PART IX: Chapters 33-36
IN THE CIRCLE
THIRTY-THREE -- THE ARTIFICIAL BRIDE
Thus did I learn that my nightmare had only just begun.
For this strange creature, this artificial man, the first ever artificial
man, Ras Thavas’ original hormad, had conceived himself as the pinnacle
of creation, and having reached the apex, he had decided to recreate me
as his mate.
Only then did I learn of an imperfection in his construction,
for I discovered that no tears would run from my eyes.
Gradually, I learned to use this new body. The nerve connections
were all secure, he was a genius at that. But the fault lay within
me. Having spent a lifetime struggling to manipulate broken
twisted limbs, I did not know how to move a whole body. I had to
learn how to walk on straight legs, to touch and grasp with nimble fingers
rather than fused and unresponsive claws. The absence of pain was
like a constant shout. I was so used to agony, I could not conceive
In these strange new days, Pew Mogel was sometimes a saint, patiently
working with me. Helping me to walk and speak, even showing me how
to dance. I will confess, that there were moments when I did
not hate him, when I even found myself loving this strange creature.
But alas, his moments of kindness and patience were merely spells.
He flew into rages, he cursed me, he indulged petty cruelties. He
whimpered with self pity and howled with madness. Side by side
with his capacity for generosity and compassion, there were even vaster
reservoirs of madness and malevolence.
He used me as a man uses a women. His use was harsh
and peremptory, he enjoyed inflicting pain upon my body, enjoyed his ability
to dominate my flesh, thinking that in doing so, he dominated my soul as
But he was always restless. For a time, he tried to
train me as his assistant. But I lacked his diabolical gifts of experimentation
and surgery. Compared to his nearly supernatural talents, I was a
stumbling clod. Further, I rebelled at the cruelty of his actions.
Eventually, he gave up on the notion of teaching me his arts.
Instead, I was relegated to caring for his creations and experiments.
Seeing to the needs of the abominations he manufactured for the devilish
pleasure. Some were all but mindless, but many he gifted with
intelligence and awareness, to enhance their suffering. Others were
crafted from the living flesh of tortured beings. I offered comfort
and solace where I could.
Perhaps my tenderness amused him, or perhaps it stimulated something
resembling humanity within him, for he did not interfere in my efforts
to bring relief to his victims. Or perhaps he was merely being inhuman,
believing that my comfort could only emphasize to his victims, the horror
of their condition.
My broken old body continued to live, kept alive as a mindless
brainless thing for further experiments and amusements. Once
he transferred the brain of an Ulsio into it, and laughed at its pitiful
mewling and thrashing. Eventually, the accumulated injuries exceeded
even his miraculous abilities to preserve life, and it died.
He raged at the death of my old body, it made him wild, wilder
than I had ever seen him. He resolved to recreate my shattered hulk
in new monstrosities. His science produced one deformed and
twisted creature after another, brainless monstrosities that whimpered
Had I known what he had planned, I would have done my utmost to
destroy him, or to destroy myself. Perhaps, had I known, my very
mind would have shattered, torn at the horror impending and my helplessness
to stop it. Madness, I think, would have been the kindest refuge.
For within that evil brain, there hatched the most diabolical
The evil Jeddak, Tul Axtar of Jahar had long desired to extend
his dominion to Aztor. As you may guess from his name, his family
came from Aztor originally, but had been driven out. Thus always
had the Axtar line claimed the throne of Aztor for their own.
Pew Mogel set himself in league with Tul Axtar and rose high in
his circles. For a time, he and Tul Axtar’s other royal wizard,
Phor Tak, were bitter rivals. But eventually, Pew Mogel pushed
Phor Tak to the brink of madness and he vanished.
I knew none of this, of course. I knew only that Pew
Mogel was in the habit of disappearing for large periods of time, presumably
to his other secret laboratories and other experiments.
But then, one night, he made a careful incision within my body.
I took no account of it, for he often experimented upon my form.
