Swords of Mars (Barsoom #8)

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I was conscious of much the same sensation myself. I looked up at the windows of the castle, fully expecting to see eyes gazing down upon us; but in none of the many windows was there a sign of life. Then I called aloud, voicing the common peace greeting of Barsoom.

“Kaor!” I shouted in tones that could have been heard anywhere upon that side of the castle. “We are travelers from Barsoom. We wish to speak to the lord of the castle.”

Silence was my only answer.

“How uncanny!” cried Zanda. “Why don’t they answer us? There must be someone here; there is someone here. I know it! I cannot see them, but there are people here. They are all around us.”

“I am sure that you are right, Zanda,” I said. “There must be someone in that castle, and I am going to have a look inside it. Jat Or, you and Zanda wait here.”

“I think we should all go together,” said the girl.

“Yes,” agreed Jat Or; “we must not separate.”

I saw no valid objection to the plan, and so I nodded my acquiescence; then I approached a closed door in the face of the castle wall. Behind me came Jat Or and Zanda.

We had crossed about half the distance from the ship to the door, when at last suddenly, startlingly, the silence was shattered by a voice, terror-ridden, coming from above, apparently from one of the lofty towers overlooking the courtyard.

“Escape, my chieftain!” it cried. “Escape from this horrible place while you may.”

I halted, momentarily stunned—it was the voice of Dejah Thoris.

“The princess!” exclaimed Jat Or.

“Yes,” I said, “the princess. Come!” Then I started on a run toward the door of the castle; but I had taken scarce a half dozen steps, when just behind me Zanda voiced a piercing scream of terror.

I wheeled instantly to see what danger confronted her.

She was struggling as though in the throes of convulsions. Her face was contorted in horror; her staring eyes and the motions of her arms and legs were such as they might have been had she been battling with a foe, but she was alone. There was no one near her.

Jat Or and I sprang toward her; but she retreated quickly, still struggling.

Darting to our right, and then doubling back, she moved in the direction of the doorway in the castle wall.

She seemed not to move by the power of her own muscles but rather as though she were being dragged away, yet still I saw no one near her.

All that I take so long to tell, occurred in a few brief seconds— before I could cover the short distance to her side.

Jat Or had been closer to her; and he had almost overtaken her when I heard him shout, “Issus! It has me, too.”

He went to the ground then as though in a faint, but he was struggling as Zanda struggled—as one who gives battle to an assailant.

As I raced after Zanda my long sword was out, though I saw no enemy whose blood it might drink.

Scarcely ever before in my life have I felt so futile, so impotent. Here was I, the greatest swordsman of two worlds, helpless in defense of my friends because I could not see their foes.

In the grip of what malign power could they be that could seemingly reach out through space from the concealment of some hidden vantage point and hold them down or drag them about as it wished?

How helpless we all were, our helplessness all the more accentuated by the psychological effect of this mysterious and uncanny attack.

My earthly muscles quickly brought me to Zanda’s side. As I reached out to seize her and stop her progress toward the castle door, something seized one of my ankles; and I went down. I felt hands upon me—many hands. My sword was tom from my grasp; my other weapons were snatched away.

I fought, perhaps never as I have fought before. I felt the bodies of my antagonists pressing against me. I felt their hands as they touched me and their fists as they struck me; but I saw no one, yet my own blows landed upon solid flesh. That was something. It gave me a little greater sense of equality than before; but I could not understand why, if I felt these creatures, I could not see them.

At least, however, it partially explained the strange actions of Zanda. Her seeming convulsions had been her struggles against these unseen assailants. Now they were carrying her toward the doorway; and as I battled futilely against great odds, I saw her disappear within the castle.

Then the things, whatever they were that assailed me, overpowered me by numbers.

I knew that there were very many of them, because there were so many, many hands upon me.

They bound my wrists behind my back and jerked me roughly to my feet.

I cannot accurately describe my sensations; the unreality of all that had occurred in those few moments left me dazed and uncertain. For at least once in my life, I seemed wholly deprived of the power to reason, possibly because the emergency was so utterly foreign to anything that I had ever before experienced.

Not even the phantom bowmen of Lothar could have presented so unique a situation, for these were visible when they attacked.

As I was jerked to my feet, I glanced about for Jat Or and saw him near me, his hands similarly trussed behind his back.

Now I felt myself being pushed toward the doorway through which Zanda had disappeared, and near me was Jat Or moving in the same direction.

“Can you see anyone, my prince?” he asked.

“I can see you,” I replied.

“What diabolical force is this that has seized us?” he demanded.

“I don’t know,” I replied, “but I feel hands upon me and the warmth of bodies around me.”

“I guess we are done for, my prince,” he said.

“Done for?” I exclaimed. “We still live.”

“No, I do not mean that,” he said; “I mean that as far as ever returning to Barsoom. is concerned, we might as well give up all hope. They have our ship. Do you think that even if we escape them, we shall ever see it again, or at least be able to repossess it? No, my friend, as far as Barsoom is concerned we are as good as dead.”

The ship! In the excitement of what I had just passed through I had momentarily forgotten the ship. I glanced toward it. I thought that I saw the rope ladder move as though to the weight of an unseen body ascending it.

