|Chapter 11|| Almuric
written by Robert Ervin Howard
Runners were sent to the cities, to give word of what went forward. Southward we marched, four thousand men of Koth, five thousand of Khor. We moved in separate columns, for I deemed it wise to keep the tribes apart until the sight of their oppressors should again drown tribal feelings.
Our pace was much swifter than that of an equal body of Earth soldiers. We had no supply trains. We lived off the land through which we passed. Each man bore his own armament: carbine, sword, dagger, canteen, and ammunition pouch. But I chafed at every mile. Sailing through the air on the back of a captive Yaga had spoiled me for marching. It took us days to cover ground the flying men had passed over in hours. Yet we progressed, and some three weeks from the time we began the march, we entered the forest beyond which lay the Purple River and the desert that borders the land of Yagg.
We had seen no Yagas, but we went cautiously now. Leaving the bulk of our force encamped deep in the forest, I went forward with thirty men, timing our march so that we reached the bank of the Purple River a short time after midnight, just before the setting of the moon. My purpose was to find a way to prevent the tower guard from carrying the news of our coming to Yugga, so that we might cross the desert without being attacked in the open, where the numbers and tactics of the Yagas would weigh most heavily against us.
Khossuth suggested that we lie in wait among the trees along the bank, and pick the watchers off at long range at dawn, but this I knew to be impossible. There was no cover along the water's edge, and the river lay between. The men in the tower were out of our range. We might creep near enough to pick off one or two, but it was imperative that all should perish, since the escape of one would be enough to ruin our plans.
So we stole through the woods until we reached a point a mile upstream, opposite a jutting tongue of rock, toward which, I believed, a current set in from the center of the stream. There we placed in the water a heavy, strong catamaran we had constructed, with a long powerful rope. I got upon the craft with four of the best marksmen of the combined horde--Thab the Swift, Skel the Hawk, and two warriors of Khor. Each of us bore two carbines, strapped to our backs.
We bent to work with crude oars, though our efforts seemed ludicrously futile in the teeth of that flood. But the raft was long enough and heavy enough not to be spun by every whirlpool we crossed, and by dint of herculean effort we worked out toward the middle of the stream. The men on shore paid out the rope, and it acted as a sort of brace, swinging us around in a wide arc that would have eventually brought us back to the bank we had left, had not the current we hoped for suddenly caught us and hurled us at dizzy speed toward the projecting tongue of rock. The raft reeled and pitched, driving its nose under repeatedly, until sometimes we were fully submerged. But our ammunition was waterproof, and we had lashed ourselves to the logs; so we hung on like drowned rats, until our craft was dashed against the rocky point.
It hung there for a breathless instant, in which time it was touch and go. We slashed ourselves loose, jumped into the water which swirled arm-pit deep about us, and fought our way along the point, clinging tooth and nail to every niche or projection, while the foaming current threatened momentarily to tear us away and send us after our raft which had slid off the ledge and was dancing away down the river.
We did make it, though, and hauled ourselves upon the shore at last, half dead from buffeting and exhaustion. But we could not stop to rest, for the most delicate part of our scheme was before us. It was necessary that we should not be discovered before dawn gave us light enough to see the sights of our carbines, for the best marksman in the world is erratic by starlight. But I trusted to the chance that the Yagas would be watching the river, and paying scant heed to the desert behind them.
So in the darkness that precedes dawn, we stole around in a wide-circle, and the first hint of light found us lying in a depression we had scraped in the sand not over four hundred yards to the south of the tower.
It was tense waiting, while the dawn lifted slowly over the land, and objects became more and more distinct. The roar of the water over the Bridge of Rocks reached us plainly, and at last we were aware of another sound. The clash of steel reached us faintly through the water tumult. Ghor and others were advancing to the river bank, according to my instructions. We could not see any Yagas on the tower; only hints of movement along the turrets. But suddenly one whirled up into the morning sky and started south at head-long speed. Skel's carbine cracked and the winged man, with a loud cry, pitched sideways and tumbled to earth.
