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Volume 1622
Jeff Long

Chapter Four: Princes of Mars ~ words by Jeff, art by Duane 

Night was about to fall when we entered the incubator. When I opened my eyes, thoroughly refreshed, I saw through the glass roof that the sun was high in the morning sky. I could hear no sound from without our sanctuary. Touching Thuvan Dihn's arm, I rose to my feet. He stirred, following as I cautiously stepped through the door.
There wasn't a living green man or woman in sight. The mangled bodies were heaped in piles about the trackless sea bottom. Already, scavengers were prowling amongst the feast of dead flesh.

"The green ones make the red man's attempts at warfare seem like child's play," commented the Prince of Ptarth. "Barsoom will soon be rid of their savage kind, without any help from us."

Seeing the evidence all about me, I had to agree.

"The only good savage is a dead savage," he said. "There are many good savages about today."

"Can you walk?" I asked.

"What choice have I?" Thuvan Dihn answered.

A horrid scream from the pit stopped us cold.

Peering over the side, I saw that one of the hatchlings had survived the blades of Thuvan Dihn and I. The creature lay gasping amongst its brothers, half-dead yet still deadly. Portions of snowy-white shell clung to its green hide, and I wondered if it had been one of the eggs thrown into the pit, now hatched.

It scrambled and clawed from beneath a mound of torn bodies -- a pitiful, haunting sight. Once free, it hobbled for a moment, as if dazed, and then rushed headlong into the wall.

Again and again it charged, screaming like the grinding of mishappen gears; some mindless machine, berserk with rage, fear or both. The thing had no conception of where or what it was. And it had no enemy to fight.

Thuvan Dihn pulled away, but I lingered, unable to take my eyes from the horrible scene. The hatchling was badly wounded. Deep brusies mottled the green hide, which was spotted with blood and mucous.

It sank to the ground, utterly spent, closing its eyes. Flaring nostrils quivered as the creature panted uncontrollably. Cup-like antennae lolled back and forth. Miniature tusks were flecked with white foam.

Shaking off Thuvan Dihn's attempt to stop me, I descended into the pit.

At first, it had been my intention to put the suffering hatchling out of its misery. Had one of its savage sires witnessed the scene, no doubt the humorous anecdote would have been told 'round campfires for days to come. But I, who had unwillingly contributed to the sad creature's plight, could only be sickened.

When I reached the hatchling's side, my heart changed. I called to Thuvan Dihn to bring water, and nutrients from the incubator. Though I carefully cleansed its wounds with the medicinal balms I carried, I knew the task was probably for naught. There was little hope it could live.

But it did.

"Are you going to carry it with you all the way to Helium?" asked Thuvan Dihn, when we'd clambored from the pit. "Because it is young, does not mean that it is innocent."

"We'll leave it here, in the incubator," I replied. "Perhaps one of its people survived, and will return."

"Better to dash its head against the wall and be done with it," Thuvan Dihn said. "The creature will die, anyway, Tardos Mors."

I would not allow the murder. After setting it near water and food, we turned our attention to the trek ahead.

I was only vaguely familiar with this hemisphere of Barsoom. But I knew that our likeliest hope of finding transportation was in Tonool, which my recollection told me lay somewhere to the northeast. "Likely" is a relative term, however — the green hordes had no fliers; Tonool did. But both would be enemies of Tardos Mors and Thuvan Dihn. We would be strangers in a strange land, and all such are suspect upon Barsoom.

"Panthans?" asked Thuvan Dihn, smiling.

"Have you played the role before?" I returned.

"Who hasn't?"

I have often wondered how true panthans ever find work, since that disguise had been used by most wanderers at one time or another — and usually with ulterior motive. But we had no better plan, and so set off in the direction we thought Tonool to lie, entering an area of Barsoom that was quite different from any terrain I knew in my own hemisphere of the planet. The River Iss and its tributaries fed vast areas here, making possible the Great Tonoolian Marsh and the famed Kaolian Forest.

In midafternoon, Thuvan Dihn bid me look behind us.

Following doggedly along our trail was the green hatchling.

"That killer wants our blood," the Prince of Ptarth said, chuckling.

The name stuck. The Killer followed us the rest of the day, making no attack. He seemed curious -- an odd thing for the spawn of a green man.

Eventually, The Killer traveled alongside us.

Well, what of it? Neither Thuvan Dihn nor I had any real idea where we were or where we were going. Perhaps the green child did, by virtue of some uncanny instinct. He was alone in the world, and, for the moment, so were the Prince of Ptarth and I.

