A puff of hot air struck me suddenly in the face, recalling to my mind that far below in the pits of Ghasta an orgy of torture was occurring. Faintly a scream arose from the black mouth of the flue behind me. I shuddered, but my attention was centered upon the yawning opening now and I approached it. Almost unbearable waves of heat were billowing upward from the mouth of the chimney. There was little smoke, so perfect was the combustion, but what there was shot into the air at terrific velocity. It almost seemed that were I to cast myself upon it I should be carried far aloft.
It was then that a thought was born—a mad, impossible idea, it seemed, and yet it clung to me as I lowered myself gingerly over the outer edge of the tower and finally regained the greater security of my cell.
I was about to explain my insane plan to Nur An when I was interrupted by sounds from the adjoining chamber and an instant later the partition started to rise. I thought they were bringing us food again, but the partition rose further than was necessary for the passing of food receptacles beneath it and a moment later we saw the ankles and legs of a woman beneath the base of the rising wall. Then a girl stooped and entered our cell. In the light from the adjoining room I recognized her—she who had been selected by Ghron to lure me to his will. Her name was Sharu.
Nur An had quickly replaced the bar on the window and when the girl entered there was nothing to indicate that aught was amiss, or that one of us had so recently been outside our cell, The partition remained half raised, permitting light to enter the apartment, and the girl, looking at me, must have noticed my gaze wandering to the adjoining room.
“Do not let your hopes rise,” she said with a rueful smile. “There are guards waiting at the level next below.”
“Why are you here, Sharu?” I asked.
“Ghron sent me,” she replied. “He is impatient for your decision.”
I thought quickly. Our only hope lay in the sympathy of this girl, whose attitude in the past had at least demonstrated her friendliness. “Had we a dagger and a needle,” I said in a low whisper. “we could give Ghron his answer upon the morning of the day after tomorrow.”
“What reason can I give him for this further delay?” she asked after a moment’s thought.
“Tell him,” said Nur An, “that we are communing with our ancestors and that upon their advice shall depend our decision.”
Sharu smiled. She drew a dagger from its sheath at her side and laid it upon the floor and from a pocket pouch attached to her harness she produced a needle, which she laid beside the dagger. “I shall convince Ghron that it is best to wait,” she said. “My heart had hoped, Hadron of Hastor, that you would decide to remain with me, but I am glad that I have not been mistaken in my estimate of your character. You will die, my warrior, but at least you will die as a brave man should and undefiled. Good-bye! I look upon you in life for the last time, but until I am gathered to my ancestors your image shall remain enshrined within my heart.”
She was gone; the partition dropped, and again we were left in the semi-darkness of a moonlit night, but now we had the two things that I most desired—a dagger and a needle.
“Of what good are those?” asked Nur An as I gathered the two articles from the floor.
“You will see,” I replied, and immediately I set to work cutting the fabric from the walls of our cell and then, standing upon Nur An’s shoulders, I removed also that which covered the ceiling. I worked quickly for I knew that we had little time in which to accomplish that which I had set out to do. A mad scheme it was, and yet withal within the realms of practicability.
Working in the dark, more by sense of feel than by sight, I must have been inspired by some higher power to have accomplished with any degree of perfection the task that I had set myself.
The balance of that night and all of the following day Nur An and I labored without rest until we had fashioned an enormous bag from the fabric that had covered the walls and ceiling of our cell and from the scraps that remained we fashioned long ropes and when night fell again our task was completed.
“May luck be with us,” I said.
“The scheme is worthy of the mad brain of Ghron himself,” said Nur An; “yet it has within it the potentialities of success.”
“Night has fallen,” I said; “we need not delay longer. Of one thing, however, we may be sure, whether we succeed or fail we shall have escaped the fire and in either event may our ancestors look with love and compassion upon Sharu, whose friendship has made possible our attempt.”
“Whose love,” corrected Nur An.
Once again I made the perilous ascent to the roof, taking one of our new-made ropes with me. Then, from the summit, I lowered it to Nur An, who fastened the great bag to it; after which I drew the fruits of our labors carefully to the roof beside me. It was as light as a feather, yet stronger than the well-tanned hide of a zitidar. Next, I lowered the rope and assisted Nur An to my side, but not until he had replaced the bar that we had removed from the window.