No injury he could do me would kill me, and eventually, there would not
even be a scar. I suffered this indignity in silence.
“We must ensure,” he said, “that the wound is fresh healed.”
Thereafter he and one of his lesser creations, a dull mishappen
clod of an artificial man, bundled me up and took me on a flight on one
of his giant birds, the Malagawr. It was my first flight ever,
for when I had been crippled, my body had been too weak to travel even
in a flyer. When I had been kidnapped, my unconscious body had been
transported overland in a special cask of his devising. Now,
we were flying. The sky and the ground swept away from me,
and it seemed as if I and my hated lover were ascending into the heavens,
never to return.
Over time, I perceived a light in the distance. A
light that grew to many lights. And thence I began to make out graceful
towers and sprawling buildings, the shapes of wide boulevards.
I realized, without being told, that I was being taken home, to
my blessed Aztor. Overcome with emotion, I thanked Pew Mogel
from the bottom of my heart for this gift and forgave him every transgression.
The creature merely smiled.
He flew straight to the palace with me, and the bird alit in the
courtyard. I gazed at the curtained stall, through which I
had so often watched life pass by. Fascinated, I walked to
it, and swept aside the curtain. I had an irrational fear that I
still lay behind it, that this was all a strange dream.
But it was empty except for a bouquet of flowers.
I gazed around this little room that had been my world for so long.
I stroked the cushions, marveling at their softness. I traced
the outline of the brace beneath the padding which had supported my tormented
It seemed so close and yet so far away.
While I was occupied by wonder, I heard a sound and turned.
It was my mother and father.
My heart, had it not been artificial, would have broken in that
“Azara,” my mother whispered. “Is it really you?”
“Mother,” I choked out.
We embraced. Behind us, the fiend’s massive body shook
with evil laughter.
“I have made her,” he said, “and I shall destroy her, if you do
not submit yourselves to me immediately. I have placed a vial
within her body, all I need do is trigger it, and its enzymes will consume
her artificial flesh. She will dissolve in agony.”
In demonstration, he held up a small object and pressed a stud.
There was a tinkle of glass, and suddenly his artificial man began to scream.
It continued to scream even as it was reduced to a puddle of shapeless
goo, and as the goo dried and flaked rapidly away, it seemed that we could
all hear the screams continue in our minds.
I saw my father stare at the fresh surgery scar Pew Mogel had
made in my belly. Shame and understanding swept over me, for
this was no gift, I was merely the monster’s pawn, his weapon to use against
those I loved.
“No,” I cried out. “Do not listen. Turn away,
let me die.”
But I could see in their eyes that he had won. They
would do anything for their daughter, and finally having seen me whole,
there was no price they would not pay.
I denied them then. I claimed that I was not Azara, but
a filthy hormad he manufactured to trick them. When that did
not work, I cursed them and told them I had never loved them. I told
them I hated them for making me live, and thus, they owed me nothing.
But I was too late. They knew me too well, and they
saw me too clearly beneath this hormad flesh. I could not fool
By my very existence, I betrayed them. I was the weapon
he used to turn their love against them. If I could have died
in that moment, I would have done so gladly, for the shame and horror was
Pew Mogel took me away and bound me to his Malagawr.
Though I cursed him the entire ride back, he did not say a word.
When we arrived, he shut me up in his tower and kept me there
for months. I raved and ranted all that time, trying to smash
my invulnerable body upon the stone walls of my chamber. Meanwhile,
Pew Mogel and Tul Axtar’s butcher’s were even then purging my father’s
court, drenching my beloved city in blood.
After a time, the malevolent wizard came for me. Binding
me in chains, he lead me to his laboratory, where he showed me a sight
that haunts me to this day.
Lying upon benches were the bodies of my mother and father, their
heads sawed open, their brains removed.
And next to them were two of his abominations, stirring and writhing
with pain. One of them caught sight of me with its single protruding
eye. Inhuman lips shaped my name. I knew who called
out to me.
