouth, the reptile pierced the neck at the base of the brain with the needle-sharp point of its tongue; then it deposited the helpless creature at von Horst’s left.

In this timeless void of living death there was no means of determining if there was any regularity of recurring events. Fledglings emerged from their shells, ate them, devoured their prey (always at the far edge of the gap to von Horst’s left), slept in the sunlight, and flew away, apparently never to return; the adult came with new victims, paralyzed them, laid them at the edge of the gap nearest von Horst, and departed. The gap crept steadily around to the left; and as it crept, von Horst realized that his inevitable doom was creeping that much nearer.

He and the man at his right occasionally exchanged smiles, and sometimes each spoke in his own tongue. Just the sound of their voices expressing thoughts that the other could not understand was friendly and comforting. Von Horst wished that they might converse; how many eternities of loneliness it would have relieved! The same thought must often have been in the mind of the other, and it was he who first sought to express it and to overcome the obstacle that separated them from full enjoyment of their forced companionship. Once, when von Horst turned his eyes toward him, he said, “Dangar,” and tried to indicate himself by bending his eyes toward himself and inclining his chin toward his chest. He repeated this several times.

Finally von Horst thought that he grasped his meaning. “Dangar?” he asked, and nodded toward the other.

The man smiled and nodded and then spoke a word that was evidently an affirmative in his language. Then von Horst pronounced his own name several times, indicating himself in the same way that Dangar had. This was the beginning. After that it became a game of intense and absorbing interest. They did nothing else, and neither seemed to tire. Occasionally they slept; but now, instead of sleeping when the mood happened to seize one of them, each waited until the other wished to sleep; thus they could spend all their waking hours in the new and fascinating occupation of learning how to exchange thoughts.

Dangar was teaching von Horst his language; and since the latter had already mastered four or five languages of the outer crust, his aptitude for learning another was greatly increased, even though there was no similarity between it and any of the others that he had acquired.

Under ordinary circumstances the procedure would have been slow or seemingly hopeless; but with the compelling incentive of companionship and the absence of disturbing elements, other than when a fledgling hatched and fed, they progressed with amazing rapidity; or so it seemed to von Horst until he realized that in this timeless world weeks, months, or even years of outer terrestrial time might have elapsed since his incarceration.

At last the time arrived when he and Dangar could carry on a conversation with comparative ease and fluency, but as they had progressed so had the fateful gap of doom crept around the circle of the living dead closer and closer to them. Dangar would go first; then von Horst.

The latter dreaded the former event even more than he did the latter, for with Dangar gone he would be alone again with nothing to occupy his time or mind but the inevitable fate that awaited him as he listened for the cracking of the shell that would release death in its most horrible form upon him.

At last there were only three victims between Dangar and the gap. It would not be long now.

“I shall be sorry to leave you,” said the Pellucidarian.

“I shall not be alone long,” von Horst reminded him.

“No. Well, it is better to die than to remain here far from one’s own country. I wish that we might have lived; then I could have taken you back to the land of Sari. It is a beautiful land of hills and trees and fertile valleys; there is much game there, and not far away is the great Lural Az. I have been there to the island of Anoroc, where Ja is king.

“You would like Sari. The girls are very beautiful. There is one there waiting for me now, but I shall never return to her. She will grieve; but—” (he sighed) “—she will get over it, and another will take her for his mate.”

“I should like to go to Sari,” said von Horst. Suddenly his eyes widened in surprise. “Dangar! Dangar!” he exclaimed.

“What is it?” demanded the Pellucidarian. “What has happened?”

“I can feel my fingers! I can move them!” cried von Horst. “And my toes, too.”

“It does not seem possible, Von,” exclaimed Dangar incredulously.

“But it is; it is! Just a little, but I can move them.”

“How do you explain it? I cannot feel anything below my neck.”

“The effects of the poison must be wearing off. Perhaps the paralysis will leave me entirely.”

Dangar shook his head. “Since I have been here I have never seen it leave a victim that the Trodon stung with its poison tongue. And what if it does? Will you be any better off?”

“I think I shall,” replied von Horst slowly. “I have had much leisure in which to dream and plan and imagine situations since I have been imprisoned here. I have often dreamed of being released from this paralysis and what I should do in the event that I were. I have it all planned out.”

“There are only three between you and death,” Dangar reminded him.

“Yes, I know that. All depends upon how quickly release comes.”

“I wish you luck, Von, even though, if it comes to you, I shall not be here to know—there are only two between me and the end. The gap is creeping closer.”

From that moment von Horst concentrated all his faculties upon overcoming the paralysis. He felt the glow of life creep gradually up his limbs, yet still he could move only his extremities, and these but slightly.

Another Trodon hatched, leaving but one between Dangar and death; and after Dangar, it would be his turn. As the horrid creature awoke from its sleep in the sunlight and winged away through the opening in the peak of the cone, von Horst succeeded in moving his hands and flexing his wrists; his feet, too, were free now; but oh, how slow, how hideously slow were his powers returning. Could Fate be so cruel as to hold out this great hope and then snatch it from him at the moment of fruition? Cold sweat broke out upon him as he weighed his chances—the odds were so terribly against him.

If only he could measure time that he might know the intervals of the hatching of the eggs and thus gain an approximate idea of the time that remained to him. He was quite certain that the eggs must hatch at reasonably regular intervals, though he could not actually know. He wore a wrist watch; but it had long since stopped, nor could he have consulted it in any event, since he could not raise his arm.

Slowly the paralysis disappeared as far as his knees and elbows. He could bend these now, and below them his limbs felt perfectly normal. He knew that if sufficient time were vouchsafed him he would eventually be in full command of all his muscles once again.

As he strained to break the invisible bonds that held him another egg broke, and shortly thereafter Dangar lay with no creature at his right—he would be next.

“And after you, Dangar, come I. I think I shall be free before that, but I wished to save you.”

“Thank you, my friend,” replied the Pellucidarian, “but I am resigned to death. I prefer it to living on as I now am—a head attached to a dead body.”

“You wouldn’t have to live like that for long, I’m sure,” said von Horst. “My own experience convinces me that eventually the effects of the poison must wear off. Ordinarily there is enough to keep the victim paralyzed long beyond the time that he would be required to serve as food for the fledglings. If I could only free myself, I could save you, I am sure.”

“Let us talk of other things,” said Dangar. “I would not be a living dead man, and to entertain other hopes can serve but to tantalize and to make the inevitable end more bitter.”

“As you will,” said von Horst, with a shrug, “but you can’t keep me from thinking and trying.”

And so they talked of Sari and the land of Amoz, from whence Dian the Beautiful had come, and The Land of Awful Shadow, and the Unfriendly Islands in the Sojar Az; for von Horst saw that it pleased Dangar to recall these, to him, pleasant places; though when the Sarian described the savage beasts and wild men that roamed them, von Horst felt that as places of residence they left much to be desired.

As they talked, von Horst discovered that he could move his shoulders and his hips. A pleasant glow of life suffused his entire body. He was about to break the news to Dangar when the fateful sound of breaking shell came simultaneously to the ears of both men.

“Good-bye, my friend,” said Dangar. “We of Pellucidar make few friends outside our own tribes. All other men are enemies to kill or be killed. I am glad to call you friend. See, the end comes!”

Already the newly hatched Trodon had gobbled its own shell and was eyeing Dangar. In a moment it would rush upon him. Von Horst struggled to rise, but something seemed to hold him yet. Then, with gaping jaws, the reptile started toward its prey.

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