The march was a sullen one at times, as we three unlikely companions made our way across an unfamiliar landscape.

I nursed a dull ache over the death of my elder brother. That I was now Jeddak-apparent of Helium made the hurt all the more unbearable, for I was far from home, and lost, while my empire was at war.

I'd have gladly traded the throne for my brother's life.

Thuvan Dihn kept whatever thoughts he was thinking to himself, which suited my mood.

As for The Killer -- I couldn't be sure he even possessed the ability to think.

Hatred is not a thing the warriors of Helium feel for their enemies. I couldn't hate Thuvan Dihn, or his people, any more than I could call him friend; and that I'd no more do than I would peacefully lay my hand upon the shoulder The Killer after he'd grown to savage adulthood.

But even the green men, we do not hate. For the loveless barbarians we reserve our deepest pity.

Thuvan Dihn was my enemy. No more, no less. If it had occurred to me to ask him, he'd have said the same of me.

It's true that when one discovered a few precious drops of water to drink, or a desert lizard to eat, he shared it with the other. I also shared my medicinal balms with Thuvan Dihn, to speed the healing of the grievous wounds that the green hatchlings had dealt him. Once, he saved me from the charge of a banth, stepping with upraised sword between my turned back and the snarling beast.

The Killer stayed with us, and we made no effort to dissuade him. He hunted alone, however -- a manifestation of the trait that marks all of his breed. Despite their communal lifestyle, the green men endure a uniquely solitary existence.

Upon the third day of our march, Thuvan Dihn and I found a sompus grove on the outskirts of the Great Marsh. Since it provided more water and food then any we'd encountered thus far, the Prince of Ptarth and I decided to make camp for a day or two before continuing. I judged there to be a half-zode of daylight left when we paused for our rest.

Thuvan Dihn sat rubbing the last of my balm upon his shoulder. I tended the fire we'd made to roast an ulsio discovered earlier in the day. Scarcely a dozen words had passed between us during the entire march.

"There may yet be Warhoon savages nearby," Thuvan Dihn said, casting about the camp with suspicious eyes.

"What were they doing so far from their normal haunts?" I asked. "Do you know, Thuvan Dihn?"

He nodded, vaguely.

"Searching for an escaped slave," he said.

It seemed odd to both of us that the Warhoons would devote so much energy to the recapture of a single slave.

"From snatches of conversation I heard, this slave was valuable indeed," the Prince of Ptarth said. "They called it a wraith — supposedly possessing uncanny, supernatural powers. Scouting parties were combing the sea bottoms in all directions for the thing. I never understood if it was supposed to be human or green savage, or possibly some other strange beast. But the Warhoon jed was quite anxious to recapture it."

We fell silent for a time, slicing charred pieces of meat. The Killer stalked some small game just outside the perimeter of the glade.

Thuvan Dihn's next words were as much to himself as me.

"The war with Helium has left Ptarth severely weakened," he said.

"As it has my own father's empire," I commented, cautiously.

Some wars make nations strong, especially those that are fought for an honorable cause. Others tended to suffocate, as did the years-long struggle with Ptarth, the reasons for which had become obscure in the minds of both people.

"The entire resources of a prosperous nation have been poured, year after year, into that winless conflict," Thuvan Dihn continued. "Ptarth found itself in the throes of a gripping recession. The economy was in upheaval. A year ago, many of her citizens began grumbling openly. Food stores had been depleted by the needs of a vast army. Just maintaining the supply lines to feed that army on a distant front had taxed our resources to the limit. While there was still a strong core of support for my father, Nal Thuvio, there was also growing opposition — fostered by the Jeddak's own brother, my uncle, Dihntar Mas."

Thuvan Dihn paused, turning the ulsio with a stick. I was struck by how deeply the war had undermined Ptarth, bringing her to the brink of civil unrest — which occurs often enough upon Barsoom, but usually among nations of far less stability than Ptarth, whose ancient royal lineage is almost as old as Helium's.

My father's empire had suffered the privations any war brings. But, as always, we had borne the burdens well. Victory we could not claim. But neither had defeat claimed us. In that sense, the Empire had prevailed.

"Then came the attempted Liberation of Flemster," Thuvan Dihn remarked.

"The Seige of Flemster, you mean," I said, anger rising within me. For centuries, Flemster been a loyal city of the Heliumetic Empire. That it had once been a distant Ptarthian outpost was little more than a footenote to history.

"By whatever name it is called, the battle there was a turning point for Ptarth," Thuvan Dihn said.

For Helium, too, I thought. My brother died there. And so did I, in a way.