There followed an instant of silence; then five winged shapes darted into the air, soaring high. The Yagas sensed what was occurring, and were chancing all on a desperate rush, hoping that at least one might get through. We all fired, but I scored a complete miss, and Thab only slightly wounded his man. But the others brought down the man I had missed, while Thab's second shot dropped the wounded Yaga. We reloaded hastily, but no more came from the tower. Six men watched there, Yasmeena had said. She had spoken the truth.
We cast the bodies into the river. I crossed the Bridge of Rocks, leaping from boulder to boulder, and told Ghor to take his men back into the forest, and to bring up the host. They were to camp just within the fringe of woods, out of sight from the sky. I did not intend to start across the desert until nightfall.
Then I returned to the tower and attempted to gain entrance, but found no doors, only a few small barred windows. The Yagas had entered it from the top. It was too tall and smooth to be climbed, so we did the only thing left to do. We dug pits in the sand and covered them with branches, over which we scattered dust. In these pits we concealed our best marksmen, who lay all day, patiently scanning the sky. Only one Yaga came winging across the desert. No human was in sight, and he was not suspicious until he poised directly over the tower. Then, when he saw no watchmen, he became alarmed, but before he could race away, the reports of half a dozen carbines brought him tumbling to the earth in a whirl of limbs and wings.
As the sun sank, we brought the warriors across the Bridge of Rocks, an accomplishment which required some time. But at last they all stood on the Yaga side of the river, and with our canteens well filled, we started at quick pace across the narrow desert. Before dawn we were within striking distance of the river.
Having crossed the desert under cover of darkness, I was not surprised that we were able to approach the river without being discovered. If any had been watching from the citadel, alert for anything suspicious, they would have discerned our dark mass moving across the sands under the dim starlight. But I knew that in Yugga no such watch was ever kept, secure as the winged people felt in the protection of the Purple River, of the watchmen in the tower, and of the fact that for centuries no Gura raid had dared the bloody doom of former invaders. Nights were spent in frenzied debauchery, followed by sodden sleep. As for the men of Akka, these slow-witted drudges were too habitually drowsy to constitute much menace against our approach, though I knew that once roused they would fight like animals.
So three hundred yards from the river we halted, and eight thousand men under Khossuth took cover in the irrigation ditches that traversed the fields of fruit. The waving fronds of the squat trees likewise aided in their concealment. This was done in almost complete silence. Far above us towered the somber rock Yuthla. A faint breeze sprang up, forerunner of dawn. I led the remaining thousand warriors toward the river bank. Halting them a short distance from it, I wriggled forward on my belly until my hands were at the water's edge. I thanked the Fates that had given me such men to lead. Where civilized men would have floundered and blundered, the Guras moved as easily and noiselessly as stalking panthers.
Across from me rose the wall, sheer from the steep bank, that guarded Akka. It would be hard to climb in the teeth of spears. At the first crack of dawn, the bridge, which towered gauntly against the stars, would be lowered so that Akkis might go into the fields to work. But before then the rising light would betray our forces.
With a word to Ghor, who lay at my side, I slid into the water and struck out for the farther shore, he following. Reaching a point directly below the bridge, we hung in the water, clutching the slippery wall, and looked about for some way of climbing it. There the water, near the bank, was almost as deep as in midstream. At last Ghor found a crevice in the masonry, wide enough to give him a grip for his hands. Then bracing himself, he held fast while I clambered on his shoulders. Standing thus I managed to reach the lower part of the lifted bridge, and an instant later I drew myself up. The erected bridge closed the gap in the wall. I had to clamber over the barrier. One leg was across, when a figure sprang out of the shadows, yelling a warning. The watchman had not been as drowsy as I had expected.
He leaped at me, the starlight glinting on his spear. With a desperate twist of my body, I avoided the whistling blade, though the effort almost toppled me from the wall. My out-thrown hand gripped his lank hair as he fell against the coping with the fury of his wasted thrust, and jerking myself back into balance, I dealt him a crushing buffet on the ear with my clenched fist. He crumpled, and the next instant I was over the wall.
Ghor was bellowing like a bull in the river, mad to know what was taking place above him, and in the dim light the Akkis were swarming like bees out of their stony hives. Leaning over the barrier I stretched Ghor the shaft of'the watchman's spear, and he came heaving and scrambling up beside me. The Akkis had stared stupidly for an instant; then realizing they were being invaded, they rushed, howling madly.
