A Fighting Man of Mars (Barsoom #7)

Page 13

No word was spoken within the chamber, but at a signal from Haj Osis strong men lowered the cage slowly into the aperture beneath us. Here the cold and the damp were more obvious and penetrating than before, while the ghastly sounds appeared to redouble in volume.

Down, down we slid into an abyss of darkness. The horror of the silence in the chamber above was forgotten in the horror of the pandemonium of uncanny sounds that rose from beneath.

How far we were lowered thus I may not even guess, but to Nur An it seemed at least a thousand feet and then we commenced to detect a slight luminosity about us. The moaning and the groaning had become a constant roar. As we approached, it seemed less like moans and groans and more like the sound of wind and rushing waters.

Suddenly, without the slightest warning, the bottom of the cage, which evidently must have been hinged upon one side, and held by a catch that could be sprung from above, swung downward. It happened so quickly that we hardly had time for conjecture before we were plunged into rushing water.

As I rose to the surface I discovered that I could see. Wherever we were, it was not shrouded in impenetrable darkness, but was lighted dimly.

Almost immediately Nur An’s head bobbed up at arm’s length from me. A strong current was bearing us onward and I realized at once that we were in the grip of a great underground river, one of those to which the remaining waters of dying Barsoom have receded. In the distance I descried a shoreline dimly visible in the subdued light, and, shouting to Nur An to follow me, I struck out toward it. The water was cold, but not sufficiently so to alarm me and I had no doubt but that we would reach the shore.

By the time that we had attained our goal and crawled out upon the rocky shore, our eyes had become accustomed to the dim light of the interior, and now, with astonishment, we gazed about us. What a vast cavern! Far, far above us its ceiling was discernible in the light of the minute radium particles with which the rock that formed its walls and ceiling was impregnated, but the opposite bank of the rushing torrent was beyond the range of our vision.

“So this is The Death!” exclaimed Nur An.

“I doubt if they know what it is themselves,” I replied. “From the roaring of the river and the moaning of the wind, they have conjured something horrible in their own imaginations.”

“Perhaps the greatest suffering that the victim must endure lies in his anticipation of what awaits him in these seemingly horrid depths,” suggested Nur An, “whereas the worst that realization might bring would be death by drowning.”

“Or by starvation,” I suggested.

Nur An nodded. “Nevertheless,” he said, I wish I might return just long enough to mock them and witness their disappointment when they find that The Death is not so horrible after all.”

“What a mighty river,” he added after a moment’s silence. “Could it be a tributary of Iss?”

“Perhaps it is Iss herself,” I said.

“Then we are bound upon the last long pilgrimage down to the lost sea of Korus in the valley Dor,” said Nur An gloomily. “It may be a lovely place, but I do not wish to go there yet.”

“It is a place of horror,” I replied.

“Hush,” he cautioned; “that is sacrilege.”

“It is sacrilege no longer since John Carter and Tars Tarkas snatched the veil of secrecy from the valley Dor and disposed of the myth of Issus, Goddess of Life Eternal.” Even after I had told him the whole tragic story of the false gods of Mars, Nur An remained skeptical, so closely are the superstitions of religion woven into every fiber of our being.

We were both a trifle fatigued after our battle with the strong current of the river, and perhaps, too, we were suffering from reaction from the nervous shock of the ordeal through which we had passed. So we remained there, resting upon the rocky shore of the river of mystery. Eventually our conversation turned to what was uppermost in the minds of both and yet which each hesitated to mention—the fate of Tavia and Phao.

“I wish that they, too, had been sentenced to The Death,” I said, “for then at least we might be with them and protect them.”

“I am afraid that we shall never see them again,” said Nur An gloomily. “What a cruel fate that I should have found Phao only to lose her again irretrievably so quickly.”

“It is indeed a strange trick of fate that after Tul Axtar stole her from you, he should have lost her too, and then that you should find her in Tjanath.”

