Two hours after leaving my palace at Helium, or about midnight, Kantos Kan, Xodar, and I arrived at Hastor. Carthoris, Tars Tarkas, and Hor Vastus ha_one directly to Thark upon another cruiser.
The transports were to get under way immediately and move slowly south. Th_leet of battleships would overtake them on the morning of the second day.
At Hastor we found all in readiness, and so perfectly had Kantos Kan planne_very detail of the campaign that within ten minutes of our arrival the firs_f the fleet had soared aloft from its dock, and thereafter, at the rate o_ne a second, the great ships floated gracefully out into the night to form _ong, thin line which stretched for miles toward the south.
It was not until after we had entered the cabin of Kantos Kan that I though_o ask the date, for up to now I was not positive how long I had lain in th_its of Zat Arras. When Kantos Kan told me, I realized with a pang of disma_hat I had misreckoned the time while I lay in the utter darkness of my cell.
Three hundred and sixty-five days had passed—it was too late to save Deja_horis.
The expedition was no longer one of rescue but of revenge. I did not remin_antos Kan of the terrible fact that ere we could hope to enter the Temple o_ssus, the Princess of Helium would be no more. In so far as I knew she migh_e already dead, for I did not know the exact date on which she first viewe_ssus.
What now the value of burdening my friends with my added personal sorrows—the_ad shared quite enough of them with me in the past. Hereafter I would keep m_rief to myself, and so I said nothing to any other of the fact that we wer_oo late. The expedition could yet do much if it could but teach the people o_arsoom the facts of the cruel deception that had been worked upon them fo_ountless ages, and thus save thousands each year from the horrid fate tha_waited them at the conclusion of the voluntary pilgrimage.
If it could open to the red men the fair Valley Dor it would have accomplishe_uch, and in the Land of Lost Souls between the Mountains of Otz and the ic_arrier were many broad acres that needed no irrigation to bear rich harvests.
Here at the bottom of a dying world was the only naturally productive are_pon its surface. Here alone were dews and rains, here alone was an open sea, here was water in plenty; and all this was but the stamping ground of fierc_rutes and from its beauteous and fertile expanse the wicked remnants of tw_nce mighty races barred all the other millions of Barsoom. Could I bu_ucceed in once breaking down the barrier of religious superstition which ha_ept the red races from this El Dorado it would be a fitting memorial to th_mmortal virtues of my Princess—I should have again served Barsoom and Deja_horis' martyrdom would not have been in vain.
On the morning of the second day we raised the great fleet of transports an_heir consorts at the first flood of dawn, and soon were near enough t_xchange signals. I may mention here that radio-aerograms are seldom if eve_sed in war time, or for the transmission of secret dispatches at any time, for as often as one nation discovers a new cipher, or invents a new instrumen_or wireless purposes its neighbours bend every effort until they are able t_ntercept and translate the messages. For so long a time has this gone on tha_ractically every possibility of wireless communication has been exhausted an_o nation dares transmit dispatches of importance in this way.
Tars Tarkas reported all well with the transports. The battleships passe_hrough to take an advanced position, and the combined fleets moved slowl_ver the ice cap, hugging the surface closely to prevent detection by th_herns whose land we were approaching.
Far in advance of all a thin line of one-man air scouts protected us fro_urprise, and on either side they flanked us, while a smaller number brough_p the rear some twenty miles behind the transports. In this formation we ha_rogressed toward the entrance to Omean for several hours when one of ou_couts returned from the front to report that the cone-like summit of th_ntrance was in sight. At almost the same instant another scout from the lef_lank came racing toward the flagship.
His very speed bespoke the importance of his information. Kantos Kan and _waited him upon the little forward deck which corresponds with the bridge o_arthly battleships. Scarcely had his tiny flier come to rest upon the broa_anding-deck of the flagship ere he was bounding up the stairway to the dec_here we stood.
"A great fleet of battleships south-south-east, my Prince," he cried. "Ther_ust be several thousands and they are bearing down directly upon us."
"The thern spies were not in the palace of John Carter for nothing," sai_antos Kan to me. "Your orders, Prince."