As Ghor sprang to meet them, I leaped to the great windlass that controlled the bridge. I heard the Bear's thunderous war cry boom above the squalling of the Akkis, the strident clash of steel and the crunch of splintered bone. But I had no time to look; it was taking all my strength to work the windlass. I had seen five Akkis toiling together at it; yet in the stress of the moment I accomplished its lowering single-handed, though sweat burst out on my forehead and my muscles trembled with the effort. But down it came, and the farther end touched the other bank in time to accommodate the feet of the warriors who sprang up and rushed for it.
I wheeled to aid Ghor, whose panting gasps I still heard amidst the clamor of the melee. I knew the din in the lower town would soon rouse the Yagas and it was imperative that we gain a foothold in Akka before the shafts of the winged men began to rain among us.
Ghor was hard pressed when I turned from the bridge-head. Half a dozen corpses lay under his feet, and he wielded his great sword with a berserk lustiness that sheared through flesh and bone like butter, but he was streaming blood, and the Akkis were closing in on him.
I had no weapon but Gotrah's dagger, but I sprang into the fray and ripped a sword from the sinking hand of one whose heart my slim blade found. It was a crude weapon, such as the Akkis forge, but it had edge and weight, and swinging it like a club, I wrought havoc among the swarming blue men. Ghor greeted my arrival with a gasping roar of pleasure, and redoubled the fury of his tremendous strokes, so that the dazed Akkis momentarily gave back.
And in that fleeting interval, the first of the Guras swarmed across the bridge. In an instant fifty men had joined us. But there the matter was deadlocked. Swarm after swarm of blue men rushed from their huts to fall on us with reckless fury. One Gura was a match for three or four Akkis, but they swamped us by numbers. They crushed us back into the bridge mouth, and strive as we could, we could not advance enough to clear the way for the hundreds of warriors behind us who yelled and struggled to come to sword-strokes with the enemy. The Akkis pressed in on us in a great crescent, almost crushing us against the men behind us. They lined the walls, yelling and screaming and brandishing their weapons. There were no bows or missiles among them; their winged masters were careful to keep such things out of their hands.
In the midst of the carnage dawn broke, and the struggling hordes saw their enemies. Above us, I knew, the Yagas would be stirring. Indeed I thought I could already hear the thrash of wings above the roar of battle, but I could not look up. Breast to breast we were locked with the heaving, grunting hordes, so closely there was no room for sword-strokes. Their teeth and filthy nails tore at us beastlike; their repulsive body odor was in our nostrils. In the crush we writhed and cursed, each man striving to free a hand to strike.
My flesh crawled in dread of the arrows I knew must soon be raining from above, and even with the thought the first volley came like a whistling sheet of sleet. At my side and behind me men cried out, clutching at the feathered ends protruding from their bodies. But then the men on the bridge and on the farther bank, who had held their fire for fear of hitting their comrades in the uncertain light, began loosing their carbines at the Akkis. At that range their fire was devastating. The first volley cleared the wall, and climbing on the bridge rails the carbineers poured a withering fusillade over our heads into the close-massed horde that barred our way. The result was appalling. Great gaps were torn in the struggling mob, and the whole horde staggered and tore apart. Unsupported by the mass behind, the front ranks caved in, and over their mangled bodies we rushed into the narrow streets of Akka.
Opposition was not at an end. The stocky blue men still fought back. Up and down the streets sounded the clash of steel, crack of shots, and yells of pain and fury. But our greatest peril was from above.
The winged men were swarming out of their citadel like hornets out of a nest. Several hundred of them dropped swiftly down into Akka, swords in their hands, while others lined the rim of the cliff and poured down showers of arrows. Now the warriors hidden in the shrub-masked ditches opened fire, and as that volley thundered, a rain of mangled forms fell on the flat roofs of Akka. The survivors wheeled and raced back to cover as swiftly as their wings could carry them.