Attached to the bottom of our bag, which was open, were a number of long cords, terminating in loops. Through these loops we passed the longest rope that we had made—a rope so long that it entirely encircled the circumference of the tower—when we lowered it below the projecting eaves. We made it fast there, but with a slip knot that could be instantly released with a single jerk.
Next, we slid the loops at the end of the ropes attached to the bottom of the bag along the cord that encircled the tower below the eaves until we had maneuvered the opening of the bag directly over the mouth of the flue leading down into the furnace of death in the pits of Ghasta. Standing upon either side of the flue Nur An and I lifted the bag until it commenced to fill with the hot air rushing from the chimney. Presently it was sufficiently inflated to remain in an erect position, whereupon, leaving Nur An to steady it, I moved the loops until they were at equal distances from one another, thus anchoring the bag directly over the center of the flue. Then I passed another rope loosely through the loops and secured its end together, and to opposite sides of this rope Nur An and I snapped the boarding hooks that are a part of the harness of every Barsoomian warrior, the primary purpose of which is to lower boarding parties from the deck of one ship to that of another directly below, but which in practice are used in countless ways and numerous emergencies.
Then we waited; Nur An ready to slip the knot that held the rope around the tower beneath the eaves and I, upon the opposite side, with Sharu’s sharp dagger prepared to cut the rope upon my side.
I saw the great bag that we had made filling with hot air. At first, loosely inflated, it rocked and swayed, but presently, its sides distended, it strained upward. Its fabric stretched tightly until I thought that it should burst. It tugged and pulled at its restraining cords, and yet I waited.
Down in the valley of Hohr there was little or no wind, which greatly facilitated the carrying out of our rash venture.
The great bag, almost as large as the room in which we had been confined, bellied above us. It strained upon its guy ropes in its impatience to be aloft until I wondered that they held, and then I gave the word.
Simultaneously Nur An slipped his knot and I severed the rope upon the opposite side. Freed, the great bag leaped aloft, snapping us in its wake. It shot upward with a velocity that was astounding until the valley of Hohr was but a little hollow in the surface of the great world that lay below us.
Presently a wind caught us and you may be assured that we gave thanks to our ancestors as we realized that we were at last drifting from above the cruel city of Ghasta. The wind increased until it was blowing rapidly in a northeasterly direction, but little did we care where it wafted us as long as it took us away from the river Syl and the valley of Hohr.
After we had passed beyond the crater of the ancient volcano, which formed the bed of the valley in which lay somber Ghasta, we saw below us, in the moonlight, a rough volcanic country that presented a weird and impressive appearance of unreality; deep chasms and tumbled piles of basalt seemed to present an unsurmountable barrier to man, which may explain why in this remote and desolate corner of Barsoom the valley of Hohr had lain for countless ages undiscovered.
The wind increased. Floating at a great altitude we were being carried at considerable speed, yet I could see that we were very slowly falling as the hot air within our bag cooled. How much longer it would keep us up I could not guess, but I hoped it would bear us at least beyond the uninviting terrain beneath us.
With the coming of dawn we were floating but a few hundred feet above the ground; the volcanic country was far behind us and as far as we could see stretched lovely, rolling hills, sparsely timbered with the drought resisting skeel upon which it has been said the civilization of Barsoom has been erected.
As we topped a low hill, passing over it by a scant fifty sofads we saw below us a building of gleaming white. Like all the cities and isolated buildings of Barsoom, it was surrounded by a lofty wall, but in other respects it differed materially from the usual Barsoomian type of architecture. The edifice, which was made up of a number of buildings, was not surmounted by the usual towers, domes and minarets that mark all Barsoomian cities and which only in recent ages have been giving way slowly to the flat landing stages of an aerial world. The structure below us was composed of a number of flat roofed buildings of various heights, none of which, however, appeared to rise over four levels. Between the buildings and the outer walls and in several open courts between the buildings, there was a profusion of trees and shrubbery with scarlet sward and well kept paths. It was, in fact, a striking and beautiful sight, yet having so recently been lured to near destruction by the beauties of Hohr and the engaging allurements of her beautiful women, we had no mind to be deceived again by external appearances. We would float over the palace of enchantment and take our chances in the open country beyond.