"Dispatch ten battleships to guard the entrance to Omean, with orders to le_o hostile enter or leave the shaft. That will bottle up the great fleet o_he First Born.
"Form the balance of the battleships into a great V with the apex pointin_irectly south-south-east. Order the transports, surrounded by their convoys, to follow closely in the wake of the battleships until the point of the V ha_ntered the enemies' line, then the V must open outward at the apex, th_attleships of each leg engage the enemy fiercely and drive him back to form _ane through his line into which the transports with their convoys must rac_t top speed that they may gain a position above the temples and gardens o_he therns.
"Here let them land and teach the Holy Therns such a lesson in ferociou_arfare as they will not forget for countless ages. It had not been m_ntention to be distracted from the main issue of the campaign, but we mus_ettle this attack with the therns once and for all, or there will be no peac_or us while our fleet remains near Dor, and our chances of ever returning t_he outer world will be greatly minimized."
Kantos Kan saluted and turned to deliver my instructions to his waiting aides.
In an incredibly short space of time the formation of the battleships change_n accordance with my commands, the ten that were to guard the way to Omea_ere speeding toward their destination, and the troopships and convoys wer_losing up in preparation for the spurt through the lane.
The order of full speed ahead was given, the fleet sprang through the air lik_oursing greyhounds, and in another moment the ships of the enemy were in ful_iew. They formed a ragged line as far as the eye could reach in eithe_irection and about three ships deep. So sudden was our onslaught that the_ad no time to prepare for it. It was as unexpected as lightning from a clea_ky.
Every phase of my plan worked splendidly. Our huge ships mowed their wa_ntirely through the line of thern battlecraft; then the V opened up and _road lane appeared through which the transports leaped toward the temples o_he therns which could now be plainly seen glistening in the sunlight. By th_ime the therns had rallied from the attack a hundred thousand green warrior_ere already pouring through their courts and gardens, while a hundred an_ifty thousand others leaned from low swinging transports to direct thei_lmost uncanny marksmanship upon the thern soldiery that manned the ramparts, or attempted to defend the temples.
Now the two great fleets closed in a titanic struggle far above the fiendis_in of battle in the gorgeous gardens of the therns. Slowly the two lines o_elium's battleships joined their ends, and then commenced the circling withi_he line of the enemy which is so marked a characteristic of Barsoomian nava_arfare.
Around and around in each other's tracks moved the ships under Kantos Kan, until at length they formed nearly a perfect circle. By this time they wer_oving at high speed so that they presented a difficult target for the enemy.
Broadside after broadside they delivered as each vessel came in line with th_hips of the therns. The latter attempted to rush in and break up th_ormation, but it was like stopping a buzz saw with the bare hand.
From my position on the deck beside Kantos Kan I saw ship after ship of th_nemy take the awful, sickening dive which proclaims its total destruction.
Slowly we manoeuvered our circle of death until we hung above the garden_here our green warriors were engaged. The order was passed down for them t_mbark. Then they rose slowly to a position within the centre of the circle.
In the meantime the therns' fire had practically ceased. They had had enoug_f us and were only too glad to let us go on our way in peace. But our escap_as not to be encompassed with such ease, for scarcely had we gotten under wa_nce more in the direction of the entrance to Omean than we saw far to th_orth a great black line topping the horizon. It could be nothing other than _leet of war.
Whose or whither bound, we could not even conjecture. When they had come clos_nough to make us out at all, Kantos Kan's operator received a radio-aerogram, which he immediately handed to my companion. He read the thing and handed i_o me.
"Kantos Kan:" it read. "Surrender, in the name of the Jeddak of Helium, fo_ou cannot escape," and it was signed, "Zat Arras."
The therns must have caught and translated the message almost as soon as di_e, for they immediately renewed hostilities when they realized that we wer_oon to be set upon by other enemies.
Before Zat Arras had approached near enough to fire a shot we were again hotl_ngaged with the thern fleet, and as soon as he drew near he too commenced t_our a terrific fusillade of heavy shot into us. Ship after ship reeled an_taggered into uselessness beneath the pitiless fire that we were undergoing.
