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Under The Mountains







From: Warlord Of Mars

As we advanced up the river which winds beneath the Golden Cliffs
out of the bowels of the Mountains of Otz to mingle its dark waters
with the grim and mysterious Iss the faint glow which had appeared
before us grew gradually into an all-enveloping radiance.

The river widened until it presented the aspect of a large lake
whose vaulted dome, lighted by glowing phosphorescent rock, was
splashed with the vivid rays of the diamond, the sapphire, the ruby,
and the countless, nameless jewels of Barsoom which lay incrusted
in the virgin gold which forms the major portion of these magnificent
cliffs.

Beyond the lighted chamber of the lake was darkness--what lay behind
the darkness I could not even guess.

To have followed the thern boat across the gleaming water would
have been to invite instant detection, and so, though I was loath
to permit Thurid to pass even for an instant beyond my sight, I
was forced to wait in the shadows until the other boat had passed
from my sight at the far extremity of the lake.

Then I paddled out upon the brilliant surface in the direction they
had taken.

When, after what seemed an eternity, I reached the shadows at the
upper end of the lake I found that the river issued from a low
aperture, to pass beneath which it was necessary that I compel
Woola to lie flat in the boat, and I, myself, must need bend double
before the low roof cleared my head.

Immediately the roof rose again upon the other side, but no longer was
the way brilliantly lighted. Instead only a feeble glow emanated
from small and scattered patches of phosphorescent rock in wall
and roof.

Directly before me the river ran into this smaller chamber through
three separate arched openings.

Thurid and the therns were nowhere to be seen--into which of the
dark holes had they disappeared? There was no means by which I
might know, and so I chose the center opening as being as likely
to lead me in the right direction as another.

Here the way was through utter darkness. The stream was narrow--so
narrow that in the blackness I was constantly bumping first one
rock wall and then another as the river wound hither and thither
along its flinty bed.

Far ahead I presently heard a deep and sullen roar which increased
in volume as I advanced, and then broke upon my ears with all the
intensity of its mad fury as I swung round a sharp curve into a
dimly lighted stretch of water.

Directly before me the river thundered down from above in a mighty
waterfall that filled the narrow gorge from side to side, rising
far above me several hundred feet--as magnificent a spectacle as
I ever had seen.

But the roar--the awful, deafening roar of those tumbling waters
penned in the rocky, subterranean vault! Had the fall not entirely
blocked my further passage and shown me that I had followed the
wrong course I believe that I should have fled anyway before the
maddening tumult.

Thurid and the therns could not have come this way. By stumbling
upon the wrong course I had lost the trail, and they had gained so
much ahead of me that now I might not be able to find them before
it was too late, if, in fact, I could find them at all.

It had taken several hours to force my way up to the falls against
the strong current, and other hours would be required for the
descent, although the pace would be much swifter.

With a sigh I turned the prow of my craft down stream, and with
mighty strokes hastened with reckless speed through the dark and
tortuous channel until once again I came to the chamber into which
flowed the three branches of the river.

Two unexplored channels still remained from which to choose; nor
was there any means by which I could judge which was the more likely
to lead me to the plotters.

Never in my life, that I can recall, have I suffered such an agony
of indecision. So much depended upon a correct choice; so much
depended upon haste.

The hours that I had already lost might seal the fate of the
incomparable Dejah Thoris were she not already dead--to sacrifice
other hours, and maybe days in a fruitless exploration of another
blind lead would unquestionably prove fatal.

Several times I essayed the right-hand entrance only to turn back
as though warned by some strange intuitive sense that this was not
the way. At last, convinced by the oft-recurring phenomenon, I
cast my all upon the left-hand archway; yet it was with a lingering
doubt that I turned a parting look at the sullen waters which
rolled, dark and forbidding, from beneath the grim, low archway on
the right.

And as I looked there came bobbing out upon the current from the
Stygian darkness of the interior the shell of one of the great,
succulent fruits of the sorapus tree.

I could scarce restrain a shout of elation as this silent, insensate
messenger floated past me, on toward the Iss and Korus, for it told
me that journeying Martians were above me on that very stream.

They had eaten of this marvelous fruit which nature concentrates
within the hard shell of the sorapus nut, and having eaten had
cast the husk overboard. It could have come from no others than
the party I sought.

Quickly I abandoned all thought of the left-hand passage, and a
moment later had turned into the right. The stream soon widened,
and recurring areas of phosphorescent rock lighted my way.

I made good time, but was convinced that I was nearly a day behind
those I was tracking. Neither Woola nor I had eaten since the
previous day, but in so far as he was concerned it mattered but
little, since practically all the animals of the dead sea bottoms
of Mars are able to go for incredible periods without nourishment.

