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Corridors Of Peril







From: The Gods Of Mars

How long I slept upon the floor of the storeroom I do not know, but it
must have been many hours.

I was awakened with a start by cries of alarm, and scarce were my eyes
opened, nor had I yet sufficiently collected my wits to quite realize
where I was, when a fusillade of shots rang out, reverberating through
the subterranean corridors in a series of deafening echoes.

In an instant I was upon my feet. A dozen lesser therns confronted us
from a large doorway at the opposite end of the storeroom from which we
had entered. About me lay the bodies of my companions, with the
exception of Thuvia and Tars Tarkas, who, like myself, had been asleep
upon the floor and thus escaped the first raking fire.

As I gained my feet the therns lowered their wicked rifles, their faces
distorted in mingled chagrin, consternation, and alarm.

Instantly I rose to the occasion.

"What means this?" I cried in tones of fierce anger. "Is Sator Throg
to be murdered by his own vassals?"

"Have mercy, O Master of the Tenth Cycle!" cried one of the fellows,
while the others edged toward the doorway as though to attempt a
surreptitious escape from the presence of the mighty one.

"Ask them their mission here," whispered Thuvia at my elbow.

"What do you here, fellows?" I cried.

"Two from the outer world are at large within the dominions of the
therns. We sought them at the command of the Father of Therns. One
was white with black hair, the other a huge green warrior," and here
the fellow cast a suspicious glance toward Tars Tarkas.

"Here, then, is one of them," spoke Thuvia, indicating the Thark, "and
if you will look upon this dead man by the door perhaps you will
recognize the other. It was left for Sator Throg and his poor slaves
to accomplish what the lesser therns of the guard were unable to do--we
have killed one and captured the other; for this had Sator Throg given
us our liberty. And now in your stupidity have you come and killed all
but myself, and like to have killed the mighty Sator Throg himself."

The men looked very sheepish and very scared.

"Had they not better throw these bodies to the plant men and then
return to their quarters, O Mighty One?" asked Thuvia of me.

"Yes; do as Thuvia bids you," I said.

As the men picked up the bodies I noticed that the one who stooped to
gather up the late Sator Throg started as his closer scrutiny fell upon
the upturned face, and then the fellow stole a furtive, sneaking glance
in my direction from the corner of his eye.

That he suspicioned something of the truth I could have sworn; but that
it was only a suspicion which he did not dare voice was evidenced by
his silence.

Again, as he bore the body from the room, he shot a quick but searching
glance toward me, and then his eyes fell once more upon the bald and
shiny dome of the dead man in his arms. The last fleeting glimpse that
I obtained of his profile as he passed from my sight without the
chamber revealed a cunning smile of triumph upon his lips.

Only Tars Tarkas, Thuvia, and I were left. The fatal marksmanship of
the therns had snatched from our companions whatever slender chance
they had of gaining the perilous freedom of the world without.

So soon as the last of the gruesome procession had disappeared the girl
urged us to take up our flight once more.

She, too, had noted the questioning attitude of the thern who had borne
Sator Throg away.

"It bodes no good for us, O Prince," she said. "For even though this
fellow dared not chance accusing you in error, there be those above
with power sufficient to demand a closer scrutiny, and that, Prince
would indeed prove fatal."

I shrugged my shoulders. It seemed that in any event the outcome of
our plight must end in death. I was refreshed from my sleep, but still
weak from loss of blood. My wounds were painful. No medicinal aid
seemed possible. How I longed for the almost miraculous healing power
of the strange salves and lotions of the green Martian women. In an
hour they would have had me as new.

I was discouraged. Never had a feeling of such utter hopelessness come
over me in the face of danger. Then the long flowing, yellow locks of
the Holy Thern, caught by some vagrant draught, blew about my face.

Might they not still open the way of freedom? If we acted in time,
might we not even yet escape before the general alarm was sounded? We
could at least try.

"What will the fellow do first, Thuvia?" I asked. "How long will it be
before they may return for us?"

"He will go directly to the Father of Therns, old Matai Shang. He may
have to wait for an audience, but since he is very high among the
lesser therns, in fact as a thorian among them, it will not be long
that Matai Shang will keep him waiting.

"Then if the Father of Therns puts credence in his story, another hour
will see the galleries and chambers, the courts and gardens, filled
with searchers."

"What we do then must be done within an hour. What is the best way,
Thuvia, the shortest way out of this celestial Hades?"

"Straight to the top of the cliffs, Prince," she replied, "and then
through the gardens to the inner courts. From there our way will lie
within the temples of the therns and across them to the outer court.
Then the ramparts--O Prince, it is hopeless. Ten thousand warriors
could not hew a way to liberty from out this awful place.

"Since the beginning of time, little by little, stone by stone, have
the therns been ever adding to the defences of their stronghold. A
continuous line of impregnable fortifications circles the outer slopes
of the Mountains of Otz.

"Within the temples that lie behind the ramparts a million fighting-men
are ever ready. The courts and gardens are filled with slaves, with
women and with children.

"None could go a stone's throw without detection."

"If there is no other way, Thuvia, why dwell upon the difficulties of
this. We must face them."

"Can we not better make the attempt after dark?" asked Tars Tarkas.
"There would seem to be no chance by day."

"There would be a little better chance by night, but even then the
ramparts are well guarded; possibly better than by day. There are
fewer abroad in the courts and gardens, though," said Thuvia.

"What is the hour?" I asked.

"It was midnight when you released me from my chains," said Thuvia.
"Two hours later we reached the storeroom. There you slept for
fourteen hours. It must now be nearly sundown again. Come, we will go
to some nearby window in the cliff and make sure."

So saying, she led the way through winding corridors until at a sudden
turn we came upon an opening which overlooked the Valley Dor.