The thing could not last much longer. I ordered the transports to descen_gain into the gardens of the therns.
"Wreak your vengeance to the utmost," was my message to the green allies, "fo_y night there will be none left to avenge your wrongs."
Presently I saw the ten battleships that had been ordered to hold the shaft o_mean. They were returning at full speed, firing their stern batteries almos_ontinuously. There could be but one explanation. They were being pursued b_nother hostile fleet. Well, the situation could be no worse. The expeditio_lready was doomed. No man that had embarked upon it would return across tha_reary ice cap. How I wished that I might face Zat Arras with my longsword fo_ust an instant before I died! It was he who had caused our failure.
As I watched the oncoming ten I saw their pursuers race swiftly into sight. I_as another great fleet; for a moment I could not believe my eyes, but finall_ was forced to admit that the most fatal calamity had overtaken th_xpedition, for the fleet I saw was none other than the fleet of the Firs_orn, that should have been safely bottled up in Omean. What a series o_isfortunes and disasters! What awful fate hovered over me, that I should hav_een so terribly thwarted at every angle of my search for my lost love! Coul_t be possible that the curse of Issus was upon me! That there was, indeed, some malign divinity in that hideous carcass! I would not believe it, and, throwing back my shoulders, I ran to the deck below to join my men i_epelling boarders from one of the thern craft that had grappled us broadside.
In the wild lust of hand-to-hand combat my old dauntless hopefulness returned.
And as thern after thern went down beneath my blade, I could almost feel tha_e should win success in the end, even from apparent failure.
My presence among the men so greatly inspirited them that they fell upon th_uckless whites with such terrible ferocity that within a few moments we ha_urned the tables upon them and a second later as we swarmed their own decks _ad the satisfaction of seeing their commander take the long leap from th_ows of his vessel in token of surrender and defeat.
Then I joined Kantos Kan. He had been watching what had taken place on th_eck below, and it seemed to have given him a new thought. Immediately h_assed an order to one of his officers, and presently the colours of th_rince of Helium broke from every point of the flagship. A great cheer aros_rom the men of our own ship, a cheer that was taken up by every other vesse_f our expedition as they in turn broke my colours from their upper works.
Then Kantos Kan sprang his coup. A signal legible to every sailor of all th_leets engaged in that fierce struggle was strung aloft upon the flagship.
"Men of Helium for the Prince of Helium against all his enemies," it read.
Presently my colours broke from one of Zat Arras' ships. Then from another an_nother. On some we could see fierce battles waging between the Zodanga_oldiery and the Heliumetic crews, but eventually the colours of the Prince o_elium floated above every ship that had followed Zat Arras upon ou_rail—only his flagship flew them not.
Zat Arras had brought five thousand ships. The sky was black with the thre_normous fleets. It was Helium against the field now, and the fight ha_ettled to countless individual duels. There could be little or n_anoeuvering of fleets in that crowded, fire-split sky.
Zat Arras' flagship was close to my own. I could see the thin features of th_an from where I stood. His Zodangan crew was pouring broadside afte_roadside into us and we were returning their fire with equal ferocity. Close_nd closer came the two vessels until but a few yards intervened. Grappler_nd boarders lined the contiguous rails of each. We were preparing for th_eath struggle with our hated enemy.
There was but a yard between the two mighty ships as the first grappling iron_ere hurled. I rushed to the deck to be with my men as they boarded. Just a_he vessels came together with a slight shock, I forced my way through th_ines and was the first to spring to the deck of Zat Arras' ship. After m_oured a yelling, cheering, cursing throng of Helium's best fighting-men.
Nothing could withstand them in the fever of battle lust which enthralle_hem.
Down went the Zodangans before that surging tide of war, and as my men cleare_he lower decks I sprang to the forward deck where stood Zat Arras.
"You are my prisoner, Zat Arras," I cried. "Yield and you shall have quarter."
For a moment I could not tell whether he contemplated acceding to my demand o_acing me with drawn sword. For an instant he stood hesitating, and the_hrowing down his arms he turned and rushed to the opposite side of the deck.
Before I could overtake him he had sprung to the rail and hurled himsel_eadforemost into the awful depths below.
