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white The Barsoom series
  branch John Carter and the Giant of Mars
Previous page Next page navigation 4/14 branch Chapter 4.   The city of rats
Next paragraph     John Carter recovered fully when he was dragged through a pool of muddy water. He heard the rats greedily drinking, saw their green eyes gleaming in the darkness. The smell of freshly dug earth reached his nostrils and he realized that he was in a burrow far under the subterranean vaults of the palace.
Next paragraph     Several rats on either side of him had hold of his arms by their forepaws as they dragged him along. It was very uncomfortable, and he wondered how much longer the journey would last.
Next paragraph     Nor had he long to wait. The strange company finally came out into a huge underground cavern. Light from the outside filtered down through various openings in the ceiling above, its rays reflecting on thousands of gleaming stalactites of red sand stone. Massive stalagmites, huge sedimentary formations of grotesque shape, rose up from the floor of the cavern.
Next paragraph     Among these formations on the floor were numerous domeshaped mud huts.
Next paragraph     As Carter was dragged by, he stared at a hut that several rats were constructing. The framework was composed of white sticks of various shapes plastered with mud from an under-ground stream bed. The white sticks were very irregular in length and size. One of the rats stopped work to gnaw at a stick. It looked like a bone.
Next paragraph     As he was dragged closer, he saw that the stick was a human thigh bone!
Next paragraph     The mud huts were studded with bones and skulls, upon some of which were still dangling hideously the vestiges of hair and skin. Carter noticed that the tops of all the skulls had been removed, neatly sliced off.
Next paragraph     The earthman was dragged to a clearing in the center of the cavern. Here, upon a mound of skulls, sat a rat half again as large as the others.
Next paragraph     The baleful, pink eyes of the creature glared at Carter as he was dragged up on top of the mound.
Next paragraph     The beasts released their hold upon the earthman and descended to the bottom of the mound, leaving Carter alone with the large rat.
Next paragraph     The long whiskers of the monster were constantly twitching as the thing sniffed at the man. It had lost one ear in some battle long ago and the other was bright with scar-tissue.
Next paragraph     Its little pink eyes surveyed Carter for a long time while it fondly caressed its long, hairless tail with its one claw-like paw. This, evidently, was the King of the Rats.
Next paragraph     "Lord of the Underworld," Carter thought, trying to hold his breath. The stench in the cavern was overwhelming.
Next paragraph     Without taking his eyes from Carter's, the rat reached down and picked up a skull beside him and put it in front of Carter. This he repeated, picking up a skull from the other side and placing it beside the first. By repeating this, he eventually formed a little ring of topless heads in front of the earth-man.
Next paragraph     Now, very judiciously, he climbed inside the circle of skulls and picking one of them up tossed it to Carter. The earthman caught it and tossed it back at the king.
Next paragraph     This seemed to annoy his royal highness. He made no effort to catch the skull and it flew past him and went bouncing down the mound.
Next paragraph     Instead, the king leaped up and down inside the little circle of skulls, at the same time emitting angry squeals. This was all very puzzling to the earthman. As he stood there, he became aware of two circles of rats forming at the base of the mound, each circle consisting of about a thousand animals. They began a weird dance, moving around the raised dais of bones counter-clockwise. The tail of each rat was gripped in the mouth of the following beast, thus forming a continuous chain.
Next paragraph     There was no doubt that the earthman was in the center of a weird ritual. While he was ignorant of the exact nature of the ceremony, he had little doubt as to its final outcome. The countless barren skulls, the yellowed ones that filled the cavern were mute, horrible evidence of his final fate.
Next paragraph     Where did the rats get all the bodies from which the skulls were obtained and why were the tops of those skulls missing? The City of Korvas, as every Martian schoolboy knew, had been deserted for a thousand years; yet many of the skulls and bones were recently picked clean of their flesh. Carter had seen no evidence in the city of any life other than the great white apes and the mysterious giant, and the rats themselves. However, there had been the woman's scream that he had heard earlier. This thought accentuated his ever-present anxiety over Dejah Thoris's safety and whereabouts.
Next paragraph     This delay was tormenting. As the circles of rats closed in about him, the earthman's eyes eagerly searched for some avenue of escape.
