Lakor was late, as usual.
He was always late, it seemed, torn between the mad whims of one master
or the other: His wife Loola and the Father of Therns.
Nothing Lakor ever did was good enough for either -- despite his best
efforts. They found fault where others would praise virtue. And when he
did falter, no matter how honest the mistake, their wrath was extreme.
Loola and Matai Shang were both perfect therns, when it came to showing
Lakor had an explanation for every shortcoming; perfectly sound reasons
for failure that any rational, logical being would understand. But did
either listen? No.
Matai Shang was not the sort of man who accepted excuses. Neither was
His wife was always nagging Lakor to keep the scarlet sward neatly trimmed
outside their modest home on the banks of the Iss. She was a fanatic on
the subject. Most therns were inherently fanatical, it's true. But, as
a rule, that was mostly in regard to their ancient religion.
Loola's fanaticism seemed centered upon clipped hedges and bagged leaves,
with a touch of zealotry when it came to to the level of rubbish in the
pail under the sink.
She was also unnaturally preoccupied with Lakor's career. Moreso than
Lakor himself ever was.
"Ula's husband has reached the Eighth Cycle," she'd harped, when Lakor
had attained the Seventh.
Even now, after he'd become a Holy Thern, Lakor's achievements seldom
lived up to Loola's expectations. But by the chin-hair of Issus! How was
he supposed to get anywhere?
Loola whined whenever the Father of Therns called upon his services.
You'd think Lakor was trying to sneak out to the slave-girl quarters, the
way his wife carried on. (Not that there were many slave girls around the
Valley Dor these days. It was a rare sight indeed to see a boatload of
Believers coming down the Iss.)
Matai Shang, meanwhile, was forever sending him on some clandestine
mission that required the utmost secrecy and attention to detail. Oh, it
might be something so simple as roughing up a noble of the outer world
whose tongue had become uncivil in spiritual matters. Lakor rather enjoyed
jumping out of some secret corridor in a jeddak's palace and whacking a
blasphemer on the head or in the groin. Still, the trips could be time-consuming,
which never failed to upset the delicate balance of Lakor's domestic tranquility.
Try as he might, Lakor just could not win. How could he possibly be
where his wife wanted him to be and where the Holy Hekkador wanted him
to be at the same exact instant?
He couldn't, of course, unless he was Issus. But try explaining that
to Matai Shang. Or, worse, to Loola.
Lately, matters were more grave on both fronts. That business with the
Jasoomian was the reason.
There had been times, years ago, when Lakor had devoutly wished for
the whole fabric of Barsoom's goofy religion to be toppled. He'd often
thought it would make his life less hectic. But since John Carter had accomplished
just that, Lakor's life had become even more hectic, if you can believe
Attendance was mandatory at Matai Shang's nightly dart tournaments in
the Secret Temple. (Which had been moved to Herbo Gooli's basement in the
wake of the Red occupation of the Valley.) The dart board had a picture
of John Carter on it. That photograph had become so frayed and pelted that
it was hardly recognizable any longer.
Lakor dutifully attended, of course, even though he'd never been very
good at darts. And after the dart tournament came the John Carter pinata.
Lakor dreaded the John Carter pinata. He felt so foolish trying to whack
the thing. Whacking a live blasphemer on the head or in the groin was one
thing. But whacking a papier-mache John Carter doll filled with white-ape
dung was just plain silly. Not to mention messy.
Such had become the life of a thern after the Earthman's heresy.
Loola was forever pestering Lakor to "Hunt down that blaspheming son
of a calot's slave and whack off his tiny Jasoomian head."
"If you kill John Carter, old Matai Shang will surely make you his right-hand
man," Loola would say, usually between mouthfuls of ice cream. "I'd like
to see Ula's face when that happens!"
"Yes, princess," Lakor would reply, as he always did.