"Resources were strained to the breaking point, and outright Civil War was imminent in Ptarth," the prince continued. "As Nal Thuvio eloquently put his case before the Senate, I took the Jeddak's cause directly to the people in an appeal for unity. When we least expected it, Dihntar Mas struck. An assassin's blade cut short my father's reign. He died in my arms as the torch was set to the Ptarthian capital. When Dihntar Mas took the crown, I escaped -- vowing to return and claim my rightful place upon the throne."

He sighed.

"All Ptarth thinks me dead. I should have remained to face certain excecution at the hands of the usurper," Thuvan Dihn said. "The captain of a warship will leap from the bow of his lost command to satisfy honor. The ruler of a lost empire can do no less."

A pained look overcame Thuvan Dihn, and I was struck by the image his face conjured in my mind: Moros Tar, that day in the Temple of Reward.

"What happened next?" I asked, to break the illusion.

"The Warhoons captured me," he said. "I cannot imagine what has befallen my beloved Ptarth in the weeks since."

"Weeks!" I ejaculated. "But the flagship of the Ptarthian fleet east of Helium bore your device! That was days ago -- not weeks."

"If a Ptarthian ship bore my device, it did so without the Prince of Ptarth aboard her," said Thuvan Dihn. "Do you you believe me, Tardos Mors?"

I contemplated the fire without answering.

Nothing made sense.

Thuvan Dihn's story made me wonder for the hundredth time what had transpired in Helium since my departure. Moros Tar was well upon the Pilgrimage by now, perhaps bowing to Issus herself. My Empire had no ruler upon the throne; and that of Thuvan Dihn was occupied by a pretender.

"What started the war?" Thuvan Dihn asked.

"I know not," I said. "Does it matter any more?"

"I have been thinking about that often these past weeks," the Prince of Ptarth slowly mused. "I think it does matter, Tardos Mors. I believe the war was orchestrated by forces outside either Ptarth or Helium."

It was a shocking suggestion, nearly outrageous. But the more I thought on it, the less outrageous it seemed.

"The Seige of Flemster was ordered, and directly overseen, by none less than your own sire," I reminded Thuvan Dihn.

The Prince of Ptarth shook his head. "The Heliumetic fleet build-up at Flemster was reason enough to prompt Nal Thuvio's quick action," he said.

"What fleet?" I demanded. "No build-up took place before the seige."

A sudden snarl from the brush signified that The Killer had lived up to his name. Thuvan Dihn and I turned in the direction of the sound, momentarily distracted. Whatever answer was upon Thuvan Dihn's lips never came.

A great buzzing, as if produced by the propellers of a thousand fliers, became overpoweringly loud. For the past several xats I had been conscious of the far-off noise. But now it had grown to such proportions to be impossible to ignore.

A flash of yellow and black swooped down upon our camp. And then another, and another. The hum had grown to an unbearable roar all about us.

"Siths!" shouted Thuvan Dihn. "If you value your life, Tardos Mors, take cover beneath the trees!"

Chapter Five: Girl of the Woods ~ words by Jeff, art by Duane 

The warning came too late.

I was sent sprawling to the soft sward by what felt like a small flier crashing into my back. I rolled instinctively to fend off the airborne attacker. What I saw sent a shudder down my aching spine.

A sith hovered above me, its bulbous body held impossibly aloft by tiny, whirring wings of gossamer. It had not struck with its powerful stinger, else I'd have been dead. More likely, I had simply been an obstacle in its path, and the thing crashed into me with its hideous head. It floated there, shaking that head as if to clear it, and then darted upward and was gone.

John Carter has told me the closest earthly equivalent to this Barsoomian creature is miniscule: no larger than a man's thumb. "Hornet," he called it. Imagine, if you can, a hornet grown to the size of yonder writing desk, with ferocious jaws and myriad facet eyes that cover three-quarters of its head. And behind is the poisonous stinger, powerful enough to impale a thoat. Bloodthirsty things, these siths were in days gone by. I knew of entire cities that had been laid to waste by sith swarms.

Now, I was at the center of one such swarm. There were hundreds of the flying beasts; dodging amongst the trees and about the small clearing. The roar of their madly buzzing wings was overpowering. Their jaws opened and shut incessantly, with an unnerving click-click-click.

I saw no sign of Thuvan Dihn. Perhaps he'd made it to safety beneath a tree. Or, more probably, he'd been carried off to his doom. The sky was black, a plague of the ungodly huge insects. I held out little hope that my companion could have survived the assault; nor did I delude myself about my own fate.

