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Authors: Burroughs, Edgar Rice

The gods of mars (page 3)

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Instantly I sprang toward it to wrench it open again, for something inthe uncanny movement of the thing and the tense and almost palpablesilence of the chamber seemed to portend a lurking evil lying hidden inthis rock-bound chamber within the bowels of the Golden Cliffs.

My fingers clawed futilely at the unyielding portal, while my eyessought in vain for a duplicate of the button which had given us ingress.

And then, from unseen lips, a cruel and mocking peal of laughter rangthrough the desolate place.

Chapter III - The Chamber of Mystery*

For moments after that awful laugh had ceased reverberating through therocky room, Tars Tarkas and I stood in tense and expectant silence.But no further sound broke the stillness, nor within the range of ourvision did aught move.

At length Tars Tarkas laughed softly, after the manner of his strangekind when in the presence of the horrible or terrifying. It is not anhysterical laugh, but rather the genuine expression of the pleasurethey derive from the things that move Earth men to loathing or to tears.

Often and again have I seen them roll upon the ground in mad fits ofuncontrollable mirth when witnessing the death agonies of women andlittle children beneath the torture of that hellish green Martianfete—the Great Games.

I looked up at the Thark, a smile upon my own lips, for here in truthwas greater need for a smiling face than a trembling chin.

“What do you make of it all?” I asked. “Where in the deuce are we?”

He looked at me in surprise.

“Where are we?” he repeated. “Do you tell me, John Carter, that youknow not where you be?”

“That I am upon Barsoom is all that I can guess, and but for you andthe great white apes I should not even guess that, for the sights Ihave seen this day are as unlike the things of my beloved Barsoom as Iknew it ten long years ago as they are unlike the world of my birth.

“No, Tars Tarkas, I know not where we be.”

“Where have you been since you opened the mighty portals of theatmosphere plant years ago, after the keeper had died and the enginesstopped and all Barsoom was dying, that had not already died, ofasphyxiation? Your body even was never found, though the men of awhole world sought after it for years, though the Jeddak of Helium andhis granddaughter, your princess, offered such fabulous rewards thateven princes of royal blood joined in the search.

“There was but one conclusion to reach when all efforts to locate youhad failed, and that, that you had taken the long, last pilgrimage downthe mysterious River Iss, to await in the Valley Dor upon the shores ofthe Lost Sea of Korus the beautiful Dejah Thoris, your princess.

“Why you had gone none could guess, for your princess still lived—”

“Thank God,” I interrupted him. “I did not dare to ask you, for Ifeared I might have been too late to save her—she was very low when Ileft her in the royal gardens of Tardos Mors that long-gone night; sovery low that I scarcely hoped even then to reach the atmosphere plantere her dear spirit had fled from me for ever. And she lives yet?”

“She lives, John Carter.”

“You have not told me where we are,” I reminded him.

“We are where I expected to find you, John Carter—and another. Manyyears ago you heard the story of the woman who taught me the thing thatgreen Martians are reared to hate, the woman who taught me to love.You know the cruel tortures and the awful death her love won for her atthe hands of the beast, Tal Hajus.

“She, I thought, awaited me by the Lost Sea of Korus.

“You know that it was left for a man from another world, for yourself,John Carter, to teach this cruel Thark what friendship is; and you, Ithought, also roamed the care-free Valley Dor.

“Thus were the two I most longed for at the end of the long pilgrimageI must take some day, and so as the time had elapsed which Dejah Thorishad hoped might bring you once more to her side, for she has alwaystried to believe that you had but temporarily returned to your ownplanet, I at last gave way to my great yearning and a month since Istarted upon the journey, the end of which you have this day witnessed.Do you understand now where you be, John Carter?”

“And that was the River Iss, emptying into the Lost Sea of Korus in theValley Dor?” I asked.

“This is the valley of love and peace and rest to which everyBarsoomian since time immemorial has longed to pilgrimage at the end ofa life of hate and strife and bloodshed,” he replied. “This, JohnCarter, is Heaven.”