At our right the sun was setting, a huge red orb, below the western
range of Otz. A little below us stood the Holy Thern on watch upon his
balcony. His scarlet robe of office was pulled tightly about him in
anticipation of the cold that comes so suddenly with darkness as the
sun sets. So rare is the atmosphere of Mars that it absorbs very
little heat from the sun. During the daylight hours it is always
extremely hot; at night it is intensely cold. Nor does the thin
atmosphere refract the sun's rays or diffuse its light as upon Earth.
There is no twilight on Mars. When the great orb of day disappears
beneath the horizon the effect is precisely as that of the
extinguishing of a single lamp within a chamber. From brilliant light
you are plunged without warning into utter darkness. Then the moons
come; the mysterious, magic moons of Mars, hurtling like monster
meteors low across the face of the planet.

The declining sun lighted brilliantly the eastern banks of Korus, the
crimson sward, the gorgeous forest. Beneath the trees we saw feeding
many herds of plant men. The adults stood aloft upon their toes and
their mighty tails, their talons pruning every available leaf and twig.
It was then that I understood the careful trimming of the trees which
had led me to form the mistaken idea when first I opened my eyes upon
the grove that it was the playground of a civilized people.

As we watched, our eyes wandered to the rolling Iss, which issued from
the base of the cliffs beneath us. Presently there emerged from the
mountain a canoe laden with lost souls from the outer world. There
were a dozen of them. All were of the highly civilized and cultured
race of red men who are dominant on Mars.

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

For an instant the brutes stood with stiffly erected ears, then they
poured from the grove toward the river's bank, covering the distance
with great, ungainly leaps.

The party had landed and was standing on the sward as the awful horde
came in sight. There was a brief and futile effort of defence. Then
silence as the huge, repulsive shapes covered the bodies of their
victims and scores of sucking mouths fastened themselves to the flesh
of their prey.

I turned away in disgust.

"Their part is soon over," said Thuvia. "The great white apes get the
flesh when the plant men have drained the arteries. Look, they are
coming now."

As I turned my eyes in the direction the girl indicated, I saw a dozen
of the great white monsters running across the valley toward the river
bank. Then the sun went down and darkness that could almost be felt
engulfed us.

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

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

"If you can dissolve all our obstacles as easily as you master these
fierce brutes I can see no difficulties in our way," I said to the
girl, smiling. "How do you do it?"

She laughed, and then shuddered.

"I do not quite know," she said. "When first I came here I angered
Sator Throg, because I repulsed him. He ordered me to be thrown into
one 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 my
voice, 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, they
fawned at my feet. So greatly were Sator Throg and his friends amused
by the sight that they kept me to train and handle the terrible
creatures. I know them all by name. There are many of them wandering
through these lower regions. They are the scavengers. Many prisoners
die 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 therns
fear them. It is because of the banths that they seldom venture below
ground 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 above
ground?" 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. She
continued this as we wound our tedious way through the maze of
subterranean passages and chambers.

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

Low growls and angry snarls assailed our ears on every side as we
hastened on and one by one the ferocious creatures answered the call of
their 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 the
lathering jowls, nor the hungry expressions with which they eyed Tars
Tarkas and myself.

Soon we were entirely surrounded by some fifty of the brutes. Two
walked close on either side of Thuvia, as guards might walk. The sleek
sides of others now and then touched my own naked limbs. It was a
strange experience; the almost noiseless passage of naked human feet
and padded paws; the golden walls splashed with precious stones; the
dim light cast by the tiny radium bulbs set at considerable distances
along the roof; the huge, maned beasts of prey crowding with low growls
about us; the mighty green warrior towering high above us all; myself
crowned with the priceless diadem of a Holy Thern; and leading the
procession the beautiful girl, Thuvia.

I shall not soon forget it.

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

The room was filled with specimens of the strange beings that inhabit
this underworld; a heterogeneous collection of hybrids--the offspring
of the prisoners from the outside world; red and green Martians and the
white race of therns.

Constant confinement below ground had wrought odd freaks upon their
skins. They more resemble corpses than living beings. Many are
deformed, others maimed, while the majority, Thuvia explained, are
sightless.

As they lay sprawled about the floor, sometimes overlapping one
another, again in heaps of several bodies, they suggested instantly to
me the grotesque illustrations that I had seen in copies of Dante's
INFERNO, and what more fitting comparison? Was this not indeed a
veritable hell, peopled by lost souls, dead and damned beyond all hope?

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

Several times we passed the entrances to other chambers similarly
peopled, and twice again we were compelled to cross directly through
them. 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 the
great banths prowl the dim corridors seeking their prey. The therns
fear the awful denizens of this cruel and hopeless world that they have
fostered and allowed to grow beneath their feet. The prisoners even
sometimes turn upon them and rend them. The thern can never tell from
what dark shadow an assassin may spring upon his back.

"By day it is different. Then the corridors and chambers are filled
with guards passing to and fro; slaves from the temples above come by
hundreds to the granaries and storerooms. All is life then. You did
not see it because I led you not in the beaten tracks, but through
roundabout passages seldom used. Yet it is possible that we may meet a
thern even yet. They do occasionally find it necessary to come here
after the sun has set. Because of this I have moved with such great
caution."

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

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

I could not understand the necessity for such an enormous force of
armed men about a spot so surrounded by mystery and superstition that
not a soul upon Barsoom would have dared to approach it even had they
known its exact location. I questioned Thuvia, asking her what enemies
the 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, "from
whom 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 the
unfamiliar odours, and then with a rush they broke past us with low
growls, swarming across the gardens beneath the lurid light of the
nearer moon.

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

The great Thark's long-sword leaped from its scabbard; Thuvia shrank
shuddering to my side.





Next: The Black Pirates Of Barsoom

Previous: Thuvia



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