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Authors: Burroughs, Edgar Rice

The gods of mars (page 5)

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The eyes of the herald upon the balcony beneath us fell upon the doomedparty as soon as did ours. He raised his head and leaning far out overthe low rail that rimmed his dizzy perch, voiced the shrill, weird wailthat called the demons of this hellish place to the attack.

For an instant the brutes stood with stiffly erected ears, then theypoured from the grove toward the river’s bank, covering the distancewith great, ungainly leaps.

The party had landed and was standing on the sward as the awful hordecame in sight. There was a brief and futile effort of defence. Thensilence as the huge, repulsive shapes covered the bodies of theirvictims and scores of sucking mouths fastened themselves to the fleshof their prey.

I turned away in disgust.

“Their part is soon over,” said Thuvia. “The great white apes get theflesh when the plant men have drained the arteries. Look, they arecoming now.”

As I turned my eyes in the direction the girl indicated, I saw a dozenof the great white monsters running across the valley toward the riverbank. Then the sun went down and darkness that could almost be feltengulfed us.

Thuvia lost no time in leading us toward the corridor which winds backand forth up through the cliffs toward the surface thousands of feetabove the level on which we had been.

Twice great banths, wandering loose through the galleries, blocked ourprogress, but in each instance Thuvia spoke a low word of command andthe snarling beasts slunk sullenly away.

“If you can dissolve all our obstacles as easily as you master thesefierce brutes I can see no difficulties in our way,” I said to thegirl, smiling. “How do you do it?”

She laughed, and then shuddered.

“I do not quite know,” she said. “When first I came here I angeredSator Throg, because I repulsed him. He ordered me to be thrown intoone of the great pits in the inner gardens. It was filled with banths.In my own country I had been accustomed to command. Something in myvoice, I do not know what, cowed the beasts as they sprang to attack me.

“Instead of tearing me to pieces, as Sator Throg had desired, theyfawned at my feet. So greatly were Sator Throg and his friends amusedby the sight that they kept me to train and handle the terriblecreatures. I know them all by name. There are many of them wanderingthrough these lower regions. They are the scavengers. Many prisonersdie here in their chains. The banths solve the problem of sanitation,at least in this respect.

“In the gardens and temples above they are kept in pits. The thernsfear them. It is because of the banths that they seldom venture belowground except as their duties call them.”

An idea occurred to me, suggested by what Thuvia had just said.

“Why not take a number of banths and set them loose before us aboveground?” I asked.

Thuvia laughed.

“It would distract attention from us, I am sure,” she said.

She commenced calling in a low singsong voice that was half purr. Shecontinued this as we wound our tedious way through the maze ofsubterranean passages and chambers.

Presently soft, padded feet sounded close behind us, and as I turned Isaw a pair of great, green eyes shining in the dark shadows at ourrear. From a diverging tunnel a sinuous, tawny form crept stealthilytoward us.

Low growls and angry snarls assailed our ears on every side as wehastened on and one by one the ferocious creatures answered the call oftheir mistress.

She spoke a word to each as it joined us. Like well-schooled terriers,they paced the corridors with us, but I could not help but note thelathering jowls, nor the hungry expressions with which they eyed TarsTarkas and myself.

Soon we were entirely surrounded by some fifty of the brutes. Twowalked close on either side of Thuvia, as guards might walk. The sleeksides of others now and then touched my own naked limbs. It was astrange experience; the almost noiseless passage of naked human feetand padded paws; the golden walls splashed with precious stones; thedim light cast by the tiny radium bulbs set at considerable distancesalong the roof; the huge, maned beasts of prey crowding with low growlsabout us; the mighty green warrior towering high above us all; myselfcrowned with the priceless diadem of a Holy Thern; and leading theprocession the beautiful girl, Thuvia.

I shall not soon forget it.