His tone was cold and ironical; its bitterness but reflecting theterrible disappointment he had suffered. Such a fearfuldisillusionment, such a blasting of life-long hopes and aspirations,such an uprooting of age-old tradition might have excused a vastlygreater demonstration on the part of the Thark.

I laid my hand upon his shoulder.

“I am sorry,” I said, nor did there seem aught else to say.

“Think, John Carter, of the countless billions of Barsoomians who havetaken the voluntary pilgrimage down this cruel river since thebeginning of time, only to fall into the ferocious clutches of theterrible creatures that to-day assailed us.

“There is an ancient legend that once a red man returned from the banksof the Lost Sea of Korus, returned from the Valley Dor, back throughthe mysterious River Iss, and the legend has it that he narrated afearful blasphemy of horrid brutes that inhabited a valley of wondrousloveliness, brutes that pounced upon each Barsoomian as he terminatedhis pilgrimage and devoured him upon the banks of the Lost Sea where hehad looked to find love and peace and happiness; but the ancientskilled the blasphemer, as tradition has ordained that any shall bekilled who return from the bosom of the River of Mystery.

“But now we know that it was no blasphemy, that the legend is a trueone, and that the man told only of what he saw; but what does it profitus, John Carter, since even should we escape, we also would be treatedas blasphemers? We are between the wild thoat of certainty and the madzitidar of fact—we can escape neither.”

“As Earth men say, we are between the devil and the deep sea, TarsTarkas,” I replied, nor could I help but smile at our dilemma.

“There is naught that we can do but take things as they come, and atleast have the satisfaction of knowing that whoever slays us eventuallywill have far greater numbers of their own dead to count than they willget in return. White ape or plant man, green Barsoomian or red man,whosoever it shall be that takes the last toll from us will know thatit is costly in lives to wipe out John Carter, Prince of the House ofTardos Mors, and Tars Tarkas, Jeddak of Thark, at the same time.”

I could not help but laugh at him grim humour, and he joined in with mein one of those rare laughs of real enjoyment which was one of theattributes of this fierce Tharkian chief which marked him from theothers of his kind.

“But about yourself, John Carter,” he cried at last. “If you have notbeen here all these years where indeed have you been, and how is itthat I find you here to-day?”

“I have been back to Earth,” I replied. “For ten long Earth years Ihave been praying and hoping for the day that would carry me once moreto this grim old planet of yours, for which, with all its cruel andterrible customs, I feel a bond of sympathy and love even greater thanfor the world that gave me birth.

“For ten years have I been enduring a living death of uncertainty anddoubt as to whether Dejah Thoris lived, and now that for the first timein all these years my prayers have been answered and my doubt relievedI find myself, through a cruel whim of fate, hurled into the one tinyspot of all Barsoom from which there is apparently no escape, and ifthere were, at a price which would put out for ever the last flickeringhope which I may cling to of seeing my princess again in this life—andyou have seen to-day with what pitiful futility man yearns toward amaterial hereafter.

“Only a bare half-hour before I saw you battling with the plant men Iwas standing in the moonlight upon the banks of a broad river that tapsthe eastern shore of Earth’s most blessed land. I have answered you,my friend. Do you believe?”

“I believe,” replied Tars Tarkas, “though I cannot understand.”

As we talked I had been searching the interior of the chamber with myeyes. It was, perhaps, two hundred feet in length and half as broad,with what appeared to be a doorway in the centre of the wall directlyopposite that through which we had entered.

The apartment was hewn from the material of the cliff, showing mostlydull gold in the dim light which a single minute radium illuminator inthe centre of the roof diffused throughout its great dimensions. Hereand there polished surfaces of ruby, emerald, and diamond patched thegolden walls and ceiling. The floor was of another material, veryhard, and worn by much use to the smoothness of glass. Aside from thetwo doors I could discern no sign of other aperture, and as one we knewto be locked against us I approached the other.

As I extended my hand to search for the controlling button, that crueland mocking laugh rang out once more, so close to me this time that Iinvoluntarily shrank back, tightening my grip upon the hilt of my greatsword.