Lakor hated John Carter, as did every other thern that Lakor knew. But
Lakor's hatred was because Matai Shang and Loola had become even more crazy
than they'd been before the Jasoomian's return to Barsoom and the subsequent
trashing of sacred tradition.
In some part of his brain, Lakor did still believe that his race was
holy, and that the Father of Therns was Divine. He'd long ago decided that
he'd probably lay down his life in the service of his master.
But the truth was, he'd do it for the simple reason that he didn't have
anything better to do with his life. In fact, he rather hoped the opportunity
would come along already.
On this night, Lakor was late for a mission with Matai Shang because
Loola had demanded he unclog the toilet before setting foot outside.
"Just because we're not looked upon as Gods by the rest of Barsoom any
longer, it doesn't mean we have to live like ulsios, rutting about in our
own filth," Loola sternly reminded him.
"Yes, princess," Lakor answered.
If she'd had her way, Lakor would have cleaned the garage as well. But
he managed to postpone that chore by promising to get to to it, and the
hedges, on the instant of his return, probably shortly after sun-up.
With a glower, Loola relented. She straightened the circlet of gold
upon his brow, which held the diadem that proclaimed him a Holy Thern,
and fussed over the condition of his wig. Fidgeting restlessly, Lakor finally
made his escape and was soon scurrying across the Valley Dor, trying to
adjust his golden locks while avoiding the hideous plant-men. He hoped
against hope that the Holy Hekkador had not left without him. If he had,
the least Lakor could expect was to be thrown naked into a banth pit.
Of course, banths were to be preferred over an angry Loola. To be perfectly
honest, he'd rather face the vicious carnivores naked than his wife.
Rounding one of the giant trees that line the Sea of Korus, Lakor saw
Matai Shang's party just getting ready to push off from shore in one of
the skiffs used for travel upon the mighty Iss. The Father of Therns said
nothing when Lakor leaped aboard, nearly upsetting the long, narrow craft.
Lakor glanced sheepishly about, mumbling an excuse that no one heeded.
His friend, Nolando, nudged Lakor and made a face. Lakor ignored him.
Nolando was not yet a Holy Thern. He was only at the Ninth Cycle. And
yet, he was forever teasing poor Lakor. It wasn't proper behavior, but
Lakor was at a loss to know what to do about it. The best he could do was
take secret delight contemplating The Big Circumcision that Nolando did
not know was coming to him when he finally did become a Holy Thern.
Nolando grinned at Lakor, knowing full well the reason for his tardiness.
Nolando pulled at the chest of his tunic, parodying Loola's enormously
pendulous breasts. "Quiet, knave," Lakor hissed, picking up a paddle and
motioning with his head toward the front of the boat. "Do you want to enrage
the Holy Father?"
As the therns paddled out across the Lost Sea, toward the subterranean
opening beneath the Otz Mountains that was apparently their destination,
Nolando munched noisily on the rind of a sorapus fruit. The juices covered
the Ninth Cycler's face, trickling down his chin and onto his robe.
Lakor was disgusted by the obnoxious sucking sounds that his fellow
made. He was amazed that Matai Shang, sitting in the bow of the little
craft, didn't chastise Nolando. It seemed to Lakor that Nolando was making
enough racket to awaken half the white apes in the Valley, which was bathed
in the light of Cluros and dancing in the mad shadows of racing Thuria.
The Holy Hekkador appeared to be consumed by more weighty matters. Nolando
offered Lakor a fruit, but Lakor shook him off and continued paddling.
It was the least-ripe fruit in Nolando's basket, Lakor had noticed.
Presently, Matai Shang motioned the paddlers to bring the craft ashore.
Lakor was stunned to see the man who was waiting there: A First Born! Lakor
recognized him as Thurid, a dator among the pirates.
These were strange times, Lakor thought for the three hundred and eleventh
time that day.
