Read The gods of mars Online

Authors: Burroughs, Edgar Rice

The gods of mars (page 4)

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“Because my friend fights there alone,” I answered, as I hastily soughtand found the keys upon the carcass of the dead custodian of this grimchamber of horrors.

There were many keys upon the oval ring, but the fair Martian maidquickly selected that which sprung the great lock at her waist, andfreed she hurried toward the secret panel.

Again she sought out a key upon the ring. This time a slender,needle-like affair which she inserted in an almost invisible hole inthe wall. Instantly the door swung upon its pivot, and the contiguoussection of the floor upon which I was standing carried me with it intothe chamber where Tars Tarkas fought.

The great Thark stood with his back against an angle of the walls,while facing him in a semi-circle a half-dozen huge monsters crouchedwaiting for an opening. Their blood-streaked heads and shoulderstestified to the cause of their wariness as well as to theswordsmanship of the green warrior whose glossy hide bore the same mutebut eloquent witness to the ferocity of the attacks that he had so farwithstood.

Sharp talons and cruel fangs had torn leg, arm, and breast literally toribbons. So weak was he from continued exertion and loss of blood thatbut for the supporting wall I doubt that he even could have stooderect. But with the tenacity and indomitable courage of his kind hestill faced his cruel and relentless foes—the personification of thatancient proverb of his tribe: “Leave to a Thark his head and one handand he may yet conquer.”

As he saw me enter, a grim smile touched those grim lips of his, butwhether the smile signified relief or merely amusement at the sight ofmy own bloody and dishevelled condition I do not know.

As I was about to spring into the conflict with my sharp long-sword Ifelt a gentle hand upon my shoulder and turning found, to my surprise,that the young woman had followed me into the chamber.

“Wait,” she whispered, “leave them to me,” and pushing me advanced, alldefenceless and unarmed, upon the snarling banths.

When quite close to them she spoke a single Martian word in low butperemptory tones. Like lightning the great beasts wheeled upon her,and I looked to see her torn to pieces before I could reach her side,but instead the creatures slunk to her feet like puppies that expect amerited whipping.

Again she spoke to them, but in tones so low I could not catch thewords, and then she started toward the opposite side of the chamberwith the six mighty monsters trailing at heel. One by one she sentthem through the secret panel into the room beyond, and when the lasthad passed from the chamber where we stood in wide-eyed amazement sheturned and smiled at us and then herself passed through, leaving usalone.

For a moment neither of us spoke. Then Tars Tarkas said:

“I heard the fighting beyond the partition through which you passed,but I did not fear for you, John Carter, until I heard the report of arevolver shot. I knew that there lived no man upon all Barsoom whocould face you with naked steel and live, but the shot stripped thelast vestige of hope from me, since you I knew to be without firearms.Tell me of it.”

I did as he bade, and then together we sought the secret panel throughwhich I had just entered the apartment—the one at the opposite end ofthe room from that through which the girl had led her savage companions.

To our disappointment the panel eluded our every effort to negotiateits secret lock. We felt that once beyond it we might look with somelittle hope of success for a passage to the outside world.

The fact that the prisoners within were securely chained led us tobelieve that surely there must be an avenue of escape from the terriblecreatures which inhabited this unspeakable place.

Again and again we turned from one door to another, from the bafflinggolden panel at one end of the chamber to its mate at theother—equally baffling.

When we had about given up all hope one of the panels turned silentlytoward us, and the young woman who had led away the banths stood oncemore beside us.

“Who are you?” she asked, “and what your mission, that you have thetemerity to attempt to escape from the Valley Dor and the death youhave chosen?”

“I have chosen no death, maiden,” I replied. “I am not of Barsoom, norhave I taken yet the voluntary pilgrimage upon the River Iss. Myfriend here is Jeddak of all the Tharks, and though he has not yetexpressed a desire to return to the living world, I am taking him withme from the living lie that hath lured him to this frightful place.