The last I saw of The Killer, he was clinging to the monstrous head of a sith, tusks gouging the bloody mass as the beast ascended higher and higher above the trees.

I drew my sword and managed to stumble to my feet — only to be nearly beheaded by another flashing monster.

But as I spun to the side, I saw it was no sith that had shot past my head. It was a man, on some strangely designed flier. The sleek machine tore past so quickly that I caught barely a glimpse of it. Then it was gone, in hot pursuit of a fleeing sith that had raced between the boles of two trees at the other end of the clearing.

More of the flying machines were engaged in battle with the swarm. The armor-clad riders straddled their narrow craft like they would a thoat, bent forward against the wind as they grasped the low-slung handlebars with which they apparently controlled the odd fliers. As others darted into the clearing, I saw that from the prow of the vehicles protuded 10-foot lances, which could be extended or retracted at the will of the operator. The fliers maneuvered uncannily among the trees, and, diving upon their prey, extended a poison-tipped lance and drove it unmercifully into flesh. For a moment, the machine would be wrenched violently as the dying beast shuddered in its death throes. Then the operator would retract the lance and be off in pursuit of another sith — that is, if he hadn't been thrown from his mount by the initial jolt.

The fliers were also equipped with radium rifles. Exploding pellets peppered the clearing. Here, a tree would burst into flame. There, a crater would be exposed in a shower of soil.

I dove for cover.

The guns seemed not as accurate against the siths as the lances, which I later learned were dipped in the sith’s own poison; the only concoction deadly enough to be effective against the beasts. It was these that the flying hunters used most often to devastating effect.

Nor were the siths ineffective against their attackers. I saw one of the beasts dive unerringly upon a hapless hunter, driving its stinger through his armored back so that it protuded from a lifeless chest. Lifting the body from the flier, the sith rose above the trees and was gone. The riderless flier crashed into a tree and exploded.

I had little time to observe the unusual tactics of this strange battle, for I was occupied with battles of my own. I'd never before fought a sith, but it soon became apparent that disabling the stinger was the first rule of such combat. As one of the beasts dove toward me, its midsection bent forward so that the deadly organ was poised to strike, I swung a mighty cut and managed to sever the menace near its base.

The creature screamed in rage and pain, but did not appear mortally wounded. It altered its course, looping above me. Then it bolted downward again, clutching my shoulders in pawlike appendages on a pair of its legs. I was lofted high above the glade, dangling helplessly in the clutches of the fearsome beast. It pummeled my body with the stump where its stinger had been; I was like to have been turned to jelly by the merciless pounding if it continued for much longer.

The ride itself was a dizzying, stomach-churning spectacle, as we darted amongst the trees and raced crazily this way and that. At one point, a flying warrior charged my sith, intent on lancing it. I think it mattered little to him that I was wriggling in the creature's grasp. The warrior must have given me up for dead -- or else he just didn't care, figuring my own death a fair price if the world was rid of one more sith. It seemed, to me, a rather high price for another to pay.

But a sideways dash by the monster sent the warrior crashing into the trunk of a mighty tree.

Then the beast darted upward, carrying me off to some fate I could not imagine. We were airborne for at least a zode.

The blows from the stump became less frequent. I let my body go limp in the beast's grasp, to make it believe I had succumbed to its attack. Then the beating stopped and we began to sink lower in the thin air.

It was becoming obvious that the sith was badly wounded, either from my own blows or as a result of its battle with the strange fliers. By its haphazard pattern, I guessed that the creature was off its course -- lost.

Eventually, the sith faltered, swooping ever lower to the ground. We were entering a jungle-like area that could only be the Great Toonolian Marsh.

With a heaving convulsion, the sith crashed down through the thick foliage. I leapt clear of its body, and turned hastily to defend myself against its death throes. But the beast was no more. I turned away from it, and decided to continue on, alone, toward Toonol — wherever that might be.

Neither Thuria nor Cluros had yet risen, though I knew they both would ere many more xats passed. For now, the forest was blanketed in Koradian darkness. Monstrous shapes grew all around me in this dismal wood. The dank smell of rotting vegetation permeated everything.

As I clawed my way through the clinging undergrowth, cutting a path through the hanging vines with upraised sword, a rythmic sound, from afar, came softly to my ears. At first, it was barely audible above the buzzing insects, hissing serpents and roaring night-carnivores that surrounded me — whose constant din I had become accustomed to as I slashed my way through blackness.