Presently we approached a great chamber more brightly lighted than thecorridors. Thuvia halted us. Quietly she stole toward the entranceand glanced within. Then she motioned us to follow her.

The room was filled with specimens of the strange beings that inhabitthis underworld; a heterogeneous collection of hybrids—the offspringof the prisoners from the outside world; red and green Martians and thewhite race of therns.

Constant confinement below ground had wrought odd freaks upon theirskins. They more resemble corpses than living beings. Many aredeformed, others maimed, while the majority, Thuvia explained, aresightless.

As they lay sprawled about the floor, sometimes overlapping oneanother, again in heaps of several bodies, they suggested instantly tome the grotesque illustrations that I had seen in copies of Dante’sInferno, and what more fitting comparison? Was this not indeed averitable hell, peopled by lost souls, dead and damned beyond all hope?

Picking our way carefully we threaded a winding path across thechamber, the great banths sniffing hungrily at the tempting prey spreadbefore them in such tantalizing and defenceless profusion.

Several times we passed the entrances to other chambers similarlypeopled, and twice again we were compelled to cross directly throughthem. In others were chained prisoners and beasts.

“Why is it that we see no therns?” I asked of Thuvia.

“They seldom traverse the underworld at night, for then it is that thegreat banths prowl the dim corridors seeking their prey. The thernsfear the awful denizens of this cruel and hopeless world that they havefostered and allowed to grow beneath their feet. The prisoners evensometimes turn upon them and rend them. The thern can never tell fromwhat dark shadow an assassin may spring upon his back.

“By day it is different. Then the corridors and chambers are filledwith guards passing to and fro; slaves from the temples above come byhundreds to the granaries and storerooms. All is life then. You didnot see it because I led you not in the beaten tracks, but throughroundabout passages seldom used. Yet it is possible that we may meet athern even yet. They do occasionally find it necessary to come hereafter the sun has set. Because of this I have moved with such greatcaution.”

But we reached the upper galleries without detection and presentlyThuvia halted us at the foot of a short, steep ascent.

“Above us,” she said, “is a doorway which opens on to the innergardens. I have brought you thus far. From here on for four miles tothe outer ramparts our way will be beset by countless dangers. Guardspatrol the courts, the temples, the gardens. Every inch of theramparts themselves is beneath the eye of a sentry.”

I could not understand the necessity for such an enormous force ofarmed men about a spot so surrounded by mystery and superstition thatnot a soul upon Barsoom would have dared to approach it even had theyknown its exact location. I questioned Thuvia, asking her what enemiesthe therns could fear in their impregnable fortress.

We had reached the doorway now and Thuvia was opening it.

“They fear the black pirates of Barsoom, O Prince,” she said, “fromwhom may our first ancestors preserve us.”

The door swung open; the smell of growing things greeted my nostrils;the cool night air blew against my cheek. The great banths sniffed theunfamiliar odours, and then with a rush they broke past us with lowgrowls, swarming across the gardens beneath the lurid light of thenearer moon.

Suddenly a great cry arose from the roofs of the temples; a cry ofalarm and warning that, taken up from point to point, ran off to theeast and to the west, from temple, court, and rampart, until it soundedas a dim echo in the distance.

The great Thark’s long-sword leaped from its scabbard; Thuvia shrankshuddering to my side.

Chapter VI - The Black Pirates of Barsoom*

“What is it?” I asked of the girl.

For answer she pointed to the sky.

I looked, and there, above us, I saw shadowy bodies flitting hither andthither high over temple, court, and garden.

Almost immediately flashes of light broke from these strange objects.There was a roar of musketry, and then answering flashes and roars fromtemple and rampart.

“The black pirates of Barsoom, O Prince,” said Thuvia.

In great circles the air craft of the marauders swept lower and lowertoward the defending forces of the therns.

Volley after volley they vomited upon the temple guards; volley onvolley crashed through the thin air toward the fleeting and illusivefliers.