Next paragraph     The rats circled slowly, watching their king who rose to his hind legs stamping his feet, thumping his tail. The mound of skulls echoed hollowly.
Next paragraph     Faster danced the king and faster moved the circles of rats drawing ever closer to the mound.
Next paragraph     The closer rats shot hungry glances at the earthman. Carter smiled grimly and gripped his sword more tightly. Strange that they should let him retain it.
Next paragraph     More than one of the beasts would die before he was overcome, and the king would be the first to go. There was no doubt that he was to be sacrificed to furnish a gastronomic orgy.
Next paragraph     Suddenly the king stopped his wild gyrations directly in front of Carter. The dancers halted instantly, watching, waiting.
Next paragraph     A strange, growling squeal started deep in the king's throat and grew in volume to an ear-piercing shriek. The King of Rats stepped over the ring of skulls and advanced slowly toward Carter.
Next paragraph     Once again the earthman glanced about seeking some means of escape from the mound. This time he looked up. The ceiling was at least fifty feet away. No native-born Martian would ever consider escaping in that direction.
Next paragraph     But John Carter had been born on the planet Earth, and he had brought with him to Mars all the strength and agility of a trained athlete.
Next paragraph     It was upon this, combined with the lesser gravity of Mars, that the earthman made his quick plan for the next moment. Tensely he waited for his opportunity. The ceremony was nearly concluded. The king was baring his fangs not a foot from Carter's neck.
Next paragraph     The earthman's hand tightened on his sword-hilt; then the blade streaked from its scabbard. There was a blur of motion and a sickening smack. The king's head flew into the air and then rolled away, bouncing down the mound.
Next paragraph     The other beasts beneath were stunned into silence, but only momentarily. Now, squealing wildly, they swarmed up the mount intent on tearing the earthman to pieces.
Next paragraph     John Carter crouched and with a mighty leap his earthly muscles sent him shooting fifty feet up into the air.
Next paragraph     Desperately he clutched and held to a hanging stalactite. Soon he was swinging on the hanging moss to the vast upper reaches of the cavern.
Next paragraph     Once he looked down to see the rats milling and squealing in confusion beneath. One other fact he noted, also. Apparently there was only one means of entrance or exit into the dungeon that formed the rats' underground city, the same tunnel through which he had first been dragged.
Next paragraph     Now, however, the eartbman was intent upon finding some means of exit in the ceiling above.
Next paragraph     At last he found a narrow opening; and plunging through a heavy curtain of moss Carter swung into a cave. There were several tunnels branching off into the darkness, most of them thickly hung with the sticky webs of the great Martian spider. They were evidently parts of a vast under-ground network of tunnels that had been fashioned long ages ago by the ancients who once inhabited Korvas.
Next paragraph     Carter was ready with his blade for any encounter with man or beast that might come his way; and so he started off up the largest tunnel.
Next paragraph     The perpetually burning radium light that had been set in the wall when the tunnel was constructed furnished sufficient illumination for the earthman to see his way quite clearly.
Next paragraph     Carter halted before a massive door set into the end of a tunnel. It was inscribed with hieroglyphics unfamiliar to the earthman. The subdued drone of what sounded like many motors seemed to come from somewhere beyond the door.
Next paragraph     He pushed open the unbarred door and halted just beyond, staring unbelievingly at the tremendous laboratory in which he found himself.
Next paragraph     Great motors pumped oxygen through low pipes into rows of glass cages that lined the walls and filled the antiseptically white chamber from end to end. In the center of the laboratory were several operating tables with large searchlights focused down upon them from above.
Next paragraph     But the contents of the glass cages immediately absorbed the earthman's attention.
Next paragraph     Each cage contained a giant white ape, standing upright inside, apparently lifeless.
Next paragraph     The top of each hairy head was swathed in bandages. If these beasts were dead, why then the oxygen tubes running to their cages?
Next paragraph     Carter moved across the room to examine the cases at closer range. Halfway to the farther wall he came upon a low, glassed dome that covered a huge pit set in the floor.
      He gasped. The pit was filled with dead bodies, red warriors with the tops of their heads neatly sliced off!