Nor did I suffer. The water of the river was sweet and cold, for
it was unpolluted by decaying bodies--like the Iss--and as for
food, why the mere thought that I was nearing my beloved princess
raised me above every material want.

As I proceeded, the river became narrower and the current swift
and turbulent--so swift in fact that it was with difficulty that
I forced my craft upward at all. I could not have been making to
exceed a hundred yards an hour when, at a bend, I was confronted
by a series of rapids through which the river foamed and boiled at
a terrific rate.

My heart sank within me. The sorapus nutshell had proved a false
prophet, and, after all, my intuition had been correct--it was the
left-hand channel that I should have followed.

Had I been a woman I should have wept. At my right was a great,
slow-moving eddy that circled far beneath the cliff's overhanging
side, and to rest my tired muscles before turning back I let my
boat drift into its embrace.

I was almost prostrated by disappointment. It would mean another
half-day's loss of time to retrace my way and take the only passage
that yet remained unexplored. What hellish fate had led me to
select from three possible avenues the two that were wrong?

As the lazy current of the eddy carried me slowly about the periphery
of the watery circle my boat twice touched the rocky side of the
river in the dark recess beneath the cliff. A third time it struck,
gently as it had before, but the contact resulted in a different
sound--the sound of wood scraping upon wood.

In an instant I was on the alert, for there could be no wood
within that buried river that had not been man brought. Almost
coincidentally with my first apprehension of the noise, my hand shot
out across the boat's side, and a second later I felt my fingers
gripping the gunwale of another craft.

As though turned to stone I sat in tense and rigid silence, straining
my eyes into the utter darkness before me in an effort to discover
if the boat were occupied.

It was entirely possible that there might be men on board it
who were still ignorant of my presence, for the boat was scraping
gently against the rocks upon one side, so that the gentle touch
of my boat upon the other easily could have gone unnoticed.

Peer as I would I could not penetrate the darkness, and then I
listened intently for the sound of breathing near me; but except
for the noise of the rapids, the soft scraping of the boats, and the
lapping of the water at their sides I could distinguish no sound.
As usual, I thought rapidly.

A rope lay coiled in the bottom of my own craft. Very softly I
gathered it up, and making one end fast to the bronze ring in the
prow I stepped gingerly into the boat beside me. In one hand I
grasped the rope, in the other my keen long-sword.

For a full minute, perhaps, I stood motionless after entering the
strange craft. It had rocked a trifle beneath my weight, but it
had been the scraping of its side against the side of my own boat
that had seemed most likely to alarm its occupants, if there were
any.

But there was no answering sound, and a moment later I had felt
from stem to stern and found the boat deserted.

Groping with my hands along the face of the rocks to which the
craft was moored, I discovered a narrow ledge which I knew must be
the avenue taken by those who had come before me. That they could
be none other than Thurid and his party I was convinced by the size
and build of the boat I had found.

Calling to Woola to follow me I stepped out upon the ledge. The
great, savage brute, agile as a cat, crept after me.

As he passed through the boat that had been occupied by Thurid and
the therns he emitted a single low growl, and when he came beside
me upon the ledge and my hand rested upon his neck I felt his short
mane bristling with anger. I think he sensed telepathically the
recent presence of an enemy, for I had made no effort to impart to
him the nature of our quest or the status of those we tracked.

This omission I now made haste to correct, and, after the manner
of green Martians with their beasts, I let him know partially by
the weird and uncanny telepathy of Barsoom and partly by word of
mouth that we were upon the trail of those who had recently occupied
the boat through which we had just passed.

A soft purr, like that of a great cat, indicated that Woola
understood, and then, with a word to him to follow, I turned to
the right along the ledge, but scarcely had I done so than I felt
his mighty fangs tugging at my leathern harness.

As I turned to discover the cause of his act he continued to pull
me steadily in the opposite direction, nor would he desist until
I had turned about and indicated that I would follow him voluntarily.

Never had I known him to be in error in a matter of tracking, so
it was with a feeling of entire security that I moved cautiously in
the huge beast's wake. Through Cimmerian darkness he moved along
the narrow ledge beside the boiling rapids.

As we advanced, the way led from beneath the overhanging cliffs
out into a dim light, and then it was that I saw that the trail
had been cut from the living rock, and that it ran up along the
river's side beyond the rapids.

For hours we followed the dark and gloomy river farther and farther
into the bowels of Mars. From the direction and distance I knew
that we must be well beneath the Valley Dor, and possibly beneath
the Sea of Omean as well--it could not be much farther now to the
Temple of the Sun.

Even as my mind framed the thought, Woola halted suddenly before a
narrow, arched doorway in the cliff by the trail's side. Quickly
he crouched back away from the entrance, at the same time turning
his eyes toward me.

