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Pursuit







From: At The Earth's Core

FOR AN INSTANT I STOOD THERE THINKING OF HER, and then, with a sigh, I
tucked the book in the thong that supported my loin cloth, and turned
to leave the apartment. At the bottom of the corridor which leads
aloft from the lower chambers I whistled in accordance with the
prearranged signal which was to announce to Perry and Ghak that I had
been successful. A moment later they stood beside me, and to my
surprise I saw that Hooja the Sly One accompanied them.

"He joined us," explained Perry, "and would not be denied. The fellow
is a fox. He scents escape, and rather than be thwarted of our chance
now I told him that I would bring him to you, and let you decide
whether he might accompany us."

I had no love for Hooja, and no confidence in him. I was sure that if
he thought it would profit him he would betray us; but I saw no way out
of it now, and the fact that I had killed four Mahars instead of only
the three I had expected to, made it possible to include the fellow in
our scheme of escape.

"Very well," I said, "you may come with us, Hooja; but at the first
intimation of treachery I shall run my sword through you. Do you
understand?"

He said that he did.

Some time later we had removed the skins from the four Mahars, and so
succeeded in crawling inside of them ourselves that there seemed an
excellent chance for us to pass unnoticed from Phutra. It was not an
easy thing to fasten the hides together where we had split them along
the belly to remove them from their carcasses, but by remaining out
until the others had all been sewed in with my help, and then leaving
an aperture in the breast of Perry's skin through which he could pass
his hands to sew me up, we were enabled to accomplish our design to
really much better purpose than I had hoped. We managed to keep the
heads erect by passing our swords up through the necks, and by the same
means were enabled to move them about in a life-like manner. We had
our greatest difficulty with the webbed feet, but even that problem was
finally solved, so that when we moved about we did so quite naturally.
Tiny holes punctured in the baggy throats into which our heads were
thrust permitted us to see well enough to guide our progress.

Thus we started up toward the main floor of the building. Ghak headed
the strange procession, then came Perry, followed by Hooja, while I
brought up the rear, after admonishing Hooja that I had so arranged my
sword that I could thrust it through the head of my disguise into his
vitals were he to show any indication of faltering.

As the noise of hurrying feet warned me that we were entering the busy
corridors of the main level, my heart came up into my mouth. It is
with no sense of shame that I admit that I was frightened--never before
in my life, nor since, did I experience any such agony of soulsearing
fear and suspense as enveloped me. If it be possible to sweat blood, I
sweat it then.

Slowly, after the manner of locomotion habitual to the Mahars, when
they are not using their wings, we crept through throngs of busy
slaves, Sagoths, and Mahars. After what seemed an eternity we reached
the outer door which leads into the main avenue of Phutra. Many
Sagoths loitered near the opening. They glanced at Ghak as he padded
between them. Then Perry passed, and then Hooja. Now it was my turn,
and then in a sudden fit of freezing terror I realized that the warm
blood from my wounded arm was trickling down through the dead foot of
the Mahar skin I wore and leaving its tell-tale mark upon the pavement,
for I saw a Sagoth call a companion's attention to it.

The guard stepped before me and pointing to my bleeding foot spoke to
me in the sign language which these two races employ as a means of
communication. Even had I known what he was saying I could not have
replied with the dead thing that covered me. I once had seen a great
Mahar freeze a presumptuous Sagoth with a look. It seemed my only
hope, and so I tried it. Stopping in my tracks I moved my sword so
that it made the dead head appear to turn inquiring eyes upon the
gorilla-man. For a long moment I stood perfectly still, eyeing the
fellow with those dead eyes. Then I lowered the head and started
slowly on. For a moment all hung in the balance, but before I touched
him the guard stepped to one side, and I passed on out into the avenue.

On we went up the broad street, but now we were safe for the very
numbers of our enemies that surrounded us on all sides. Fortunately,
there was a great concourse of Mahars repairing to the shallow lake
which lies a mile or more from the city. They go there to indulge
their amphibian proclivities in diving for small fish, and enjoying the
cool depths of the water. It is a fresh-water lake, shallow, and free
from the larger reptiles which make the use of the great seas of
Pellucidar impossible for any but their own kind.

In the thick of the crowd we passed up the steps and out onto the
plain. For some distance Ghak remained with the stream that was
traveling toward the lake, but finally, at the bottom of a little gully
he halted, and there we remained until all had passed and we were
alone. Then, still in our disguises, we set off directly away from
Phutra.

The heat of the vertical rays of the sun was fast making our horrible
prisons unbearable, so that after passing a low divide, and entering a
sheltering forest, we finally discarded the Mahar skins that had
brought us thus far in safety.

I shall not weary you with the details of that bitter and galling
flight. How we traveled at a dogged run until we dropped in our
tracks. How we were beset by strange and terrible beasts. How we
barely escaped the cruel fangs of lions and tigers the size of which
would dwarf into pitiful insignificance the greatest felines of the
outer world.

On and on we raced, our one thought to put as much distance between
ourselves and Phutra as possible. Ghak was leading us to his own
land--the land of Sari. No sign of pursuit had developed, and yet we
were sure that somewhere behind us relentless Sagoths were dogging our
tracks. Ghak said they never failed to hunt down their quarry until
they had captured it or themselves been turned back by a superior force.

Our only hope, he said, lay in reaching his tribe which was quite
strong enough in their mountain fastness to beat off any number of
Sagoths.

At last, after what seemed months, and may, I now realize, have been
years, we came in sight of the dun escarpment which buttressed the
foothills of Sari. At almost the same instant, Hooja, who looked ever
quite as much behind as before, announced that he could see a body of
men far behind us topping a low ridge in our wake. It was the
long-expected pursuit.

I asked Ghak if we could make Sari in time to escape them.

"We may," he replied; "but you will find that the Sagoths can move with
incredible swiftness, and as they are almost tireless they are
doubtless much fresher than we. Then--" he paused, glancing at Perry.

I knew what he meant. The old man was exhausted. For much of the
period of our flight either Ghak or I had half supported him on the
march. With such a handicap, less fleet pursuers than the Sagoths
might easily overtake us before we could scale the rugged heights which
confronted us.

"You and Hooja go on ahead," I said. "Perry and I will make it if we
are able. We cannot travel as rapidly as you two, and there is no
reason why all should be lost because of that. It can't be helped--we
have simply to face it."

"I will not desert a companion," was Ghak's simple reply. I hadn't
known that this great, hairy, primeval man had any such nobility of
character stowed away inside him. I had always liked him, but now to
my liking was added honor and respect. Yes, and love.

But still I urged him to go on ahead, insisting that if he could reach
his people he might be able to bring out a sufficient force to drive
off the Sagoths and rescue Perry and myself.

No, he wouldn't leave us, and that was all there was to it, but he
suggested that Hooja might hurry on and warn the Sarians of the king's
danger. It didn't require much urging to start Hooja--the naked idea
was enough to send him leaping on ahead of us into the foothills which
we now had reached.

Perry realized that he was jeopardizing Ghak's life and mine and the
old fellow fairly begged us to go on without him, although I knew that
he was suffering a perfect anguish of terror at the thought of falling
into the hands of the Sagoths. Ghak finally solved the problem, in
part, by lifting Perry in his powerful arms and carrying him. While
the act cut down Ghak's speed he still could travel faster thus than
when half supporting the stumbling old man.





Next: The Sly One

Previous: Four Dead Mahars



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