“Mother!” I screamed, and then, finally, mercifully fainted
dead away. For there is only so much even an artificial being
THIRTY-FOUR -- THE DESERT JOURNEY
This was the depravity of Pew Mogel’s revenge.
For the slight of my family’s rejection of his evil plans, he had taken
a broken girl and put her brain into the body of a toy for his pleasure.
And then, for no other reason than evil, he had transferred the brains
of each member of her family into monstrosities, each more horrific than
I was broken then, with no will and no power to resist him.
I submitted to his lusts, catered to his whims, and contented
myself with trying to ease the suffering of my parents and his other victims,
in small ways.
Pew Mogel, for his part, became almost generous. He
was seldom around, occupied mainly with new experiments and plots.
He had his falling out with Tul Axtar, which was inevitable.
Two such creatures as Tul Axtar and Pew Mogel could never coexist.
Like a pair of sekhels, one must always try to sting the other two death.
One day, he returned, badly wounded, charred pieces of flesh flaking from
his body. Tul Axtar’s agents had struck.
Thereafter he swore and plotted vengeance against Tul Axtar.
He boasted to me of building a secret army of red apes as he called them,
and of how Axtar would be humbled. He crafted a truly monstrous
body, a primeval abomination, to house that Jeddak’s monstrous soul.
But his revenge on Tul Axtar was foiled when John Carter lead
the fleets of Helium against Jahar. In the brief war that followed,
Jahar was defeated.
Then did Pew Mogel turn his attentions to Helium.
I know little of his plots. Helium seemed to animate him, he
grew fascinated with the legend of John Carter and struck with the beauty
of Dejah Thoris. Time and again, he tried to resculpt my features
to resemble Dejah Thoris, but my flesh defied him, always returning to
my own features.
Frustrated, he kept me in his tower with his other abominations.
Only occasionally would he return to amuse himself with torments.
Then after a long time, I realized that there were no more visits.
It had been months since his last arrival.
I learned, much, much later, that he had finally tried his hand
at Helium and had failed. Of his attempt, I was told stories
that sensible men dismissed as tall tales, but which I knew to be true
in every particular. I was told that he was dead, struck down by
John Carter himself and I prayed that it was true.
But at the time, I knew none of this. I knew only
that neither he nor his creatures had visited in a long time, and that
his grip upon my mind and soul had weakened with his absence. The
supplies he left behind ran out, but it did not trouble us in the tower.
Our artificial bodies needed no food, no water, no air. We
might hunger and thirst and gasp for food, water and breath, so that our
suffering pleased him, but we did not need these things.
And still, he did not return.
I climbed to the top of the tower and threw myself off.
Would I die? I could only hope. There was nothing precious
to me in my life.
But I did not die. As in my childhood, my body was
shattered beyond all recognition. I laid
there for days, waiting for death, my life come full circle.
This time, there would be no savants or physicians to try to heal me, no
one to pray over my remains.
But Pew Mogel had made me well. Day by day, I laid
there as my shattered body pulled itself back together, broken bones reformed,
pulped organs regenerated.
Finally, I knew that I could not die. I stood up and
began to walk, following he setting sun into the desert.”
“The setting sun?” I asked. Azara nodded, lowering
I contemplated this fact in astonishment. That direction
would take her into the desert away from any inhabited city.
She must have walked all the way across the desert. Worst,
I remembered my trip through the desert with her, being astonished by how
little craft she had. She must have walked endlessly in vast
circles, month after month, through some of the harshest, most desolate
land on this world. There were vast stretches of desert where
not even the meanest life endured. And yet, she had traveled through
it, sustained by her unnatural flesh. The unnatural flesh that
had saved my life when we’d traveled the desert. My mind boggled
at such a journey. I was overcome with pity for this poor,
brave, hapless child.
“Please,” I prompted her, “go on.”
“I lost track of the days and nights I walked,” said Azara.
“I thirsted and hungered, but I had already found I did not need to eat
or drink. I slept where I fell, and when I woke, I would simply
rise up again.”
“What about animals?” I asked. “Didn’t they attack?