But they were more deadly in defense than in attack. From every casement, tower and battlement above they rained their arrows; a hail of death showered Akka, striking down foe and serf alike. Guras and Akkis took refuge in the stone-roofed huts, where the battling continued in the low-ceilinged chambers until the gutters of Akka ran red. Four thousand Guras battled four times their number of Akkis, but the size, ferocity and superior weapons of the apemen balanced the advantage of numbers.
Across the river Khossuth's carbineers kept up an incessant fire at the towers of Yugga, but with scant avail. The Yagas kept well covered, and their arrows, arching down from the sky, had a greater range and accuracy than the carbines of the Guras. But for their position among the ditches, Khossuth's men would have been wiped out in short order, and as it was, they suffered terribly. They could not join us in Akka; it would have been madness to try to cross the bridge in the teeth of that fire.
Meanwhile, I ran straight for the temple of Yasmeena, cutting down those who stood in my way. I had discarded the clumsy Akka sword for a fine blade dropped by a slain Gura, and with this in my hand I cut my way through a swarm of blue spearmen who made a determined stand before the temple. With me were Ghor, Thab the Swift, Than Swordswinger and a hundred other picked warriors.
As the last of our foes were trampled under foot, I sprang up the black stone steps to the massive door, where the bizarre figure of the Akka priest barred my way with shield and spear. I parried his spear and feinted a thrust at his thigh. He lowered the great gold-scrolled shield, and before he could lift it again I slashed off his head, which rolled grinning down the steps. I caught up the shield as I rushed into the temple.
I rushed across the temple and tore aside the golden screen. My men crowded in behind me, panting, blood-stained, their fierce faces lighted by the weird flame from the altar jewel. Fumbling in my haste, I found and worked the secret catch. The door began to give, reluctantly. It was this reluctance which fired my brain with sudden suspicion, as I remembered how easily it had opened before. Even with the thought I yelled, "Back!" and hurled myself backward as the door gaped suddenly.
Instantly my ears were deafened by an awful roar, my eyes blinded by a terrible flash. Something like a spurt of hell's fire passed so close by me it seared my hair in passing. Only my recoil, which carried me behind the opening door, saved me from the torrent of liquid fire which flooded the temple from the secret shaft.
There was a blind chaotic instant of frenzy, shot through with awful screams. Then through the din I heard Ghor loudly bellowing my name, and saw him stumbling blindly through the whirling smoke, his beard and bristling hair burned crisp. As the lurid murk cleared somewhat, I saw the remnants of my band--Ghor, Thab and a few others who by quickness or luck had escaped. Than Swordswinger had been directly behind me, and was knocked out of harm's way when I leaped back. But on the blackened floor of the temple lay three-score shriveled forms, burned and 'charred out of all human recognition. They had been directly in the path of that devouring sheet of flame as it rushed to dissipate itself in the outer air.
The shaft seemed empty now. Fool to think that Yasmeena would leave it unguarded, when she must have suspected that I escaped by that route. On the edges of the door and the jamb I found bits of stuff like wax. Some mysterious element had been sealed into the shaft which the opening of the door ignited, sending it toward the outer air in a rush of flame.
I knew the upper trap would be made fast. I shouted for Thab to find and light a torch, and for Ghor to procure a heavy beam for a ram. Then, telling Than to gather all the men he could find in the streets and follow, I raced up the stair in the blackness. As I thought, I found the upper trap fastened--bolted above, I suspected; and listening closely, I caught a confused mumbling above my head, and knew the chamber must be filled with Yagas.
An erratic flame bobbing below me drew my attention, and quickly Thab reached my side with a torch. He was followed by Ghor and a score of others, grunting under the weight of a heavy loglike beam, torn from some Akka hut. He reported that fighting was still going on in the streets and buildings, but that most of the Akka males had been put to the sword, and others, with their women and children, had leaped into the river and swum for the south shore. He said some five hundred swordsmen were thronging the temple.
"Then burst this trap above our heads," I exclaimed, "and follow me through. We must win our way into the heart of the hold, before the arrows of the Yagas on the tower overwhelm Khossuth."