But this new sound was like none other I'd heard in the Great Marsh, for it was unmistakably produced by a human; as weird and otherworldy as the sound itself was to my ears, my intellect told me no savage beast could make it. There was a cadence to the sound; a beat that suggested purpose, and hypnotic in its way. Its faint, yet steady tone in that eerily black night might have unnerved me, had I been other than a prince of Helium. Even so, I lent more caution to my advance through the wood, straining every sense forward in an attempt to discern the sound's exact location.

Soon, a dull glow became apparent in the distance, as if cast by a campfire. And to the beating-drum sound was added a sing- song chant, mournful and primitive — a single voice, that of a woman. It spoke to a primal instinct inside me; I felt stirrings that reached back into my being to ancestors who danced by firelight, naked and painted, when the world was young — before the Orovars; perhaps in the shadow of the Tree of Life itself.

I crept forward through that black wood, expecting nothing because my mind could conjure no possible scene to accompany that alluring, yet somehow disturbing sound. As I drew closer, ever silent, the firelight cast weird and flickering shadows upon the trees all about me. The growls and moans of predators seemed to have subsided, and the chant grew more pressing in my ears.

Silently pulling back a rotted branch, I saw an open glade, bathed in the glow of a roaring fire at its center. Around the fire danced a naked red girl, as beautiful as any I'd ever laid eyes upon. And yet, she was strange to my eyes. Her jet-black hair was straight as the edge of a sword — unlike the flowing, soft curls of other red women — and tied back by a leather strip across her brow. She wore knee-high boots, made of the same material. Attached to a single thong about her slim waist was a small pouch, covered in beads which were arranged in a mysterious pattern. As she chanted her mournful song, the girl tapped softly on the hide of a banth, stretched taughtly upon a wooden hoop.

But her dance! That was the strangest aspect of the bizzare scene. She leaped high into the air with every bound, twenty feet or more, landing gracefully in the soft soil of the marsh. Again and again she made the great leaps, gently keeping time upon the primitive drum and by the unintelligible words of her song.

I crouched, spellbound, behind the trees. I had never seen the like of it. The twin moons of Barsoom rose now, casting their light upon the spectacle. The girl's leaps grew even greater, and she shuddered in a kind of ecstasy that seemed almost religious.

I had little time to marvel. From the brush at the opposite end of the glade, three towering green men rushed upon the tableau as the girl was at the apex of one of her mighty bounds. She saw them from the height of her leap and, dropping the drum, withdrew a slim dagger from the thong at her hip. She landed full on the chest of the leader, plunging her blade deep into his eye.

By the next moment, I, too, had leaped into the clearing with drawn sword.

Chapter Six: Being Human ~ words by Jeff, art by Duane and David 

I was upon the closest savage ere he knew I was within a haad of him. Retracting my stout Barsoomian blade from his belly, I spun on the second, who was attempting to pull the girl from his companion.

But the fellow may as well have tried to deflect a feeding banth from its prey, for the girl clung to her victim with all the tenacity of a predator. Her knife plunged again and again into the bloody mass that had been a head. The green man crumpled to the turf, the girl still on top of him.

That gave me all the opening I required to dispatch the other, after a brief crossing of swords.

I approached the naked woman with a friendly smile of greeting upon my lips. But I stopped short when she dropped to one knee and, with a quick cut, sliced the scalp from the head of her victim. When she looked up from the mutilated body, the expression upon her face was one of utter shock at the sight of me. It was as if she had seen a ghost. But the reaction was quickly shunted away, and she leaped to her feet, facing me with outstretched blade in one hand and the dripping green scalp in the other.

I raised a hand, to calm her. Then, slowly, I unbuckled my sword and tossed it softly at her feet. She never took her eyes from my own, ignoring the gesture.

Still watching me, she fastened the scalp to the thong at her hip. Blood trickled down her bare thigh.

"I am a friend," I said, pointing to the two savages I had killed in her service.

She snarled, flashing white teeth.

"I have no friends in this strange land that is so far from The World," she said, in an accent that was tinged with the voice of the green men. There was something else, something undefinable and utterly foreign in her quiet tones. I'd never heard an inflection quite like hers before.

"You do have a friend here," I said. "I, too, am far from home. Allow me the honor of serving you."

She looked intently at me, searching my face. I could see the hesitation, the caution, that consumed her. Her knife remained pointed at my breast.

"You almost look like a Human Being," she said at last. "And are no Human Being. Your skin has not quite the same hue, and your eyes seem distant — as do the pindah of all who dwell here. There are no Human Beings in this place. Only the Green Ones. They are even worse than the Men With Metal Heads."

As she crept backward, I assured her that I was quite human, which seemed an odd thing to have to do. As odd as the thought of a man with a metal head.