Or did your unnatural smell repel them?”
“For long stretches there were no animals. Sometimes
I met Banths and Great White Apes,” Azara shrugged, “but when
they discovered that they could not kill me and could not digest my flesh,
they would lose interest and I would continue on my way.”
Again, I found myself overcome with pity. Her bare
words hinted at torments and hardships I could barely imagine.
“At length,” she continued. “I came to a city.
There I was enslaved and abused, but this was as nothing to me.
After a time, an opportunity came, I escaped and began to walk again, seeking
“I had in mind that I would find my way to Helium,” she said.
“There I would tell my story to John Carter and petition for his mercy.
With his help, the misery that was the lives of my family could be ended,
and when I had fulfilled that final obligation, I could then seek my own
death. The image of his profile sustained me when I had no other
“But you did not find John Carter?” I said.
“No, I was taken into slavery yet again. I heard tales
of a mysterious Jeddak who had been searching for a creature like myself.
I knew then that Pew Mogel still lived, and wept for the horror of it.
For this nightmare would never end. I was being taken to him
when you found me.”
“Now, sweet Tora, you know the truth of me. I am not
a Princess, I am not even human. I am merely a product of laboratories,
a hormad, a soulless, heartless artificial creature. I would
weep, if I could, but I cannot.
“I did not drown because I cannot. I cannot be killed, thereforeI
cannot die, and thus, I cannot claim to be alive. I cannot return
the love and kindness you have so generously showered upon me.
I am his creature and his creation, he owns me and I shall never escape.
My one shred of happiness lies in the thought that I might help you escape
With that, she threw herself down and commenced to weeping, her
body heaving with sobs.
I sat there astounded.
This was, without a doubt, the most amazing and improbable story
that I had ever heard. I wanted to laugh, to acclaim that I disbelieved
But then, her hand had growing back. She had borne
me through a fierce empty desert that would have killed me otherwise.
She had been submerged for minutes without drowning. Whatever she
was made of, it was not the same stuff as the rest of us. I
had heard of hormads of course, but mere rumours, a race of artificial
men created by Ras Thavas of stupid creatures of ugly misproportions, who
could not be killed, even by chopping them up.
It defied belief. And yet...
I put aside my astonishment and knelt beside her, pulling her
up to face me. There were no tears, as she had admitted.
But the sorrow I saw in those eyes, the grief that contorted every line
of her face, persuaded me that there was no deception here.
“Hush,” I whispered, “hush. I am the undeserving one.
Your life has been full of pain and suffering, but you never forgot who
you were, never forgot to live or to love. So what if your
body is artificial? Your heart is true. Forgive me for
doubting you, forgive me for questioning you. Forgive my thousand
slights and insults, I am not worthy and you have shown me that.
But know that I love you, and I always shall.”
“Listen to me. I too have no city. I have no father
and no mother. I too am abandoned by fate and circumstance.
Let us together be orphans of Barsoom. If we have nothing at
all in the world, then let us have each other.”
I held her all morning, as her grief and sorrow tore through her.
At last, sometime in the afternoon, she fell asleep. It seemed that
she was still human in that respect.
Would a true hormad brain sleep, I wondered, or could it choose
not to. And if it did not, would it go mad? Perhaps
in the quest for perfection, in the transcendence of human frailties, Ras
Thavas had made his greatest mistakes. Perhaps we are meant to be
imperfect beings for an imperfect world.
As she slept, I continued to reflect upon her incredible story,
seeking holes that might lead me to condemn it all as a preposterous lie,
but finding nothing.
Finally, as I held her slumbering form, I whispered in her ear,
both fearing and hoping that she might hear. Surrendering one
of my own close kept secrets.
“Pew Mogel was never alone in making monsters, my darling,” I
told her. “In history, many men have taken children and shaped their
souls, if not their flesh, into abominations. Tul Axtar was
such a man, and I was one of his creations.”
“I was his agent, his soldier, his assassin,” I whispered.