Matai Shang exchanged high-fives with Thurid, who settled into the craft
and dangled his feet leisurely over the side. They were soon on their way
again, directly toward the little tributary of Iss that flowed out from
They passed a multitude of islands, and were waved at by the raving
lunatics from the outer world who lived on them. At each, the boat paused
long enough for its passengers to perform the Holy Moon Ritual. But the
ceremonies were completed rapidly, the accompanying prayers hurriedly chanted.
Both Matai Shang and Thurid urged greater speed toward their unknown destination.
Lakor was glad of that, for the night was cold, and the Holy Moon Ritual
never failed to chill his buttocks on such occasions.
For several hours the paddlers paddled deep into the mountainside and,
once, across a huge subterranean lake. Lakor rather liked looking at the
pretty baubles embedded in the rock face. But his enjoyment was constantly
interrupted by the plop-plopping sound made by Nolando tossing empty fruit
shells overboard. Lakor felt like whacking him on the head with his oar,
but resisted the impulse.
Finally, the boat came to a ledge and Thurid guided the party out onto
a narrow trail. From here, they marched several more hours. With each step,
Lakor was thinking that it would be long after sun-up before he'd be able
to return to his chores at home. There could be no doubt that Loola was
going to clobber him when he finally did return. Half-heartedly, he began
forming an excuse. But he knew it would make no difference. He'd be murderized
on the morrow.
When the group came to a weapon room, carved from the living rock, it
was Thurid who suggested that two of the therns remain behind here, on
guard. Lakor wanted to ask, "On guard against what?" They hadn't seen a
soul since the lunatics on the islands.
But he didn't. He never spoke his mind. It was a shortcoming Loola was
forever pointing out. Of course, on those rare occasions when Lakor tried
to speak his mind to Loola, she whacked him.
As luck would have it, Lakor and Nolando were assigned the guard duty,
although Lakor would have preferred nearly any other of the therns for
The others trudged off down a trail to the far left, Thurid chattering
When they'd gone, Nolando took off his sandals and rubbed his feet.
"Oh, my achin' calots," the Ninth Cycler sighed. The odors from Nolando's
generous feet were prolific.
As Lakor examined the edge of his blade, Nolando made his way to one
of the raised platforms in the room, stretching out amongst the sleeping
silks and furs. Within a few tals, he was snoring.
Lakor went over and whacked him on the head with the flat of his longsword.
"We are on guard duty, son of a knave's son!" Lakor yelled. It came
out kind of feeble, as Lakor's voice always did when he tried to be Holier
"On guard against what?!" Nolando shouted, rubbing his head and glaring
at Lakor. "There isn't anyone within a hundred haads of this buried mausoleum!"
Lakor pulled Nolando to his stinking feet. He'd had enough.
"You will address me in the manner my station requires," Lakor demanded.
"I am your superior! You cannot do other than I sanction!"
Nolando yawned. Then shrugged.
"Whatever," he said, getting up slowly.
The two took their posts, standing rigidly across from one another at
the guardroom door.
Ten xats passed in utter, deafening silence. The place was thick with
dust, suggesting no one had passed this way in years. Perhaps centuries.
An itch developed on the tip of Lakor's nose, but he ignored it, remaining
at attention. Focused. A Holy Thern, serving his lord.
Issus! That sorapus-fruit stain on Nolando's tunic was disgusting.
Somewhere, far-off, the faintest sound of dripping water became audible.
It was like a faucet in the upstairs bathroom had developed an excruciatingly
slow leak. It reminded Lakor of one more chore on the list Loola had prepared
for him that morning. In the absolute silence of this underground passage,
deep in the bowels of Otz, the distant dripping took on the proportions
of a roaring waterfall.
Nolando and Lakor stared at each other -- unmoving, unblinking, unthinking.
They were as carved from stone. Soldiers of God.
Two more xats passed.
"Game of jetan?" Nolando finally asked.
"O.K.," Lakor relented, rubbing his nose like a maniac.