"What tribe?" she demanded. “You are not Be-don-ko-he or Cho-kon-en or Ned-ni You bear weapons similar to those of the Men With Metal Heads. And yet, you are not one of them, either.”

Her eyes pierced me, then. Her brow furrowed.

“What manner of man are you?” the girl asked.

“I am a Prince of Helium,” I replied.

Surely, anywhere upon Barsoom, that revelation would draw some response. But she gave no sign that it meant anything at all to her.

The girl stood there, more beautiful than any creature under the moons of Mars; and seemingly as savage as the savages who inhabit the sea bottoms. She cast a sly glance at the dead green men.

Then she turned, banth-like, and leaped into the woods with scarce a sound.

I hesitated a fraction of an instant, pausing only to retrieve my sword, then plunged into the darkness after her. It wasn’t just the fascination she held that drew me, but the suspicion that she may have information that could lead me home, to Helium. If nothing else, she might know a safe path out of this damnable wood.

I’d have sworn on my brother’s grave that I knew exactly the point at which she entered the jungle vegetation. The vines and creepers encircled the glade so thickly that I should have had little trouble picking up her trail. But search as I might, it was as if no one had passed this way in a year — much less a few moments before.

I found where the green men had been hiding prior to their attack on the girl. Their spoor was unmistakable by the light of Thuria and Cluros. Of the girl herself I could find no trace.

Nevertheless, I pushed forward in the general direction I knew she must have taken. If this was the “wraith” that Thuvan Dihn had said the Warhoons were seeking, perhaps she did have some mystical ability to conceal her whereabouts. Nor could I forget her uncanny leaps.

She had accused me of not being human. I began to wonder if it was she who was not of this world.

The girl certainly held a spell over me.

Though both of Barsoom’s moons were in the sky, their light barely penetrated the thick canopy above me. Strange creatures moved in this primeval forest. I could hear their breathing, and the brush of tawny limbs on bushes to left and right.

A scream rang out from directly ahead. There could be little doubt it was the girl. I practically threw myself forward in an effort to reach her side.

As I broke into another small glade, I saw her slender form in the grip of what I first took to be some gigantic carnivore that stood upright, clutching her in what appeared to be billowing arms.

I soon realized, however, that I was mistaken about the nature of her attacker. It was no creature of flesh and blood; rather, a sinuous man-eating plant that held her. Razor-like thorns reached toward her from a gaping maw at the top of a thick stalk. The girl struggled, but in vain.

I hastily swung at the carnivorous thing, hacking through woody limbs and pulpy vines that spewed syrupy liquid with every blow. A needle-like thistle pricked the girl in the chest, and she screamed again. As I continued my attack, the plant shuddered, its grip loosening. The girl was thrown clear. She reeled backward, and crumpled to the ground.

The plant, which seemed to come alive during my encounter with it, was now inert. It appeared as motionless as any tree. I knew not whether I had injured it, somehow, or if this was its natural state, to lure unsuspecting prey. With the girl free from its menace, I gave it no more thought.

I rushed to her side. Her wounds did not appear mortal. There was a nasty welt where the thistle had stuck her. I did my best to cleanse her wounds with a cloth, though I had no water to do a proper job. My medicinal balms were gone.

Her eyelids fluttered open, and she looked up at me. The suspicion had begun to leave her, though I could see it still flitted below the surface.

“Maybe you are a Human Being,” she said weakly. “You fight like one.”

A soft, feminine smile disarmed me as I stooped to assist the girl to her feet.

"My Tats-ah-das-ay-go," she whispered, caressing my cheek. She seemed almost to pur, like a contented banth-cub. The sound intoxicated me.

That's when she slipped the dagger between my ribs.

I never did understand women.

Chapter Seven: Klego-na-ay's Crazy Cousins ~ words by Jeff, art by David 

The sun shone brightly through the foliage overhead. My body ached.

The girl was gone.

Standing over me was a man -- at least, I first took him to be a man. He was entirely naked, his body smeared with thoat fat. A tangled mass of hair topped an angular head. He spat upon me, then began to sing; it was meaningless gibber.

It was then that I saw he had long, powerful legs, the knees of which were flexed, as if he was ready to spring at a moment's notice. An ample tail provide support for his tilted posture.

I attempted to rise, but the wound in my chest permitted little motion. I sank back, in agony. I could tell, however, that I suffered no fatal wound. I would recover, in time.

For now, I was simply at the mercy of this odd creature.

"Who are you?" I asked, wondering if it had speech.