The ship! It was our only hope of ever again returning to Barsoom, and it was in the hands of this mysterious unseen foe. It must be saved.

There was a way! I centered my thoughts upon the mechanical brain— I directed it to rise and wait above the castle, out of harm’s way, until I gave it further commands.

Then the invisible menace dragged me through the doorway into the interior of the castle. I could not know if the brain had responded to my directions.

Was I never to know?

 

XVII. — THE CAT-MAN

My thoughts were still centered upon the brain in the nose of Fal Sivas’s ship as I was being conducted through a wide corridor in the castle. I was depressed by the fear that I might not have been able to impart my controlling directions to it at so great a distance or while my brain was laboring under the stress and excitement of the moment. The ship meant so much to us all, and was so necessary to the rescue of Dejah Thoris, that the thought of losing it was a stunning blow; yet presently I realized that worrying about it would do no good, and so I expelled these subversive thoughts from my mind.

Raising my eyes, I saw Jat Or moving along the corridor near me. As he caught my eyes upon him, he shook his head and smiled ruefully.

“It looks as though our adventure on Thuria might be short-lived,” he said.

I nodded. “The future doesn’t look any too bright,” I admitted. “I have never been in such a situation before, where I could neither see my enemy nor communicate with him.”

“Nor hear him,” added Jat Or. “Except for the feel of hands on my arms and the knowledge that some force is dragging me along this corridor, I am not conscious of the presence of any but ourselves here. The mystery of it leaves me with a sense of utter futility.”

“But eventually we must find someone whom we can see and against whom we can pit our own brain and fighting ability on a more equable basis, for this castle and what we see about us indicate the presence of creatures not unlike ourselves. Notice, for instance, the benches and divans along the walls of this corridor.

“They must have been intended for creatures like ourselves. The beautiful mosaics that decorate the walls, the gorgeous rugs and skins upon the floor – these things are here to satisfy a love of beauty that is a peculiar attribute of the human mind, nor could they have been conceived or produced except by human hands under the guidance of human brains.”

“Your deductions are faultless,” replied Jat Or, “but where are the people?”

“There lies the mystery,” I replied. “I can well believe that our future depends upon its solution.”

“While I am concerned with all these questions,” said Jat Or presently, “I am more concerned with the fate of Zanda. I wonder what they have done with her.”

That, of course, I could not answer, although the fact that she had been separated from us caused me no little concern.

At the end of the corridor, we were conducted up a wide and ornate staircase to the next level of the castle; and presently we were led into a large room—a vast chamber in which we saw at the far end a single, lonely figure.

It was Zanda. She was standing before a dais upon which were two large ornate throne chairs.

The room was gorgeous, almost barbaric in its decoration. Gold and precious stones encrusted floor and walls. They had been fabricated into an amazing design by some master artist who had had at his disposal rare gems such as I had never seen either upon earth or upon Barsoom.

The invisible force that propelled us conducted us to Zanda’s side; and there the three of us stood, facing the dais and the empty throne chairs.

But I wondered if they were empty. I had that same strange feeling that I had noticed in the courtyard, of being surrounded by a multitude of people, of having many eyes fixed upon me; yet I saw none and I heard no sound.

We stood there before the dais for several minutes, and then we were dragged away and conducted from the room. Along another corridor we were taken, a narrower corridor, and up a winding stairway which Jat Or had some little difficulty in negotiating. Such contrivances were new to him, as stairways are not used on Mars, where inclined ramps lead from one level of a building to another.

I had once tried to introduce stairways in my palace in Helium; but so many of my household and my friends came near breaking their necks on them, that I eventually replaced them with ramps.

After ascending several levels, Zanda was separated from us and taken along a diverging corridor; and at another level above, Jat Or was dragged away from me.

None of us had spoken since we had entered the great throne room, and I think that now that we were being separated words seemed wholly inadequate in the hopelessness of our situation.

Now I was quite alone; but yet up and up I climbed, guided by those invisible hands upon my arms. Where were they taking me? To what fate had they taken my companions? Somewhere in this great castle was the princess whom I had crossed the void to find, yet never had she seemed farther away from me than at this minute; never had our separation seemed so utterly complete and final.

I do not know why I should have felt this way, unless again it was the effect of this seemingly unfathomable mystery that surrounded me.

We had ascended to such a great height that I was confident that I was being conducted into one of the loftier towers in the castle that I had seen from the courtyard. Something in this fact and the fact that we had been separated suggested that whatever the power that held us, it was not entirely certain of itself; for only fear that we might escape or that, banded together, we might inflict harm upon it, could have suggested the necessity for separating us; but whether or not I reasoned from a correct premise was only conjecture. Time alone could solve the mystery and answer the many questions that presented themselves to my mind.

My mind was thus occupied when I was halted before a door. It had a peculiar latch which attracted my attention, and while I was watching it I saw it move as though a hand turned it; then the door swung in, and I was dragged into the room beyond.

Here the bonds were cut from my wrists. I turned quickly intending to make a bolt for the door; but before I could reach it, it closed in my face. I tried to open it, but it was securely locked; and then, disgusted, I turned away from it.

As I turned to inspect my prison, my eyes fell upon a figure seated upon a bench at the far side of the room.

For want of a better word, I may describe the figure that I saw as that of a man; but what a man!