But fate willed otherwise. The wind had abated; we were dropping rapidly; beneath us we saw people in the garden of the building and simultaneously, as they discovered us, it was evident that they were filled with consternation. They hastened quickly to the nearest entrances and there was not a human being in sight when we finally came to rest upon the roof of one of the taller sections of the structure.
As we extricated ourselves from the loops in which we had been sitting, the great bag, relieved of our weight, rose quickly into the air for a short distance, turned completely over and dropped to the ground just beyond the outer wall. It had served us well and now it seemed like a living thing that had given up its life for our salvation.
We were to have little time, however, for sentimental regrets, for almost immediately a head appeared through a small opening in the roof upon which we stood. The head was followed by the body of a man, whose harness was so scant as to leave him almost nude. He was an old man with a finely shaped head, covered with scant, gray locks.
Apparent physical old age is so rare upon Barsoom as always to attract immediate attention. In the natural span of life we live often to a thousand years, but during that long period our appearance seldom changes but little. It is true that most of us meet violent death long before we reach old age, but there are some who pass the allotted span of life and others who do not care for themselves so well and these few constitute the physically old among us; evidently of such was the little old man who confronted us.
At sight of him Nur An voiced an exclamation of pleased surprise. “Phor Tak!” he cried.
“Heigh-oo!” cackled the old man in a high falsetto. “Who cometh from the high heavens who knows old Phor Tak?”
“It is I—Nur An!” exclaimed my friend.
“Heigh-oo!” cried Phor Tak. “Nur An—one of Tul Axtar’s pets.”
“As you once were, Phor Tak.”
“But not now—not now,” almost screamed the old man. “The tyrant squeezed me like some juicy fruit and then cast the empty rind aside. Heigh-oo! He thought it was empty, but I pray daily to all my ancestors that he may live to know that he was wrong. I can say this with safety to you. Nur An, for I have you in my power and I promise you that you shall never live to carry word of my whereabouts to Tul Axtar.”
“Do not fear, Phor Tak,” said Nur An. “I, too, have suffered from the villainy of the Jeddak of Jahar. You were permitted to leave the capital in peace, but all my property was confiscated and I was sentenced to death.”
“Heigh-oo! Then you hate him, too,” exclaimed the old man.
“Hate is a weak word to describe my feeling for Tul Axtar,” replied my friend.
“It is well,” said Phor Tak. “When I saw you descending from the skies I thought that my ancestors had sent you to help me, and I know that it was indeed true. Be this another warrior from Jahar?” he added, nodding his old head toward me.
“No, Phor Tak,” replied Nur An. “This is Hadron of Hastor, a noble of Helium, but he, too, has been wronged by Jahar.”
“Good!” exclaimed the old man. “Now there are three of us. Heretofore I have had only slaves and women to assist me, but now with two trained warriors, young and strong, the goal of my triumph appears almost in sight.”
As the two men conversed I had recalled that part of the story that Nur An had told me in the pits of Tjanath which related to Phor Tak and his invention of the rifle that projected the disintegrating rays which had proved so deadly against the patrol boat above Helium the night of Sanoma Tora’s abduction. Strange, indeed, was fate that it should have brought me into the palace of the man who held the secret that might mean so much to Helium and to all Barsoom. Strange, too, and devious had been the path along which fate had led me, yet I knew that my ancestors were guiding me and that all must have been arranged to some good end.
When Phor Tak had heard only a portion of our story he insisted that we must be both fatigued and hungry and, like the good host that he proved to be, he conducted us down to the interior of his palace and, summoning slaves, ordered that we be bathed and fed and then permitted to retire until we were rested. We thanked him for his kindness and consideration, of which we were glad to avail ourselves.
The days that followed were both interesting and profitable. Phor Tak, surrounded only by a few faithful slaves who had followed him into his exile, was delighted with our company and with the assistance which we could give him in his experiment, which, once assured of our loyalty he explained to us in detail.