They settled down to their game, using the miniature board Lakor's mother-in-law
had given Loola for their wedding. The white princess looked exactly like
Loola, which always made Lakor kind of ill whenever he looked at it.
Loola insisted that he carry the set with him whenever he happened to
be near Matai Shang. It was her hope that the Father of Therns would notice
the board one day, and make some comment on it. Then Lakor could tell him
that it had been a gift from his mother-in-law. Perhaps Matai Shang would
ask about Lakor's mother-in-law and Lakor could tell the Holy Hekkador
that she was a widow, her husband killed in a pirate raid many years before.
By Loola's reckoning, her mother was practically married to the Holy Father
already, if only Lakor would remember to carry the jetan board with him
wherever he went.
Lakor doubted it. Loola's mother wasn't the Holy Hekkador's type. The
Holy Hekkador almost never called fat zitidars, who talked too much and
had bad breath, to join him in his bed chamber on cold nights.
"Your wig's on backwards," Nolando mentioned.
Lakor froze. Slowly, he reached up and felt at the holy, golden locks
that covered his bald pate. Nolando was right. They were askew.
"Do you mean to tell me I've been wearing the Holy Hair backwards while
traveling half a night with the Father of Therns on a Sacred Mission?"
Lakor bellowed. "Why in the name of the Further Moon didn't you tell me
"I tried to once, but began laughing so hard I couldn't get the words
out," Nolando said.
Lakor turned a shade slightly darker than the hue of the sward on the
floor of the Valley Dor. He attempted to speak, but was too flabbergasted.
"I don't think Matai Shang noticed," Nolando said. "But that Thurid
fellow looked at you oddly once or twice."
They played at jetan for a zode or two, eventually agreeing to a stalemate.
Then Nolando pulled out a yano jug. But Lakor, who'd played at yano with
Nolando in the past, knew better than to take part in a game for which
the Ninth Cycler provided the dice. More likely than not, they were weighted.
Instead, Lakor suggested they go exploring a short distance down one
of the corridors that extended from the guardroom. Nolando desisted at
first, because of his aching feet. But at Lakor's insistence, the lesser
thern finally agreed. They marched off down the path to the extreme right.
They got exactly twelve paces when the hugest banth Lakor had ever laid
eyes on leaped out at them and devoured the entire upper half of Nolando's
Nolando wasn't dead yet, Lakor could see. He was still struggling, despite
the fact that he was ingested up to his waist. Lakor saw the little impacts
from inside the banth's neck, where Nolando was apparently banging with
the side of his head in an effort to escape.
Lakor was no coward, when it came to fighting -- only when it came to
standing up to Loola. He leaped in immediately, whacking and whacking at
the banth with his longsword until Nolando had been regurgitated upon the
floor in a gooey mess. Startled by Lakor's attack, or perhaps nauseated
by the taste of Nolando, the banth slunk off into the corridor's shadows.
Nolando looked up at Lakor and nodded his appreciation. They started
their return to the guardroom without speaking.
On the first step of retreat, a pivoted flagstone under Lakor's foot
spun upward and he hurtled downward. Only the loose-fitting thern robe
saved him from plunging into the unfathomable depths below. It caught on
the flagstone, and he hung there until Nolando hauled him back to the corridor.
Back in the guardroom, Nolando wiped his face and chest with some of
the sleeping silks and furs, removing his slime-covered robes. Lakor, too,
peeled down to his warrior's harness. He felt more comfortable in that
garb, anyway. He'd always thought he looked rather dashing in the leather
of a swordsman. Catching his reflection in a mirror, Lakor sucked in his
"I don't trust that Thurid fellow," Lakor remarked, still thinking of
Nolando's comment that the First Born had noticed his wig was on backwards.
"You're just embarrassed because he noticed your wig was on backwards,"
said Nolando, who'd begun practicing a few sword thrusts against an imaginary
"I tell you, I do not trust the black one," Lakor persisted, likewise
practicing his thrust and parry. "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."