It was difficult in that narrow shaft, where only one man could stand on each step, but gripping the heavy beam like a ram, we swung it and dashed it against the trap. The thunder of the blows filled the shaft deafeningly, the jarring impact stung our hands and quivered the wood, but the trap held. Again--and again--panting, grunting, thews cracking, we swung the beam--and with a final terrific drive of hard-braced knotty legs and iron shoulders, the trap gave with a splintering crash, and light flooded the shaft.
With a wordless yell I heaved up through the splinters of the trap, the gold shield held above my head. A score of swords descended on it, staggering me; but desperately keeping my feet, I heaved up through a veritable rain of shattering blades, and burst into the chamber of Yasmeena. With a yell the Yagas swarmed on me, and I cast the bent and shattered shield in their faces, and swung my sword in the wheel that flashed through breasts and throats like a mowing blade through corn. I should have died there, but from the opening behind me crashed a dozen carbines, and the winged men went down in heaps.
Then up into the chamber came Ghor the Bear, bellowing and terrible, and after him the killers of Khor and of Koth, thirsting for blood.
That chamber was full of Yagas, and so were the adjoining rooms and corridors. But in a compact circle, back to back, we held the shaft entrance, while scores of warriors swarmed up the stair to join us, widening and pushing out the rim of the circle. In that comparatively small chamber the din was deafening and terrifying--the clang of swords, the yelling, the butcher's sound of flesh and bones parting beneath the chopping edge.
We quickly cleared the chamber, and held the doors against attack. As more and more men came up from below, we advanced into the adjoining rooms, and after perhaps a half-hour of desperate fighting, we held a circle of chambers and corridors, like a wheel of which the chamber of the shaft was the axle, and more and more Yagas were leaving the turrets to take part in the hand-to-hand fighting. There were some three thousand of us in the upper chambers now, and no more came up the shaft. I sent Thab to tell Khossuth to bring his men across the river.
I believed that most of the Yagas had left the turrets. They were massed thick in the chambers and corridors ahead of us, and were fighting like demons. I have mentioned that their courage was not of the type of the Guras', but any race will fight when a foe has invaded its last stronghold, and these winged devils were no weaklings.
For a time the battle was at a gasping deadlock. We could advance no farther in any direction, nor could they thrust us back. The doorways through which we slashed and thrust were heaped high with bodies, both hairy and black. Our ammunition was exhausted, and the Yagas could use their bows to no advantage. It was hand to hand and sword to sword, men stumbling among the dead to come to hand grips.
Then, just when it seemed that flesh and blood could stand no more, a thunderous roar rose to the vaulted ceilings, and up through the shaft and out through the chambers poured streams of fresh, eager warriors to take our places. Old Khossuth and his men, maddened to frenzy by the arrows that had been showering upon them as they lay partly hidden in the ditches, foamed like rabid dogs to come to hand grips and glut their fury. Thab was not with them, and Khossuth said he had been struck down by an arrow in his leg, as he was following his king across the bridge in that dash from the ditches to the temple. There had been few losses in that reckless rush, however; as I had suspected, most of the Yagas had entered the chambers, leaving only a few archers on the towers.
Now began the most bloody and desperate melee I have ever witnessed. Under the impact of the fresh forces, the weary Yagas gave way, and the battle streamed out through the halls and rooms. The chiefs tried in vain to keep the maddened Guras together. Struggling groups split off the main body, men ran singly down twisting corridors. Throughout all the citadel thundered the rush of trampling feet, shouts, and din of steel.
Few shots were fired, few arrows winged. It was hand to hand with a vengeance. In the roofed chambers and halls, the Yagas could not spread their wings and dart down on their foes from above. They were forced to stand on their feet, meeting their ancient enemies on even terms. It was out on the rooftops and the open courts that our losses were greatest, for in the open the winged men could resort to their accustomed tactics.
But we avoided such places as much as possible, and man to man, the Guras were invincible. Oh, they died by scores, but under their lashing swords the Yagas died by hundreds. A thousand ages of cruelty and oppression were being repaid, and red was the payment. The sword was blind; Yaga women as well as men fell beneath it. But knowing the fiendishness of those sleek black females, I could not pity them.
I was looking for Altha.