The lunatic cackled insanely.

"I am Tur!" he shouted, then began hopping about on those mighty legs. Did every creature in this forest sak so prodigiously?

Ripping a branch from a tree, he dealt me a terrific blow to the head.

"Tur the Malevolent!" he screamed, and struck again.

"Tur the Kind!" he added; another blow missed as I rolled to the left.

"Tur the Blasphemer!" That one got me in the neck.

"Tur is Tur is Tur!" he cried, underscoring each point with the thick of the branch.

I couldn't argue with his reasoning, though the blows he used for emphasis left me wanting.

A dozen fellows of similar appearance and disposition emerged from the woods and bundled me in heavy rope. They carted me off through the undergrowth, each arguing loudly that he, in fact, was Tur. At one point they dropped me and a general melee ensued, presumably to determine the true Tur.

After one man had been brained and another crippled, the matter still could not be settled.

But the lunatics eventually resumed their march. I was alternately dragged by my feet or hair, and sometimes carried aloft. We traveled some short distance to the shore of a lake. Entering a wooden boat, we crossed the short distance to an island, where there stood a village comprised of simple huts made from mud and straw.

At the center of the village I was subjected to the most minute of examinations by the inhabitants.

"Good cranial development," said one man, flatulating loudly as he quite somberly measured the circumference of my head.

They picked at my harness, and weapons, and hair. A haggard old woman pinched my nose.

One simpleton hefted my short-sword and proceeded to lop off his own toe. No one paid any attention to his screams, except a man who picked up the stub and flung it into the trees. A mangy calot, half-starved, bounded after the morsel.

They bustled me into a hut, heaving me to the ground. I lay there, testing the strength of the rope that bound me. I could not break free.

As my eyes became accustomed to the dim interior, I saw that I was not alone. The girl of the woods lay in a corner, similarly bound. I maneuvered close to her, and saw that she was barely conscious.

In fact, she was quite ill, drenched in sweat. She gasped for breath in quick gulps. An area of her chest was enflamed -- and I recalled the plant-creature's darting thistle.

"Poison," I thought.

Recognizing me, she made no effort to keep her distance. The ropes bound her quite as securely as I; she couldn't have moved far had she wanted to.

It was also clear that the sickness made her too miserable to care whether I was near.

"I know you think of me as an enemy," I said. "I assure you again that I am a friend. It matters not that you believe me. But know, red woman, that I will do whatever I can to make your lot easier. We will escape this asylum. Tardos Mors, Prince of Helium, swears it."

There was a weak sound in her throat. The girl burned with fever. I wasn't sure that she'd even heard my pledge.

As darkness fell upon the village, the howling of predators sounded all about us. A zitidar squeeled, quite distant and eerie. I thought that it had perhaps become mired in some marshy swamp of this evil wood.

The scream of a banth seemed close, though, which caused a commotion among our captors for a short time. One entered the hut and asked if it had been I that growled. I told him that it was my stomach.

"I am hungry," I said.

"Stop it immediately," ordered the lunatic. "Tur demands it."

I recognized him as the one who'd originally discovered me. He backed slowly from the hut, watching me warily.

The intervals of silence were as unnerving as the great roars of the night-stalkers. During those lulls, the lunatics wept and cried, shouted and sang, laughed and screamed in terror. The sounds within the village were more terrible than those without.

A fire was built in the village center. The light that reached us cast dancing shadows upon the walls of the hut.

My heart went out to the girl, who listened keenly to the macabre chorus when she wasn't in the clutches of delirium. I wrestled with guilt for being unable to comfort her in any way.

So what that she had tried to kill me? I was a prince of Helium, and this was a red girl -- alone, and feverish, in a land of enemies.

She strained a bit to reach the pouch at her side, but was unsuccessful. I crept closer, gently so as not to frighten her, and managed to work it free from its thong. I placed the pouch in her hand, which seemed to soothe her, somehow.

Rocking back and forth, she tossed puffs of white powder from the pouch toward north, south, east and west. In low tones she chanted strange words:

"Gun-ju-le, chil-jilt; si-chi-zi, gun-ju-le; inzayu, ijanale!"

She was quiet then, very still. After a time, I worried that she had succumbed. I leaned close. To my relief, her breathing seemed more regular, though shallow.

"I still live," she whispered.

Then she rested.

At some point during the night, Tur brought us water and a half-roasted piece of meat. He eyed me suspiciously, not without a little apprehension. We remained bound, however, and availing ourselves of the fare proved difficult. In my case, it must have proved comical. I heard the girl chuckle weakly as I attempted to drink from the roughly molded bowl, face down, lying in the dirt.