Words could not have more plainly told me that danger of some sort
lay near by, and so I pressed quietly forward to his side, and
passing him looked into the aperture at our right.

Before me was a fair-sized chamber that, from its appointments, I
knew must have at one time been a guardroom. There were racks for
weapons, and slightly raised platforms for the sleeping silks and
furs of the warriors, but now its only occupants were two of the
therns who had been of the party with Thurid and Matai Shang.

The men were in earnest conversation, and from their tones it was
apparent that they were entirely unaware that they had listeners.

"I tell you," one of them was saying, "I do not trust the black
one. There was no necessity for leaving us here to guard the way.
Against what, pray, should we guard this long-forgotten, abysmal
path? It was but a ruse to divide our numbers.

"He will have Matai Shang leave others elsewhere on some pretext or
other, and then at last he will fall upon us with his confederates
and slay us all."

"I believe you, Lakor," replied the other, "there can never be
aught else than deadly hatred between thern and First Born. And
what think you of the ridiculous matter of the light? 'Let the
light shine with the intensity of three radium units for fifty
tals, and for one xat let it shine with the intensity of one radium
unit, and then for twenty-five tals with nine units.' Those were
his very words, and to think that wise old Matai Shang should listen
to such foolishness."

"Indeed, it is silly," replied Lakor. "It will open nothing other
than the way to a quick death for us all. He had to make some
answer when Matai Shang asked him flatly what he should do when he
came to the Temple of the Sun, and so he made his answer quickly
from his imagination--I would wager a hekkador's diadem that he
could not now repeat it himself."

"Let us not remain here longer, Lakor," spoke the other thern.
"Perchance if we hasten after them we may come in time to rescue
Matai Shang, and wreak our own vengeance upon the black dator.
What say you?"

"Never in a long life," answered Lakor, "have I disobeyed a single
command of the Father of Therns. I shall stay here until I rot if
he does not return to bid me elsewhere."

Lakor's companion shook his head.

"You are my superior," he said; "I cannot do other than you sanction,
though I still believe that we are foolish to remain."

I, too, thought that they were foolish to remain, for I saw from
Woola's actions that the trail led through the room where the two
therns held guard. I had no reason to harbor any considerable love
for this race of self-deified demons, yet I would have passed them
by were it possible without molesting them.

It was worth trying anyway, for a fight might delay us considerably,
or even put an end entirely to my search--better men than I have
gone down before fighters of meaner ability than that possessed by
the fierce thern warriors.

Signaling Woola to heel I stepped suddenly into the room before the
two men. At sight of me their long-swords flashed from the harness
at their sides, but I raised my hand in a gesture of restraint.

"I seek Thurid, the black dator," I said. "My quarrel is with him,
not with you. Let me pass then in peace, for if I mistake not he
is as much your enemy as mine, and you can have no cause to protect
him."

They lowered their swords and Lakor spoke.

"I know not whom you may be, with the white skin of a thern and
the black hair of a red man; but were it only Thurid whose safety
were at stake you might pass, and welcome, in so far as we be
concerned.

"Tell us who you be, and what mission calls you to this unknown
world beneath the Valley Dor, then maybe we can see our way to let
you pass upon the errand which we should like to undertake would
our orders permit."

I was surprised that neither of them had recognized me, for I
thought that I was quite sufficiently well known either by personal
experience or reputation to every thern upon Barsoom as to make my
identity immediately apparent in any part of the planet. In fact,
I was the only white man upon Mars whose hair was black and whose
eyes were gray, with the exception of my son, Carthoris.

To reveal my identity might be to precipitate an attack, for every
thern upon Barsoom knew that to me they owed the fall of their
age-old spiritual supremacy. On the other hand my reputation as
a fighting man might be sufficient to pass me by these two were
their livers not of the right complexion to welcome a battle to
the death.

To be quite candid I did not attempt to delude myself with any such
sophistry, since I knew well that upon war-like Mars there are few
cowards, and that every man, whether prince, priest, or peasant,
glories in deadly strife. And so I gripped my long-sword the
tighter as I replied to Lakor.

"I believe that you will see the wisdom of permitting me to pass
unmolested," I said, "for it would avail you nothing to die uselessly
in the rocky bowels of Barsoom merely to protect a hereditary enemy,
such as Thurid, Dator of the First Born.

"That you shall die should you elect to oppose me is evidenced by
the moldering corpses of all the many great Barsoomian warriors
who have gone down beneath this blade--I am John Carter, Prince of
Helium."

For a moment that name seemed to paralyze the two men; but only
for a moment, and then the younger of them, with a vile name upon
his lips, rushed toward me with ready sword.