Slaves there were, thousands of them, dazed by the battle, cowering in terror, too bewildered to realize its portent, or to recognize their rescuers. Yet several times I saw a woman cry out in sudden joy and run forward to throw her arms about the bull-neck of some hairy, panting swordsman, as she recognized a brother, husband, or father. In the midst of agony and travail there was joy and reuniting, and it warmed my heart to see it. Only the little yellow slaves and the red woman crouched in terror, as fearful of these roaring hairy giants as of their winged masters.
Hacking and slashing my way through the knots of struggling warriors, I sought for the chamber where were imprisoned the virgins of the Moon. At last I caught the shoulder of a Gura girl, cowering on the floor to avoid chance blows of the men battling above her, and shouted a question in her ear. She understood and pointed, unable to make herself heard above the din. Catching her up under one arm, I slashed a path for us, and in a chamber beyond I set her down, and she ran swiftly down a corridor, crying for me to follow. I raced after her, down that corridor, up a winding stair, across a roof-garden where Guras and Yagas fought, and finally she halted in an open court. It was the highest point of the city, besides the minarets. In the midst rose the dome of the Moon, and at the foot of the dome she showed me a chamber. The door was locked, but I shattered it with blows of my sword, and glared in. In the semidarkness I saw the gleam of white limbs huddled close together against the opposite wall. As my eyes became accustomed to the dimness I saw that some hundred and fifty girls were cowering in terror against the wall. And as I called Altha's name, I heard a voice cry, "Esau! Oh, Esau!" and a slim white figure hurled itself across the chamber to throw white arms about my neck and rain passionate kisses on my bronzed features. For an instant I crushed her close, returning her kisses with hungry lips; then the roar of battle outside roused me. Turning I saw a swarm of Yagas, pressed close by five hundred swords, being forced out of a great doorway near by. Abandoning the fray suddenly they took to flight, their assailants flowing out into the court with yells of triumph.
And then before me I heard a light mocking laugh, and saw the lithe figure of Yasmeena, Queen of Yagg.
"So you have returned, Ironhand?" Her voice was like poisoned honey. "You have returned with your slayers to break the reign of the gods? Yet you have not conquered, oh fool."
Without a word I drove at her, silently and murderously, but she sprang lightly into the air, avoiding my thrust. Her laughter rose to an insane scream.
"Fool!" she shrieked. "You have not conquered! Did I not say I would perish in the ruins of my kingdom? Dogs, you are all dead men!"
Whirling in midair she rushed with appalling speed straight for the dome. The Yagas seemed to sense her intention, for they cried out in horror and protest, but she did not pause. Lighting on the smooth slope of the dome, keeping her perch by the use of her wings, she turned, shook a hand at us in mockery, and then, gripping some bolt or handle set in the dome, braced both her feet against the ivory slope and pulled with all her strength.
A section of the dome gave way, catapulting her into the air. The next instant a huge misshapen bulk came rushing from the opening. And as it rushed, the impact of its body against the edges of the door was like the crash of a thunderbolt. The dome split in a hundred places from base to pinnacle, and fell in with a thunderous roar. Through a cloud of dust and debris and falling stone the huge figure burst into the open. A yell went up from the watchers.
The thing that had emerged from the dome was bigger than an elephant, and in shape something like a gigantic slug, except that it had a fringe of tentacles all about its body. And from these writhing tentacles crackled sparks and flashes of blue flame. It spread its writhing arms, and at their touch stone walls crashed to ruin and masonry burst apart. It was brainless, sightless--elemental force incorporated in the lowest form of animation--power gone mad and run amuck in a senseless fury of destruction.
There was neither plan nor direction to its plunges. It rushed erratically, literally plowing through solid walls which buckled and gave way, falling on it in showers which did not seem to injure it. On all sides men fled aghast.
"Get back through the shaft, all who can!" I yelled. "Take the girls--get them out first!" I was dragging the dazed creatures from the prison chamber and thrusting them into the arms of the nearest warriors, who carried them away. On all sides of us the towers and minarets were crumbling and roaring down in ruin.
"Make ropes of the tapestries," I yelled. "Slide down the cliff! In God's name, hasten! This fiend will destroy the whole city before it is done!"