I smiled, exaggerating my efforts to drink. It was a spectacle quite unbecoming a prince. But if it helped ease her suffering, no matter how briefly, my coutiers in Helium, at least, would be none the wiser.

With dripping chin, I propped myself up against a wall.

"You spoke earlier in a tongue I did not understand," I said to the girl. "What did it mean?"

She looked at me as if I was some unfathomable creature, distant and unheard of. Then she shrugged, as if realizing something she had forgotten.

"I asked Night to be good to me," she said in a tone that sounded of resignation. "To not let me die."

I looked around, listening to the jungle sounds and the murmurings of the villagers outside our hut. It seemed they planned not to sleep at all. I wondered if it was because they were mad, or afraid.

Sometimes they banged drums and blew primitive horns, presumably to keep the beasts at bay -- and I realized that fear alone kept them alert.

They, too, were asking the night to protect them.

"Your prayer must have been answered," I said. "You will not die."

"Perhaps. But I am still weak. Raven is not afraid of Night."

The comment made little more sense than the actions of our captors.

"Are your people near?" I asked.

She was quiet a long time.

"No," she finally said.

"Where are they?" I pressed.

"I often ask that question of Kliji-litzogue, the yellow lizard," said the girl.

"Yellow lizard?" Her words were beyond comprehension.

"My Spirit Guide," she answered, without answering. "Kliji- Litzogue says I am no longer in The World, that Usen, or perhaps an enemy of Usen, has sent me to one of the points of light in the sky. How this can be, Kliji-Litzogue will not say. He does say it will take much medicine for me ever to return to The World. But there are no izze-nantan here with the Power needed for the proper medicine. So how can it ever be made?"

She looked at me as if expecting an explanation. Of course, I had none.

“I have begun to collect the ingredients,” she said, nodding to the scalp of the green man she'd killed. “But I am an izze-nantan with the Power of Water -- not Direction. I am lost. A Human Being -- and lost!"

She eyed me carefully, and a thought seemed to strike her. Eagerness welled within her. Hope reached out to me.

"Are you an izze-nantan?" she asked. "Do the Directions listen to you? Perhaps you know of The World. In which Direction does it now make its home?”

"I know not what an 'izze-nantan' might be," I answered slowly. "But there are many worlds. I have seen them myself through the astronomers' instruments in my father's palace. Barsoom is but one. If you are from one of these, which is it?"

She shrugged her shapely shoulders, as if my question had no meaning. A spasm of coughing wracked her body before she could answer.

"The World is the land of my ancestors, and all their ancestors before them," she said, peaceful now. "The World is where Chigo-na-ay beats his merciless rays upon a scorched waste of sand, and yet which is more beautiful than words can describe, for all its emptiness. The World stretches from the cool rivers and snowy frost of the north, where majestic mountains touch the face of Yandestan, to endless plains and hot desert in the south, and encompasses all that is sacred in Usen's universe. It is the land of the Shis-Inday; the Human Beings, the Men of the Woods. It is my home and the home of my mother, Light-in-Eyes, and my father, Yellow Bear. It is the home that I know I shall never see again, and for which I weep every night beneath the eyes of Klego-na-ay's crazy cousins."

Somehow, I knew that she meant Thuria and Cluros -- the "cousins" of "Klego-na-ay." Poets have sometimes called those orbs of the night crazy. But never had their words imparted to me the ache that lived in the heart of this lone girl.

I moved closer.

“I am Tardos Mors, son of Moros Tar,” I said gently. “By what name do Yellow Bear and Light-in-Eyes call you?”

Her shoulders sank, and she strained against her bonds to move imperceptably nearer me. She looked to the scar that her knife had carved in my chest, and turned away. Had my arm been free, I'd have slipped it about her.

“The Green Ones called me Shis-Inday,” she said. “It is the name of my people, in The World. That name will serve as well as any other; for I am the only Human Being in this place.”

by Jeff Long

ERBzine 1620
Intro & Contents
ERBzine 1621
Section 1
ERBzine 1622
Section 2
ERBzine 1623
Section 3
ERBzine 1624
Section 4
ERBzine 1625
Section 5

Jeff Long's Barsoomian Blade & Panthan Press Features in ERBzine
Blade 1 | Blade 2 | Blade 3 | Blade 4 | Blade 5 | Blade Fiction 1 | Fiction 2 | Fiction 3 | Fiction 4
Princess of Jasoom | Princess 1 | Princess 2 | Princess 3 | Princess 4 | Princess 5 |

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