He looked at me with a slightly puzzled expression for a moment and then his face cleared. “Phao is not the woman of whom I told you in the dungeon at Tjanath,” he said. “Phao I loved long before; she was my first love. After I lost her I thought that I never could care for a woman again, but this other one came into my life and, knowing that Phao was gone forever, I found some consolation in my new love, but I realize now that was not the same, that no love could ever displace that which I felt for Phao.”

“You lost her irretrievably once before,” I reminded him, “but you found her again; perhaps you will find her once more.”

“I wish that I might share your optimism,” he said.

“We have little else to buoy us up,” I reminded him.

“You are right,” he said, and then with a laugh, added, “we still live!”

Presently, feeling rested, we set out along the shore in the direction that the river ran, for we had decided that that would be our course if for no other reason than that it would be easier going down hill than up. Where it would lead, we had not the slightest idea; perhaps to Korus; perhaps to Omean, the buried sea where lay the ships of the First Born.

Over tumbled rock masses we clambered and along level stretches of smooth gravel we pursued our rather aimless course, knowing not whither we were going, having no goal toward which to strive. There was some vegetation, weird and grotesque, but almost colorless for want of sunlight. There were tree-like plants with strange, angular branches that snapped off at the lightest touch, and as the trees did not look like trees, there were blossoms that did not look like flowers. It was a world as unlike the outer world as the figments of imagination are unlike realities.

But whatever musing upon the flora of this strange land I may have been indulging in was brought to a sudden termination as we rounded the shoulder of a jutting promontory and came face to face with as hideous a creature as ever I had laid my eyes upon. It was a great white lizard with gaping jaws large enough to engulf a man at a single swallow. At sight of us it emitted an angry hiss and advanced menacingly toward us.

Being unarmed and absolutely at the mercy of any creature that attacked us, we pursued the only plan that our intelligence could dictate—we retreated—and I am not ashamed to admit that we retreated rapidly.

Running quickly around the end of the promontory, we turned sharply up the bank away from the river. The bottom of the cavern rose sharply and as I clambered upward I glanced behind me occasionally to note the actions of our pursuer. He was now in plain sight, having followed us around the end of the promontory and there he stood looking about as though in search of us. Though we were not far from him, he did not seem to see us, and I soon became convinced that his eyesight was faulty; but not wishing to depend upon this I kept on climbing until presently we came to the top of the promontory, and, looking down upon the other side, I saw a considerable stretch of smooth gravel, stretching out into the dim distance along the river shore. If we could clamber down the opposite side of the barrier and reach this level stretch of gravel, I felt that we might escape the attentions of the huge monster. A final glance at him showed him still standing, peering first in one direction and then in another as though in search of us.

Nur An had followed close behind me and now together we slipped over the edge of the escarpment, and, though the rough rocks scratched us severely, we finally reached the gravel below, whereupon, having eluded our menacer, we set out upon a brisk run down the river. We had covered scarcely more than fifty paces when Nur An stumbled over an obstacle and as I stooped to give him a hand up, I saw that the thing that had tripped him was the rotting harness of a warrior and a moment later I saw the hilt of a sword protruding from the gravel. Seizing it, I wrenched it from the ground. It was a good long sword and I may tell you that the feel of it in my hand did more to restore my self-confidence than aught else that might have transpired. Being made of noncorrosive metal, as are all Barsoomian weapons, it remained as sound today as the moment that it had been abandoned by its owner.

“Look,” said Nur An, pointing, and there at a little distance we saw another harness and another sword. This time there were two, a long sword and a short sword, and these Nur An took. No longer did we run. I have always felt that there is little upon Barsoom that two well-armed warriors need run from.

As we continued along our way across the level stretch of gravel we sought to solve the mystery of these abandoned weapons, a mystery that was still further heightened by our discovery of many more. In some cases the harness had rotted away entirely, leaving nothing but the metal parts, while in others it was comparatively sound and new. Presently we discerned a white mound ahead of us, but in the dim light of the cavern we could not at first determine of what it consisted. When we did, we were filled with horror, for the white mound was of the bones and skulls of human beings. Then, at last, I thought I had an explanation of the abandoned harness and weapons. This was the lair of the great lizard. Here he took his toll of the unhappy creatures that passed down the river, but how was it that armed men had come here. We had been cast into the cavern unarmed, as I was positive all of the condemned prisoners of Tjanath must have been. From whence came the others? I do not know, doubtless I shall never know. It was a mystery from the first. It will remain a mystery to the last.