And thus came Zat Arras, Jed of Zodanga, to his end.
On and on went that strange battle. The therns and blacks had not combine_gainst us. Wherever thern ship met ship of the First Born was a battle royal, and in this I thought I saw our salvation. Wherever messages could be passe_etween us that could not be intercepted by our enemies I passed the word tha_ll our vessels were to withdraw from the fight as rapidly as possible, takin_ position to the west and south of the combatants. I also sent an air scou_o the fighting green men in the gardens below to re-embark, and to th_ransports to join us.
My commanders were further instructed than when engaged with an enemy to dra_im as rapidly as possible toward a ship of his hereditary foeman, and b_areful manoeuvring to force the two to engage, thus leaving him-self free t_ithdraw. This stratagem worked to perfection, and just before the sun wen_own I had the satisfaction of seeing all that was left of my once might_leet gathered nearly twenty miles southwest of the still terrific battl_etween the blacks and whites.
I now transferred Xodar to another battleship and sent him with all th_ransports and five thousand battleships directly overhead to the Temple o_ssus. Carthoris and I, with Kantos Kan, took the remaining ships and heade_or the entrance to Omean.
Our plan now was to attempt to make a combined assault upon Issus at dawn o_he following day. Tars Tarkas with his green warriors and Hor Vastus with th_ed men, guided by Xodar, were to land within the garden of Issus or th_urrounding plains; while Carthoris, Kantos Kan, and I were to lead ou_maller force from the sea of Omean through the pits beneath the temple, whic_arthoris knew so well.
I now learned for the first time the cause of my ten ships' retreat from th_outh of the shaft. It seemed that when they had come upon the shaft the nav_f the First Born were already issuing from its mouth. Fully twenty vessel_ad emerged, and though they gave battle immediately in an effort to stem th_ide that rolled from the black pit, the odds against them were too great an_hey were forced to flee.
With great caution we approached the shaft, under cover of darkness. At _istance of several miles I caused the fleet to be halted, and from ther_arthoris went ahead alone upon a one-man flier to reconnoitre. In perhap_alf an hour he returned to report that there was no sign of a patrol boat o_f the enemy in any form, and so we moved swiftly and noiselessly forward onc_ore toward Omean.
At the mouth of the shaft we stopped again for a moment for all the vessels t_each their previously appointed stations, then with the flagship I droppe_uickly into the black depths, while one by one the other vessels followed m_n quick succession.
We had decided to stake all on the chance that we would be able to reach th_emple by the subterranean way and so we left no guard of vessels at th_haft's mouth. Nor would it have profited us any to have done so, for we di_ot have sufficient force all told to have withstood the vast navy of th_irst Born had they returned to engage us.
For the safety of our entrance upon Omean we depended largely upon the ver_oldness of it, believing that it would be some little time before the Firs_orn on guard there would realize that it was an enemy and not their ow_eturning fleet that was entering the vault of the buried sea.
And such proved to be the case. In fact, four hundred of my fleet of fiv_undred rested safely upon the bosom of Omean before the first shot was fired.
The battle was short and hot, but there could have been but one outcome, fo_he First Born in the carelessness of fancied security had left but a handfu_f ancient and obsolete hulks to guard their mighty harbour.
It was at Carthoris' suggestion that we landed our prisoners under guard upo_ couple of the larger islands, and then towed the ships of the First Born t_he shaft, where we managed to wedge a number of them securely in the interio_f the great well. Then we turned on the buoyance rays in the balance of the_nd let them rise by themselves to further block the passage to Omean as the_ame into contact with the vessels already lodged there.
We now felt that it would be some time at least before the returning Firs_orn could reach the surface of Omean, and that we would have ampl_pportunity to make for the subterranean passages which lead to Issus. One o_he first steps I took was to hasten personally with a good-sized force to th_sland of the submarine, which I took without resistance on the part of th_mall guard there.
I found the submarine in its pool, and at once placed a strong guard upon i_nd the island, where I remained to wait the coming of Carthoris and th_thers.
Among the prisoners was Yersted, commander of the submarine. He recognized m_rom the three trips that I had taken with him during my captivity among th_irst Born.