And then from the far corner of the great chamber a hollow voicechanted: “There is no hope, there is no hope; the dead return not, thedead return not; nor is there any resurrection. Hope not, for there isno hope.”

Though our eyes instantly turned toward the spot from which the voiceseemed to emanate, there was no one in sight, and I must admit thatcold shivers played along my spine and the short hairs at the base ofmy head stiffened and rose up, as do those upon a hound’s neck when inthe night his eyes see those uncanny things which are hidden from thesight of man.

Quickly I walked toward the mournful voice, but it had ceased ere Ireached the further wall, and then from the other end of the chambercame another voice, shrill and piercing:

“Fools! Fools!” it shrieked. “Thinkest thou to defeat the eternallaws of life and death? Wouldst cheat the mysterious Issus, Goddess ofDeath, of her just dues? Did not her mighty messenger, the ancientIss, bear you upon her leaden bosom at your own behest to the ValleyDor?

“Thinkest thou, O fools, that Issus wilt give up her own? Thinkestthou to escape from whence in all the countless ages but a single soulhas fled?

“Go back the way thou camest, to the merciful maws of the children ofthe Tree of Life or the gleaming fangs of the great white apes, forthere lies speedy surcease from suffering; but insist in your rashpurpose to thread the mazes of the Golden Cliffs of the Mountains ofOtz, past the ramparts of the impregnable fortresses of the HolyTherns, and upon your way Death in its most frightful form willovertake you—a death so horrible that even the Holy Therns themselves,who conceived both Life and Death, avert their eyes from itsfiendishness and close their ears against the hideous shrieks of itsvictims.

“Go back, O fools, the way thou camest.”

And then the awful laugh broke out from another part of the chamber.

“Most uncanny,” I remarked, turning to Tars Tarkas.

“What shall we do?” he asked. “We cannot fight empty air; I wouldalmost sooner return and face foes into whose flesh I may feel my bladebite and know that I am selling my carcass dearly before I go down tothat eternal oblivion which is evidently the fairest and most desirableeternity that mortal man has the right to hope for.”

“If, as you say, we cannot fight empty air, Tars Tarkas,” I replied,“neither, on the other hand, can empty air fight us. I, who have facedand conquered in my time thousands of sinewy warriors and temperedblades, shall not be turned back by wind; nor no more shall you, Thark.”

“But unseen voices may emanate from unseen and unseeable creatures whowield invisible blades,” answered the green warrior.

“Rot, Tars Tarkas,” I cried, “those voices come from beings as real asyou or as I. In their veins flows lifeblood that may be let as easilyas ours, and the fact that they remain invisible to us is the bestproof to my mind that they are mortal; nor overly courageous mortals atthat. Think you, Tars Tarkas, that John Carter will fly at the firstshriek of a cowardly foe who dare not come out into the open and face agood blade?”

I had spoken in a loud voice that there might be no question that ourwould-be terrorizers should hear me, for I was tiring of thisnerve-racking fiasco. It had occurred to me, too, that the wholebusiness was but a plan to frighten us back into the valley of deathfrom which we had escaped, that we might be quickly disposed of by thesavage creatures there.

For a long period there was silence, then of a sudden a soft, stealthysound behind me caused me to turn suddenly to behold a greatmany-legged banth creeping sinuously upon me.

The banth is a fierce beast of prey that roams the low hillssurrounding the dead seas of ancient Mars. Like nearly all Martiananimals it is almost hairless, having only a great bristly mane aboutits thick neck.

Its long, lithe body is supported by ten powerful legs, its enormousjaws are equipped, like those of the calot, or Martian hound, withseveral rows of long needle-like fangs; its mouth reaches to a pointfar back of its tiny ears, while its enormous, protruding eyes of greenadd the last touch of terror to its awful aspect.

As it crept toward me it lashed its powerful tail against its yellowsides, and when it saw that it was discovered it emitted the terrifyingroar which often freezes its prey into momentary paralysis in theinstant that it makes its spring.

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