"I've found a bunch of rope ladders," shouted a warrior. "They'll reach to the water's edge, but-"
"Then fasten them and send the women down them," I shrieked. "Better take the chance of the river, then--here, Ghor, take Altha!"
I threw her into the arms of the bloodstained giant, and rushed toward the mountain of destruction which was crashing through the walls of Yugga.
Of that cataclysmic frenzy I have only a confused memory, an impression of crashing walls, howling humans, and that engine of doom roaring through all, with a ghastly aurora playing about it, as the electric power in its awful body blasted its way through solid stone.
How many Yagas, warriors and women slaves died in the falling castles is not to be known. Some hundreds had escaped down the shaft when falling roofs and walls blocked that way, crushing scores who were trying to reach it. Our warriors worked frenziedly, and the silken ladders were strung down the cliffs, some over the town of Akka, some in haste, over the river, and down these the warriors carried the slave-girls--Guras, red and yellow girls alike.
After I had seen Ghor carry Altha away I wheeled and ran straight toward that electric horror. It was not intelligent, and what I expected to accomplish I do not know. But through the reeling walls and among the rocking towers that spilled down showers of stone blocks I raced, until I stood before the rearing horror. Blind and brainless though it was, yet it possessed some form of sensibility, because instantly, as I hurled a heavy stone at it, its movements ceased to be erratic. It charged straight for me, casting splintered masonry right and left, as foam is thrown by the rush of an ox through a stream.
I ran fleetly from it, leading it away from the screaming masses of humanity that struggled and fled along the rim of the cliff, and suddenly found myself on a battlement on the edge of the cliff, with a sheer drop of five hundred feet beneath me to the river Yogh. Behind me came the monster. As I turned desperately, it reared up and plunged at me. In the middle of its gigantic slug-like body I saw a dark spot as big as my hand pulsing. I knew that this must be the center of the being's life, and I sprang at it like a wounded tiger, plunging my sword into that dark spot.
Whether I reached it or not, I did not know. Even as I leaped, the whole universe exploded in one burst of blinding white flame and thunder, followed instantly by the blackness of oblivion.
They say that at the instant my sword sank into the body of the fire-monster, both it and I were enveloped in a blinding blue flame. There was a deafening report, like a thunderclap, that tore the creature asunder, and hurled its mangled form, with my body, far out over the cliff, to fall five hundred feet into the deep blue waters of Yogh.
It was Thab who saved me from drowning, leaping into the river despite his crippled condition, to dive until he found and dragged my senseless body from the water.
You will say, perhaps, that it is impossible for a man to fall five hundred feet into water and live. My only reply is that I did it, and I live; though I doubt if there is any man on Earth who could do it.
For a long time I was senseless and for longer I lay in delirium; for longer again, I lay completely paralyzed, my disrupted and numbed nerves slowly coming back into life again.
I came to myself on a couch in Koth. I knew nothing of the long trek back through the forests and across the plains from the doomed city of Yugga. Of the nine thousand men who marched to Yagg, only five thousand returned, wounded, weary, bloodstained, but triumphant. With them came fifty thousand women, the freed slaves of the vanquished Yagas. Those who were neither Kothan nor Khoran were escorted to their own cities--a thing unique in the history of Almuric. The little yellow and red women were given the freedom of either city, and allowed to dwell there in full freedom.
As for me, I have Altha--and she has me. The glamor of her, akin to glory, dazzled me with its brilliance, when first I saw her bending over my couch after my return from Yagg. Her features seemed to glimmer and float above me; then they coalesced into a vision of transcendent loveliness, yet strangely familiar to me. Our love will last forever, for it has been annealed in the white-hot fires of a mutual experience--of a savage ordeal and a great suffering.
Now, for the first time, there is peace between the cities of Khor and Koth, which have sworn eternal friendship to each other; and the only warfare is the unremitting struggle waged against the ferocious wild beasts and weird forms of animal life that abound in much of the planet. And we two--I an Earthman born, and Altha, a daughter of who possesses the gentler instincts of an Earthwoman--we hope to instill some of the culture of my native planet into this erstwhile savage people before we die and become as the dust of my adopted planet, Almuric.