Nolando tended to agree, and mentioned that cock-and-bull story about
the radium flashlight that Thurid had been telling Matai Shang as they'd
started off down the left-hand corridor.
More from boredom than anything else, Nolando was for going after Thurid
and cutting out his heart. It was a plan that appealed to Lakor, who liked
a good fight to break the monotony of his life. You seldom got the chance
to whack a First Born these days. But he hesitated nonetheless.
"Never in a long life have I disobeyed a single command of the Father
of Therns," Lakor said. "I shall stay here until I rot if he does not return
to bid me elsewhere."
Nolando made a disgusted grunt, and mimicked Lakor's earlier words:
"You are my superior," he said. "I cannot do other than you sanction."
Nolando rooted around in his fruit basket, but found it was empty. "I
still believe that we are foolish to remain." he said.
At that moment, a swordsman stepped into the room, accompanied by a
hideous calot. The warrior had the white skin of a thern, but the black
hair and grey eyes of a red man. Odd combination, Lakor thought. You don't
see many albinos among the red men -- especially not walking his dog beneath
the Otz Mountains.
There was something vaguely familiar about the warrior. For the life
of him, however, Lakor could not guess what it might be. Mainly, Lakor
was just startled to see anyone else down in this buried chamber.
Nevertheless, Lakor's sword instantly flashed from its scabbard, on
guard against the intruder. Nolando's blade was at the ready almost as
quickly. Lakor took some small pride in the fact that his companion's reaction
was not quite as quick, though.
"I seek Thurid, the black dator," the warrior said, raising his hand
in a gesture of restraint. "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."
Lakor was nagged by the feeling that he knew this strange warrior. He
squinted a bit, and tilted his head to the side in an attempt to place
him. He almost had it. In an effort to stall, he told the albino that perhaps
they'd permit him to pass if he revealed his identity.
The talkative swordsman launched into a speech, extolling his own prowess
and advising the wisdom of letting him proceed. Lakor stifled a yawn. The
warrior's pomposity reminded him of Loola. Midway into the monologue, Lakor
recognized the face as the one that adorned the dart board in the Secret
Temple, which had long-since been tattered by frequent bulls-eyes, rendering
it virtually unrecognizable.
As the name finally fell from the warrior's lips, Lakor silently said
it along with him: "John Carter, Prince of Helium."
Lakor's hatred of John Carter welled up within his thern breast. He
needed no urging from the likes of Matai Shang or Loola to want the Jasoomian
dead. The misery that was his life could be laid at the feet of this pile
of ulsio dung.
At the mention of the name, Nolando rushed toward the Prince of Helium
with upraised sword. But Lakor quickly snatched at the Ninth Cycler's harness,
pulling him back and unintentionally inflicting a painful 'wedgie.'
"Hold!" Lakor commanded, surprised to find that his voice did not crack.
In fact it sounded quite good. Oddly enough, he wished that Loola had been
here to hear that single directive.
Lakor knew well the unfair advantage John Carter held over all other
Barsoomians. Through no skill of his own, but by an accident of birth,
the Jasoomian possessed an uncanny strength and agility. The prince of
Helium owed his prowess to his mother planet, whose greater gravity conditioned
his muscles to heights undreamed of by ordinary men. Lakor had heard tell
that John Carter was faster than a speeding radium pellet, more powerful
than a 10-man flier, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.
Some called John Carter a sort of superman.
Two against one were not fair odds for the two, when the one was John
Lakor slyly proposed that the prince of Helium embark upon his mission
to slay the First Born. After a word of explanation in Nolando's ear, Lakor
turned back to face the Jasoomian. Unfortunately, Lakor's hand was covered
in banth saliva where he'd touched the Ninth Cycler's lobe to whisper.
Lakor hid the drippy evidence behind his back.
"That way leads to Thurid," Lakor said, pointing with his other hand
to the corridor on the extreme right.