“I was his finest monster, the pride of his Black Guard. I
did terrible things in his service. I am his last monster,
carrying on his wars long after his death. I know now why Pew
Mogel hates me, because Tul Axtar no longer exists to hate.”
But she merely slept, and so, I found my reprieve.
Do you know what a secret is? It is merely a truth
we keep hidden, because if it were known, then we could not be loved.
We are not deserving of love, none of us, except perhaps for the
poor maimed beauty in my arms.
Love is something we steal, and then we weep in the night, mourning
its inevitable loss.
THIRTY-FIVE -- A MIDNIGHT FLIGHT
Azara opened her eyes.
“Tul Axtar,” she whispered coldly. “The butcher who
ruined my family, who enslaved my nation.”
“I thought you were sleeping,” I said, trying futilely to avoid
the questions I knew would be coming.
“I hear things when I sleep,” she said, “and remember them when
I wake. It is a trick of this body.”
“I wish I had known that.”
“You were one of Tul Axtar’s black guard?” she asked.
“I lead the black guard for a time.”
I swallowed and decided to make a clean break.
“I was there for the fall of Aztor,” I said.
She absorbed this information quietly, thinking it over carefully.
“I am so sorry,” I whispered.
It was her turn to nod. Her eyes were cold.
“Why does Pew Mogel hate you for this?”
I chewed my lip, thoughtfully.
“One of my duties was to dispose of ‘inconvenient’ allies and
servants of Tul Axtar, when he had no further use for them, or felt that
their they might begin to prove a hindrance rather than a help.
One of our assignments was a mysterious wizard, a powerful hulking brute
with a pop eye and a bullet head, together with his agents.
He was not identified as Pew Mogel to me, nor did I ever encounter him.
I simply organized the slaughter of his men, the destruction of his lair,
and, I thought, him with it.”
“He survived,” she said, “I remember that. His laboratory
in Jahar burned around him, pieces of his flesh were so charred, they flaked
and fell off like brittle charcoal. He raged for days on end,
his fury was terrible to behold.”
“Will you forgive me?”
She shrugged, not quite looking at me. Her voice was formal.
“There is nothing to forgive, nor to applaud. Perhaps you
did awful things in Aztor, I do not know. I am certain you did terrible
things elsewhere. But you were merely an instrument, an object, with
no more choice or will than a knife. I will despise the one who wielded
the knife, and not the knife itself.”
She paused .
“I might love you for attacking Pew Mogel, for burning him out
and slaughtering his minions. But that wasn’t you either, was it?
Not really. Again, you were simply an instrument. You served
one I hated, and attacked another I hated. What does it come
“Thank you,” I said softly.
“A knife knows no thanks,” she replied coldly.
For a second, my temper flared up. Hot anger, fierce
and familiar, coursed through me. How dare she call me a knife, dismiss
me as a mere tool. I had saved her life a dozen times. I’d
protected her and sheltered her, rescued her. She wasn’t even
a person, she was the object, a mere toy, Pew Mogel’s whore.
I opened my mouth, and shut it again, refusing to allow the awful words
to come out. My insides twisted, and my stomach filled with
“Well, for what it is worth,” I said, “I am still sorry, and I
would have had things differently, if I could.”
She nodded coldly, pulling herself from my arms.
I shifted, moving away from her, to pretend to guard the entrance
of our hiding place.
For a while, neither of us spoke.
“Tora?” she said, finally.
“You were Tul Axtar’s creation, you said.”
“”But you told me that you had been raised as an animal trainer.”
“I did say I was raised by animal trainers,” I replied carefully.
“I said that.”
She said nothing more, the accusation was out there in the open.
She might forgive me for being Tul Axtar’s weapon. That was
long ago. But now there was this. I tried to think of something
to say, some evasion, some explanation.
I merely swallowed and stared into darkening sky.
Finally, one of the Experiments came for us. This
was a strange creature with long boneless arms that twisted and writhed.
His face looked human enough, except that when he minded too, he could
extend his eyes out on stalks to look about in all directions.