“I am of another world. I am John Carter, Prince of the House ofTardos Mors, Jeddak of Helium. Perchance some faint rumour of me mayhave leaked within the confines of your hellish abode.”

She smiled.

“Yes,” she replied, “naught that passes in the world we have left isunknown here. I have heard of you, many years ago. The therns haveofttimes wondered whither you had flown, since you had neither takenthe pilgrimage, nor could be found upon the face of Barsoom.”

“Tell me,” I said, “and who be you, and why a prisoner, yet with powerover the ferocious beasts of the place that denotes familiarity andauthority far beyond that which might be expected of a prisoner or aslave?”

“Slave I am,” she answered. “For fifteen years a slave in thisterrible place, and now that they have tired of me and become fearfulof the power which my knowledge of their ways has given me I am butrecently condemned to die the death.”

She shuddered.

“What death?” I asked.

“The Holy Therns eat human flesh,” she answered me; “but only thatwhich has died beneath the sucking lips of a plant man—flesh fromwhich the defiling blood of life has been drawn. And to this cruel endI have been condemned. It was to be within a few hours, had youradvent not caused an interruption of their plans.”

“Was it then Holy Therns who felt the weight of John Carter’s hand?” Iasked.

“Oh, no; those whom you laid low are lesser therns; but of the samecruel and hateful race. The Holy Therns abide upon the outer slopes ofthese grim hills, facing the broad world from which they harvest theirvictims and their spoils.

“Labyrinthine passages connect these caves with the luxurious palacesof the Holy Therns, and through them pass upon their many duties thelesser therns, and hordes of slaves, and prisoners, and fierce beasts;the grim inhabitants of this sunless world.

“There be within this vast network of winding passages and countlesschambers men, women, and beasts who, born within its dim and gruesomeunderworld, have never seen the light of day—nor ever shall.

“They are kept to do the bidding of the race of therns; to furnish atonce their sport and their sustenance.

“Now and again some hapless pilgrim, drifting out upon the silent seafrom the cold Iss, escapes the plant men and the great white apes thatguard the Temple of Issus and falls into the remorseless clutches ofthe therns; or, as was my misfortune, is coveted by the Holy Thern whochances to be upon watch in the balcony above the river where it issuesfrom the bowels of the mountains through the cliffs of gold to emptyinto the Lost Sea of Korus.

“All who reach the Valley Dor are, by custom, the rightful prey of theplant men and the apes, while their arms and ornaments become theportion of the therns; but if one escapes the terrible denizens of thevalley for even a few hours the therns may claim such a one as theirown. And again the Holy Thern on watch, should he see a victim hecovets, often tramples upon the rights of the unreasoning brutes of thevalley and takes his prize by foul means if he cannot gain it by fair.

“It is said that occasionally some deluded victim of Barsoomiansuperstition will so far escape the clutches of the countless enemiesthat beset his path from the moment that he emerges from thesubterranean passage through which the Iss flows for a thousand milesbefore it enters the Valley Dor as to reach the very walls of theTemple of Issus; but what fate awaits one there not even the HolyTherns may guess, for who has passed within those gilded walls neverhas returned to unfold the mysteries they have held since the beginningof time.

“The Temple of Issus is to the therns what the Valley Dor is imaginedby the peoples of the outer world to be to them; it is the ultimatehaven of peace, refuge, and happiness to which they pass after thislife and wherein an eternity of eternities is spent amidst the delightsof the flesh which appeal most strongly to this race of mental giantsand moral pygmies.”

“The Temple of Issus is, I take it, a heaven within a heaven,” I said.“Let us hope that there it will be meted to the therns as they havemeted it here unto others.”

“Who knows?” the girl murmured.

“The therns, I judge from what you have said, are no less mortal thanwe; and yet have I always heard them spoken of with the utmost awe andreverence by the people of Barsoom, as one might speak of the godsthemselves.”