But curse that fiend of a devil-calot! The beast would not let John
Carter proceed upon the suggested path, despite the thick Jasoomian's intention
to do so.
"The brute is seldom wrong," said John Carter uncertainly. He appealed
to Lakor with his eyes to tell which way was the correct path to follow.
Lakor nodded meaningfully toward the right, smiling reassuringly.
The Jasoomian's next words were apologetic, to Lakor's ear, who'd spent
a lifetime apologizing.
"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
Well, Lakor knew it couldn't be his voice the Earthman referred to.
Because Lakor certainly felt neither love nor loyalty for John Carter.
"As you will," Lakor replied dejectedly. "In the end it shall be all
Nolando and Lakor watched as the hound trotted off down the corridor
taken zodes earlier by Matai Shang and Thurid. The Jasoomian followed faithfully,
a goofy grin upon his lips. Lakor wondered which was the master and which
the servant in that relationship.
"I heard his wife's a babe," Nolando commented. "The figure of a goddess,
they say. How is Loola these days? Still eating you out of house and home?"
"Still thy tongue," Lakor reprimanded. "And wipe the rest of that banth
spit from your brow. I'm thinking."
"Don't strain anything," Nolando advised.
"We have to go after him," Lakor decided.
"Good idea," agreed Nolando. "I'd hate to have him mention to Matai
Shang that we let him pass unmolested."
They hurried up the left corridor, searching in vain for the Jasoomian.
But the Holy Thern and his companion couldn't find hide nor hair of the
prince of Helium and the calot.
As they wandered the lengthy corridor, Lakor's brain turned over the
oddness of his situation. Here he was: A middle-aged Holy Thern of 437
years, whose obese wife hen-pecked him no end, whose boss barely acknowledged
his existence, hunting a Jasoomian blasphemer at the core of Barsoom with
a wise-cracking Ninth Cycler who was covered in lion saliva.
Lakor was proud of his swordsmanship. He'd be no Barsoomian, much less
thern, if he felt otherwise. He'd whacked plenty of guys in his day. But
he wasn't a dope, either. If they did catch John Carter, Lakor knew he
and Nolando would likely be whacked themselves in short order.
But Lakor most assuredly did want to catch the Jasoomian. He couldn't
have said why, at the moment. But he knew that he did. He knew it as surely
as he knew that he stood upon the face of Barsoom -- or beneath it, anyway.
Issus must have been on Lakor's side this night, then. Because just
when the search seemed utterly hopeless, a huge honking sneeze rang out
in their ears.
Lakor and Nolando turned in the direction of the blast in time to see
John Carter leap like a maniac toward them. The Jasoomian bounded and bobbed
like a helium balloon in the lesser gravity of Barsoom. His sword was a
blur of frantic cuts and weaves. It would have been comical, like watching
a jackhammer run amok, if the attack were not so deadly.
The two therns did well for themselves, though. Lakor even permitted
himself the briefest vision of victory.
Nolando had been whacked a dozen times, but none fatally. As the lesser
thern engaged the prince, Lakor played a trick that Loola had once played
on him when he'd tried to sneak out after supper for a game of cards with
the boys. Unbuckling his belt, he lashed it quickly about the Jasoomian's
ankle and yanked. John Carter tumbled in a heap onto his back.
"Owie," John Carter said.
They had him! Unbelievably, dear Issus in Heaven, by the short hairs
of Matai Shang's daughter, praise every ancestor back to the first Holy
Nut, they had the blaspheming sucker!
As Lakor leaped, sword upraised for the death-dealing whack that would
make him a Hekkador's most celebrated hero, he felt alive for the first
time in his life.
For the barest of instants, Lakor hesitated.
And that's how it ended. Not in glory in the bowels of a mountain, but
in defeat in the belly of a calot named Woola.
As the enraged calot munched madly on Lakor's throat, the last thing
that went through the thern's mind was:
"Loola will be angry about this. I forgot to take out the garbage again."
The Brain of