Luckily, he did not do this in our presence, though I’d seen him do it
in the Garden.
Cautiously, he lead us through a maze of tunnels and ruins until
we came out in a small courtyard that I judged was near the arena.
A Malagawr was waiting there. It looked up at us.
“Well,” it said, “hurry up, we must be ready when the opportunity
I should have expected something like this. Centipede men
and talking trees? Why not a talking bird? Still, I was
flustered for a moment. Azara did not miss a beat.
“Sot Hol,” Azara said gracefully.
“Princess,” the bird inclined its head. I noted a
trace of accent that it shared with Azara.
“You are from Aztor too,” I asked.
The bird ruffled its feather.
“My brain is,” it replied, “and a few other parts.”
“Sot Hol is one of my loyal retainers,” she told me.
“That’s something of an exaggeration. In Aztor, I
was merely a thief, the closest I came to the royal family was stealing
their portraits from a public house. It was only after I became
one of Pew Mogel’s creations that I found myself becoming sentimental.”
“You slander yourself, Sot Hol,” she said. “You were
always a decent person.”
A dig at me, I wondered? Again, it ruffled its feathers.
“Not decent enough it seems, if fate decreed that I should wind
up like this. Still, there are compensations. This
is your companion?”
She nodded. The bird looked me over critically, its
head jerking from side to side.
“I’d thought you would be a man,” it said.
“I thought the same,” I snapped, and then immediately regretted
my bitter insult. Azara glanced harshly at me and I withered.
The creature didn’t seem to notice, or if it did, it took no offense.
“We’ll join the next patrol as it takes off,” Sot Hol informed
us. “Pew Mogel is sending pairs of red men out, as well as
his red apes. The light is bad, and they’re not well organized.
If luck is with us, we’ll fly out with the patrol, then I’ll slip up high
and leave them well behind. You are both coming?”
“No,” Azara said, even as I replied “Yes.”
The bird made an annoyed sound.
“Make up your minds and do it quickly.”
I grabbed Azara, seizing her shoulders.
“Come with me,” I whispered. “I don’t care about your past,
and you shouldn’t care for mine. If you have a grievance, then hold
it or release it some other time. There is no other chance, we must
take this one, no matter how we might feel. Just come with me, and
escape this cursed place.”
“Our past chains us down,” she said. “He owns me and will
never let me go. You are safer without me.”
I stared into her eyes.
“I have not lived a good life,” I whispered to her, “but I should
not wish to live at all, if I left you behind to face his wrath.
You have escaped him before, you can be free of him.”
She shook her head, and I could see steel in her eyes. I
knew then that I could not persuade her.
Behind us there was a cynical cough.
“This is very touching, but perhaps I can simplify matters for
you. I have no wish to risk my life for some ignorant Panthan.
If the Princess seeks to escape, I shall carry her. If the
Princess wishes me to carry another passenger with her, I shall oblige.
On the other hand, if the Princess chooses to remain here, then I’m going
back to the flock. Or, I might simply drop my burden from a
thousand feet. It is all the same to me.”
There was a moment when her features became resentful, she was
caught. Then they cleared, and she shrugged.
“We go together then.”
Our second flight on a Malagawr was more pleasant than the first.
As in so many things, it is infinitely preferable to be riding on the top,
rather than strapped to the bottom. The Experiment rose up
into the air on a burst of beating wings, joined the rising patrol, and
we were off.
There is something very different about riding a living creature,
rather than a mechanical flyer. The Malagawr’s wings flexed beneath
us, and it coursed through the air with a steady rhythm. The air
was not fiercely cold, but rather fresh and bracing. The stars
wheeled above us.
In front of me, Azara gave one of her rare laughs, a tinkle of
sheer pleasure at the way the world was unfolding around us. I leaned
forward against her, and felt her back easing against me. I wrapped
my fingers in the harness in front of her thighs.