“The therns are mortal,” she replied. “They die from the same causesas you or I might: those who do not live their allotted span of life,one thousand years, when by the authority of custom they may take theirway in happiness through the long tunnel that leads to Issus.

“Those who die before are supposed to spend the balance of theirallotted time in the image of a plant man, and it is for this reasonthat the plant men are held sacred by the therns, since they believethat each of these hideous creatures was formerly a thern.”

“And should a plant man die?” I asked.

“Should he die before the expiration of the thousand years from thebirth of the thern whose immortality abides within him then the soulpasses into a great white ape, but should the ape die short of theexact hour that terminates the thousand years the soul is for ever lostand passes for all eternity into the carcass of the slimy and fearsomesilian whose wriggling thousands seethe the silent sea beneath thehurtling moons when the sun has gone and strange shapes walk throughthe Valley Dor.”

“We sent several Holy Therns to the silians to-day, then,” said TarsTarkas, laughing.

“And so will your death be the more terrible when it comes,” said themaiden. “And come it will—you cannot escape.”

“One has escaped, centuries ago,” I reminded her, “and what has beendone may be done again.”

“It is useless even to try,” she answered hopelessly.

“But try we shall,” I cried, “and you shall go with us, if you wish.”

“To be put to death by mine own people, and render my memory a disgraceto my family and my nation? A Prince of the House of Tardos Morsshould know better than to suggest such a thing.”

Tars Tarkas listened in silence, but I could feel his eyes riveted uponme and I knew that he awaited my answer as one might listen to thereading of his sentence by the foreman of a jury.

What I advised the girl to do would seal our fate as well, since if Ibowed to the inevitable decree of age-old superstition we must allremain and meet our fate in some horrible form within this awful abodeof horror and cruelty.

“We have the right to escape if we can,” I answered. “Our own moralsenses will not be offended if we succeed, for we know that the fabledlife of love and peace in the blessed Valley of Dor is a rank andwicked deception. We know that the valley is not sacred; we know thatthe Holy Therns are not holy; that they are a race of cruel andheartless mortals, knowing no more of the real life to come than we do.

“Not only is it our right to bend every effort to escape—it is asolemn duty from which we should not shrink even though we know that weshould be reviled and tortured by our own peoples when we returned tothem.

“Only thus may we carry the truth to those without, and though thelikelihood of our narrative being given credence is, I grant you,remote, so wedded are mortals to their stupid infatuation forimpossible superstitions, we should be craven cowards indeed were we toshirk the plain duty which confronts us.

“Again there is a chance that with the weight of the testimony ofseveral of us the truth of our statements may be accepted, and at leasta compromise effected which will result in the dispatching of anexpedition of investigation to this hideous mockery of heaven.”

Both the girl and the green warrior stood silent in thought for somemoments. The former it was who eventually broke the silence.

“Never had I considered the matter in that light before,” she said.“Indeed would I give my life a thousand times if I could but save asingle soul from the awful life that I have led in this cruel place.Yes, you are right, and I will go with you as far as we can go; but Idoubt that we ever shall escape.”

I turned an inquiring glance toward the Thark.

“To the gates of Issus, or to the bottom of Korus,” spoke the greenwarrior; “to the snows to the north or to the snows to the south, TarsTarkas follows where John Carter leads. I have spoken.”

“Come, then,” I cried, “we must make the start, for we could not befurther from escape than we now are in the heart of this mountain andwithin the four walls of this chamber of death.”

“Come, then,” said the girl, “but do not flatter yourself that you canfind no worse place than this within the territory of the therns.”

So saying she swung the secret panel that separated us from theapartment in which I had found her, and we stepped through once moreinto the presence of the other prisoners.

There were in all ten red Martians, men and women, and when we hadbriefly explained our plan they decided to join forces with us, thoughit was evident that it was with some considerable misgivings that theythus tempted fate by opposing an ancient superstition, even though eachknew through cruel experience the fallacy of its entire fabric.

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