As the pirates swooped closer toward the ground, thern soldiery pouredfrom the temples into the gardens and courts. The sight of them in theopen brought a score of fliers darting toward us from all directions.

The therns fired upon them through shields affixed to their rifles, buton, steadily on, came the grim, black craft. They were small fliersfor the most part, built for two to three men. A few larger ones therewere, but these kept high aloft dropping bombs upon the temples fromtheir keel batteries.

At length, with a concerted rush, evidently in response to a signal ofcommand, the pirates in our immediate vicinity dashed recklessly to theground in the very midst of the thern soldiery.

Scarcely waiting for their craft to touch, the creatures manning themleaped among the therns with the fury of demons. Such fighting! Neverhad I witnessed its like before. I had thought the green Martians themost ferocious warriors in the universe, but the awful abandon withwhich the black pirates threw themselves upon their foes transcendedeverything I ever before had seen.

Beneath the brilliant light of Mars’ two glorious moons the whole scenepresented itself in vivid distinctness. The golden-haired,white-skinned therns battling with desperate courage in hand-to-handconflict with their ebony-skinned foemen.

Here a little knot of struggling warriors trampled a bed of gorgeouspimalia; there the curved sword of a black man found the heart of athern and left its dead foeman at the foot of a wondrous statue carvedfrom a living ruby; yonder a dozen therns pressed a single pirate backupon a bench of emerald, upon whose iridescent surface a strangelybeautiful Barsoomian design was traced out in inlaid diamonds.

A little to one side stood Thuvia, the Thark, and I. The tide ofbattle had not reached us, but the fighters from time to time swungclose enough that we might distinctly note them.

The black pirates interested me immensely. I had heard vague rumours,little more than legends they were, during my former life on Mars; butnever had I seen them, nor talked with one who had.

They were popularly supposed to inhabit the lesser moon, from whichthey descended upon Barsoom at long intervals. Where they visited theywrought the most horrible atrocities, and when they left carried awaywith them firearms and ammunition, and young girls as prisoners. Theselatter, the rumour had it, they sacrificed to some terrible god in anorgy which ended in the eating of their victims.

I had an excellent opportunity to examine them, as the strifeoccasionally brought now one and now another close to where I stood.They were large men, possibly six feet and over in height. Theirfeatures were clear cut and handsome in the extreme; their eyes werewell set and large, though a slight narrowness lent them a craftyappearance; the iris, as well as I could determine by moonlight, was ofextreme blackness, while the eyeball itself was quite white and clear.The physical structure of their bodies seemed identical with those ofthe therns, the red men, and my own. Only in the colour of their skindid they differ materially from us; that is of the appearance ofpolished ebony, and odd as it may seem for a Southerner to say it, addsto rather than detracts from their marvellous beauty.

But if their bodies are divine, their hearts, apparently, are quite thereverse. Never did I witness such a malign lust for blood as thesedemons of the outer air evinced in their mad battle with the therns.

All about us in the garden lay their sinister craft, which the thernsfor some reason, then unaccountable to me, made no effort to injure.Now and again a black warrior would rush from a near by temple bearinga young woman in his arms. Straight for his flier he would leap whilethose of his comrades who fought near by would rush to cover his escape.

The therns on their side would hasten to rescue the girl, and in aninstant the two would be swallowed in the vortex of a maelstrom ofyelling devils, hacking and hewing at one another, like fiendsincarnate.

But always, it seemed, were the black pirates of Barsoom victorious,and the girl, brought miraculously unharmed through the conflict, borneaway into the outer darkness upon the deck of a swift flier.

Fighting similar to that which surrounded us could be heard in bothdirections as far as sound carried, and Thuvia told me that the attacksof the black pirates were usually made simultaneously along the entireribbon-like domain of the therns, which circles the Valley Dor on theouter slopes of the Mountains of Otz.

As the fighting receded from our position for a moment, Thuvia turnedtoward me with a question.

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