For much of the night, we flew in the patrol, always pushing the
outer edges of the Malagawr’s search patterns. Finally, as
the other tired birds began to fly back to their base, Sat Hol stretched
his wings, gliding further and further out, until we were out of sight
of the weary birds.
“We’re free,” he told us. “We’ll be in Aztor by mid-morning.”
“Thank you,” Azara whispered, I could not tell if it was to me
or to the bird. I did not care, I had never heard her sound
so happy. “Thank you, thank you so much.”
Suddenly, in the dawn’s early light, the great bird shrieked,
its wings convulsed their steady rhythm shattered.
“Princess!” Sat Hol screeched, “We’ve been shot! I am killed!”
The great bird plummeted from the sky as we screamed.
THIRTY-SIX -- TRAPPED IN THE CIRCLE
The giant bird tumbled down through the air, plummeting end over
end, screeching. Azara was almost flung from the saddle but
I grabbed her and shoved her against the bird’s body, clinging fiercely
to the creatures harness.
I roared, all thought forgotten, bellowing rage at an uncaring
world. Azara screamed my name.
“I’m here,” I yelled.
“I’m hit! I’m hit!” the giant bird screamed beneath us.
“I’ve been shot, we are all killed.”
“Control yourself,” I screamed at it, flecks of its blood spattered
my face. I tried to reach for its wound.
“You can survive the shot! But you can’t survive the fall,
you must fly.”
“I can’t,” the bird shrieked, “I’m shot. Mogel
has found us.”
“No,” I shouted, “not him, we got away. Whoever shot
you, it was someone else. We can still get away.”
“I can’t,” the creature shrieked, “my wing won’t work, the joint
I could see it, we were spinning crazily downwards, one of his
wings straight, desperately striving for stability, the other flapping
wildly. I reached up the harness, finding the creature’s shoulder,
feeling it loose and grinding in its socket. More from instinct
than any plan, I tried to push it back in place. It resisted
my strength, so I pulled myself forward against its neck harness and forced
it back into place with the pressure of my body.
“It hurts!” the bird screamed its head lashing.
“Take the pain,” I yelled in its ear, “live. Fly.”
Beneath me the dislocated joint flexed and I forced it back into
place to the creatures screams of agony. The wing straightened,
caught air, and with a harsh jerk, suddenly, we were no longer falling
wildly. The wind buffeted us as the spinning ground rushed
towards us. Then suddenly, it vanished, and we were rising
again, rushing through the night sky. I breathed a sigh of
“I will not die,” it screeched defiantly, its voice ringing with
agony. “I still live.”
I glanced over its shoulder, watching desert rush dizzyingly past
us. Each scallop of its wings bought it more altitude and speed.
“Where are they?” It demanded. “Take your pistol and
“I don’t know,” I said, “I don’t know where they are.”
“We must find shelter,” Azara called behind me. “He can’t
fly like this, it will kill him.”
“If we’re caught in the open,” I yelled, “we’ll be killed.”
Despite that, I had no idea how long the Malagawr could maintain
itself in the air. Each desperate wing stroke was slower, more clearly
agonized. The burst of terror and adrenalin that had given
strength to a torn wing was fading. Already, I could sense
us losing speed and altitude.
“I saw a city in the distance, Princess,” the bird cried.
“I can make it.”
I wasn’t at all certain that he could, but I feared to contradict
“Brace yourself,” was all I could tell Azara.
For desperate moments, we flew on through the Barsoomian night,
the creatures breathing more laboured with each passing moment.
Its altitude kept dropping. Soon we were skimming the tops of dunes
close enough to almost touch. We almost made it.
The broken towers of the city rose up ahead of us, less than half
a mile distance, when our gasping mount tried one last wingstroke.
With a sudden cry, he fell, we dropped out of the air, less than a dozen
feet to the ground beneath, tumbling and bouncing. I heard
a sickening crack, and my heart froze.
“Azara!” I screamed, twisting to my feet, careless of the
unshed momentum. Swinging my head about dizzily, I found her.
She seemed to be all right.