"How does it seem," I asked him, "to have the tables turned? To be prisoner o_our erstwhile captive?"
He smiled, a very grim smile pregnant with hidden meaning.
"It will not be for long, John Carter," he replied. "We have been expectin_ou and we are prepared."
"So it would appear," I answered, "for you were all ready to become m_risoners with scarce a blow struck on either side."
"The fleet must have missed you," he said, "but it will return to Omean, an_hen that will be a very different matter—for John Carter."
"I do not know that the fleet has missed me as yet," I said, but of course h_id not grasp my meaning, and only looked puzzled.
"Many prisoners travel to Issus in your grim craft, Yersted?" I asked.
"Very many," he assented.
"Might you remember one whom men called Dejah Thoris?"
"Well, indeed, for her great beauty, and then, too, for the fact that she wa_ife to the first mortal that ever escaped from Issus through all th_ountless ages of her godhood. And the way that Issus remembers her best a_he wife of one and the mother of another who raised their hands against th_oddess of Life Eternal."
I shuddered for fear of the cowardly revenge that I knew Issus might hav_aken upon the innocent Dejah Thoris for the sacrilege of her son and he_usband.
"And where is Dejah Thoris now?" I asked, knowing that he would say the word_ most dreaded, but yet I loved her so that I could not refrain from hearin_ven the worst about her fate so that it fell from the lips of one who ha_een her but recently. It was to me as though it brought her closer to me.
"Yesterday the monthly rites of Issus were held," replied Yersted, "and I sa_er then sitting in her accustomed place at the foot of Issus."
"What," I cried, "she is not dead, then?"
"Why, no," replied the black, "it has been no year since she gazed upon th_ivine glory of the radiant face of—"
"No year?" I interrupted.
"Why, no," insisted Yersted. "It cannot have been upward of three hundred an_eventy or eighty days."
A great light burst upon me. How stupid I had been! I could scarcely retain a_utward exhibition of my great joy. Why had I forgotten the great differenc_n the length of Martian and Earthly years! The ten Earth years I had spen_pon Barsoom had encompassed but five years and ninety-six days of Martia_ime, whose days are forty-one minutes longer than ours, and whose year_umber six hundred and eighty-seven days.
I am in time! I am in time! The words surged through my brain again and again, until at last I must have voiced them audibly, for Yersted shook his head.
"In time to save your Princess?" he asked, and then without waiting for m_eply, "No, John Carter, Issus will not give up her own. She knows that yo_re coming, and ere ever a vandal foot is set within the precincts of th_emple of Issus, if such a calamity should befall, Dejah Thoris will be pu_way for ever from the last faint hope of rescue."
"You mean that she will be killed merely to thwart me?" I asked.
"Not that, other than as a last resort," he replied. "Hast ever heard of th_emple of the Sun? It is there that they will put her. It lies far within th_nner court of the Temple of Issus, a little temple that raises a thin spir_ar above the spires and minarets of the great temple that surrounds it.
Beneath it, in the ground, there lies the main body of the temple consistin_n six hundred and eighty-seven circular chambers, one below another. To eac_hamber a single corridor leads through solid rock from the pits of Issus.
"As the entire Temple of the Sun revolves once with each revolution of Barsoo_bout the sun, but once each year does the entrance to each separate chambe_ome opposite the mouth of the corridor which forms its only link to the worl_ithout.
"Here Issus puts those who displease her, but whom she does not care t_xecute forthwith. Or to punish a noble of the First Born she may cause him t_e placed within a chamber of the Temple of the Sun for a year. Ofttimes sh_mprisons an executioner with the condemned, that death may come in a certai_orrible form upon a given day, or again but enough food is deposited in th_hamber to sustain life but the number of days that Issus has allotted fo_ental anguish.
"Thus will Dejah Thoris die, and her fate will be sealed by the first alie_oot that crosses the threshold of Issus."
So I was to be thwarted in the end, although I had performed the miraculou_nd come within a few short moments of my divine Princess, yet was I as fa_rom her as when I stood upon the banks of the Hudson forty-eight millio_iles away.