He had been standing a little behind his companion, Lakor, during
our parley, and now, ere he could engage me, the older man grasped
his harness and drew him back.

"Hold!" commanded Lakor. "There will be plenty of time to fight if
we find it wise to fight at all. There be good reasons why every
thern upon Barsoom should yearn to spill the blood of the blasphemer,
the sacrilegist; but let us mix wisdom with our righteous hate.
The Prince of Helium is bound upon an errand which we ourselves,
but a moment since, were wishing that we might undertake.

"Let him go then and slay the black. When he returns we shall still
be here to bar his way to the outer world, and thus we shall have
rid ourselves of two enemies, nor have incurred the displeasure of
the Father of Therns."

As he spoke I could not but note the crafty glint in his evil
eyes, and while I saw the apparent logic of his reasoning I felt,
subconsciously perhaps, that his words did but veil some sinister
intent. The other thern turned toward him in evident surprise, but
when Lakor had whispered a few brief words into his ear he, too,
drew back and nodded acquiescence to his superior's suggestion.

"Proceed, John Carter," said Lakor; "but know that if Thurid does
not lay you low there will be those awaiting your return who will
see that you never pass again into the sunlight of the upper world.
Go!"

During our conversation Woola had been growling and bristling
close to my side. Occasionally he would look up into my face with
a low, pleading whine, as though begging for the word that would
send him headlong at the bare throats before him. He, too, sensed
the villainy behind the smooth words.

Beyond the therns several doorways opened off the guardroom, and
toward the one upon the extreme right Lakor motioned.

"That way leads to Thurid," he said.

But when I would have called Woola to follow me there the beast
whined and held back, and at last ran quickly to the first opening
at the left, where he stood emitting his coughing bark, as though
urging me to follow him upon the right way.

I turned a questioning look upon Lakor.

"The brute is seldom wrong," I said, "and while I do not doubt your
superior knowledge, Thern, I think that I shall do well to listen
to the voice of instinct that is backed by love and loyalty."

As I spoke I smiled grimly that he might know without words that
I distrusted him.

"As you will," the fellow replied with a shrug. "In the end it
shall be all the same."

I turned and followed Woola into the left-hand passage, and though
my back was toward my enemies, my ears were on the alert; yet
I heard no sound of pursuit. The passageway was dimly lighted by
occasional radium bulbs, the universal lighting medium of Barsoom.

These same lamps may have been doing continuous duty in these
subterranean chambers for ages, since they require no attention
and are so compounded that they give off but the minutest of their
substance in the generation of years of luminosity.

We had proceeded for but a short distance when we commenced to pass
the mouths of diverging corridors, but not once did Woola hesitate.
It was at the opening to one of these corridors upon my right that
I presently heard a sound that spoke more plainly to John Carter,
fighting man, than could the words of my mother tongue--it was the
clank of metal--the metal of a warrior's harness--and it came from
a little distance up the corridor upon my right.

Woola heard it, too, and like a flash he had wheeled and stood
facing the threatened danger, his mane all abristle and all his
rows of glistening fangs bared by snarling, backdrawn lips. With
a gesture I silenced him, and together we drew aside into another
corridor a few paces farther on.

Here we waited; nor did we have long to wait, for presently we saw
the shadows of two men fall upon the floor of the main corridor
athwart the doorway of our hiding place. Very cautiously they
were moving now--the accidental clank that had alarmed me was not
repeated.

Presently they came opposite our station; nor was I surprised to
see that the two were Lakor and his companion of the guardroom.

They walked very softly, and in the right hand of each gleamed a
keen long-sword. They halted quite close to the entrance of our
retreat, whispering to each other.

"Can it be that we have distanced them already?" said Lakor.

"Either that or the beast has led the man upon a wrong trail,"
replied the other, "for the way which we took is by far the shorter
to this point--for him who knows it. John Carter would have found
it a short road to death had he taken it as you suggested to him."

"Yes," said Lakor, "no amount of fighting ability would have saved
him from the pivoted flagstone. He surely would have stepped upon
it, and by now, if the pit beneath it has a bottom, which Thurid
denies, he should have been rapidly approaching it. Curses on that
calot of his that warned him toward the safer avenue!"

"There be other dangers ahead of him, though," spoke Lakor's fellow,
"which he may not so easily escape--should he succeed in escaping
our two good swords. Consider, for example, what chance he will
have, coming unexpectedly into the chamber of--"

I would have given much to have heard the balance of that conversation
that I might have been warned of the perils that lay ahead, but
fate intervened, and just at the very instant of all other instants
that I would not have elected to do it, I sneezed.





Next: The Temple Of The Sun

Previous: On The River Iss



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