As we passed on we found harness and weapons scattered all about, but there was infinitely more harness than weapons.

I had added a good short sword to my equipment, as well as a dagger, as had also Nur An, and I was stooping to examine another weapon which we had found—a short sword with a beautifully ornamented hilt and guard —when Nur An suddenly voiced an exclamation of warning.

“On guard,” he cried, “Hadron! It comes!”

Leaping to my feet, I wheeled about, the short sword still in my hand, and there, bearing down upon us at considerable speed and with wide distended jaws, came the great white lizard hissing ominously. He was a hideous sight, a sight such as to make even a brave man turn and run, which I am now convinced is what practically all of his victims did; but here were two who did not run. Perhaps he was so close that we realized the futility of flight without giving the matter conscious thought, but be that as it may, we stood here—Nur An with his long sword in his hand, I with the ornately carved short sword that I had been examining, though instantly I realized that it was not the weapon with which to defend myself against this great hulking brute.

Yet I could not bear to waste a weapon already in my hand, especially in view of an accomplishment of mine in which I took considerable pride.

In Helium, both officers and men often wager large amounts upon the accuracy with which they can hurl daggers and short swords and I have seen considerable sums change hands within an hour, but so proficient was I that I had added considerably to my pay through my winning until my fame had spread to such an extent that I could find no one willing to pit his skill against mine.

Never had I hurled a weapon with a more fervent prayer for the accuracy of my throw than now as I launched the short sword swiftly at the mouth of the oncoming lizard. It was not a good throw. It would have lost me money in Helium, but in this instance, I think, it saved my life. The sword, instead of speeding in a straight line, point first, as it should have, turned slowly upward until it was traveling at an angle of about forty-five degrees, with the point forward and downward. In this position the point struck just inside of the lower jaw of the creature, while the heavy hilt, carried forward by its own momentum, lodged in the roof of the monster’s mouth.

Instantly it was helpless; the point of the sword had passed through its tongue into the bony substance of its lower jaw, while the hilt was lodged in its upper jaw behind its mighty fangs. It could not dislodge the sword, either forward or backward, and for an instant it halted in hissing dismay, and simultaneously Nur An and I leaped to opposite sides of its ghastly white body. It tried to defend itself with its tail and talons, but we were too quick for it and presently it was lying in a pool of its own purple blood in the final spasmodic muscular reaction of dissolution.

There was something peculiarly disgusting and loathsome about the purple blood of the creature, not only in its appearance, but in its odor, which was almost nauseating, and Nur An and I lost no time in quitting the scene of our victory. At the river we washed our blades and then continued on upon our fruitless quest.

As we had washed our blades we had noticed fish in the river and after we had put sufficient distance between the lair of the lizard and ourselves, we determined to bend our energies for awhile toward filling our larder and our stomachs.

Neither one of us had ever caught a fish or eaten one, but we knew from history that they could be caught and that they were edible. Being swordsmen, we naturally looked to our swords as the best means for procuring our flesh and so we waded into the river with drawn long swords prepared to slaughter fish to our heart’s content, but wherever we went there was no fish. We could see them elsewhere, but not within reach of our swords.

“Perhaps,” said Nur An, “fish are not such fools as they appear. They may see us approaching and question our motive.”

“I can readily believe that you are right,” I replied. “Suppose we try strategy.”

“How?” he asked.

“Come with me,” I said, “and return to the bank.” After a little search down stream I found a rocky ledge overhanging the river. “We will lie here at intervals,” I said, “with only our eyes and the points of our swords over the edge of the bank. We must not talk or move, lest we frighten the fish. Perhaps in this way we shall procure one,” for I had long since given up the idea of a general slaughter.

To my gratification my plan worked and it was not long before we each had a large fish.

Naturally, like other men, we prefer our flesh cooked, but being warriors we were accustomed to it either way, and so we broke our long fast upon raw fish from the river of mystery.