The bird was not so lucky, it lay on its side, one black wing
sticking out at a crazy angle. Azara was already rushing to
the creature. I drew my pistol, checking it to make sure that
the fall had not fouled it, and scrambled to join her.
The bird lay gasping, whimpering with pain. I examined
its injuries. It had been shot from below, from the ground
probably. The bullet had passed cleanly through the shoulder
muscle, but the pain and shock had caused the wing to dislocate from its
shoulder. The fall had caused the delicate wing bone to snap.
This creature would never fly again. I looked around, scanning
the desert behind us. Our enemies, I was certain, were closing
in on us even now. Ahead of us was the dubious safety of a dead city.
I stiffened with resolve. There was no time to lose.
“I’m sorry,” I said to the creature, leveling my pistol at its
“Stop!” It cried. “I want to live, you have
no right to kill me. Is this how you reward me for risking my life
for yours, foul friend!”
“Don’t,” Azara cried, shoving my pistol away.
“We’ve no time,” I told her. “Whoever shot at us is coming.”
“We flew fast,” she said, “faster than any Thoat could ride.
We’ve got time.”
“Unless there were more of them,” I responded, “unless they have
a flyer of their own.”
“Then,” her face hardened, “you’ll kill them, it’s what you do.
But you’ll not kill this one who has suffered to help us.”
I grunted with frustration.
“He’s going to die anyway,” I complained. “At least
this is quick.”
“You have no right,” the bird panted. “I don’t want
it quick. I want to live, even if only for a little longer.
Damn you, I wish I’d never laid eyes on you. Shame on you for
mistreating me so.”
“He’s with us,” Azara told me, “we live and die together, we shall
not surrender one of our own. He has a chance, his tissues
were cultured by Pew Mogel himself, he can survive this wound, he can heal.”
She flexed her almost completely regenerated hand at me.
Together, we got the crippled bird to its feet, and the three
of us stumbled towards the fallen gates of the ancient nameless city.
I kept my pistol close, always at the ready, constantly sweeping the horizons
for our assailants.
But none appeared. We made it within the city without
incident, stumbling through rubble and weed strewn streets, we took shelter
in a solitary building at the end of an alley. Its doors had
rotted away long ago, but the ramps to the upper floors were part of the
stonework. We fled upwards, finally lodging ourselves in a
corner of the third floor.
I leaned against a wall panting with the exertion.
The bird was almost as large as a Thoat, although immeasurably lighter,
helping to support it had been a brutal trial. I sucked air,
trying to recuperate. Out a window, I could see our tracks
in the sand and trace the way we came. From this elevation, I could
see beyond the city to where our pursuers must be come from.
Nothing. I shifted my gaze to the ramp.
As the adrenalin surges of panic and exertion faded, I was left
with only meticulous coldness. Out there in the city, I heard
their calls. I cast my mind back to our desperate stumble through
the city streets, their traces were clear.
And we’d given them a blood trail straight to us.
I let my short sword fall into my left hand, as I cradled my pistol.
No need to worry about those who’d shot us down. They’d
never find us.
Abruptly, it occurred to me that once a long time ago, I had come
to a place very much like us. My life, with all its madness
and rage, for all my battles and campaigns, had simply turned a great circle.
It had all been for nothing, the desperate, ceaseless run of years.
I had simply come round to the beginning, returned to the place I should
I began to laugh, a strange and raucous sound.
Azara turned to me, leaving off her attempt to dress the great
bird’s wounds. Perhaps I could hide her from them?
Perhaps they’d leave her alone? If I believed in any god, I
might have prayed.
“Something is wrong,” she said.
I laughed again.
“No,” I said nonsensically, “no one thing.”
Outside, there came the hunting bellow of the Great White Apes.
“They’ve found the trail,” I said. “They’ll be coming
Outside the window, we could hear other voices adding themselves
to the hunting cry.
I pushed myself to my feet, still panting, the pistol ready in
one hand, my sword in the other. Down below, the others could
not hear, but I sensed movement. They were almost upon us.
The circle was almost closed.
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