Black Amazon of Mars
Through all the long cold hours of the Norland night the Martian had not moved nor spoken. At dusk of the day before Eric John Stark had brought him into the ruined tower and laid him down, wrapped in blankets, on the snow. He had built a fire of dead brush, and since then the two men had waited, alone in the vast wasteland that girdles the polar cap of Mars.
Now, just before dawn, Camar the Martian spoke.
“I am dying.”
“I will not reach Kushat.”
Camar nodded. He was silent again.
The wind howled down from the northern ice, and the broken walls rose up against it, brooding, gigantic, roofless now but so huge and sprawling that they seemed less like walls than cliffs of ebon stone. Stark would not have gone near them but for Camar. They were wrong, somehow, with a taint of forgotten evil still about them.
The big Earthman glanced at Camar, and his face was sad. “A man likes to die in his own place,” he said abruptly. “I am sorry.”
“The Lord of Silence is a great personage,” Camar answered. “He does not mind the meeting place. No. It was not for that I came back into the Norlands.”
He was shaken by an agony that was not of the body. “And I shall not reach Kushat!”
Stark spoke quietly, using the courtly High Martian almost as fluently as Camar.
“I have known that there was a burden heavier than death upon my brother’s soul.”
He leaned over, placing one large hand on the Martian’s shoulder. “My brother has given his life for mine. Therefore, I will take his burden upon myself, if I can.”
He did not want Camar’s burden, whatever it might be. But the Martian had fought beside him through a long guerilla campaign among the harried tribes of the nearer moon. He was a good man of his hands, and in the end had taken the bullet that was meant for Stark, knowing quite well what he was doing. They were friends.
That was why Stark had brought Camar into the bleak north country, trying to reach the city of his birth. The Martian was driven by some secret demon. He was afraid to die before he reached Kushat.
And now he had no choice.
“I have sinned, Stark. I have stolen a holy thing. You’re an outlander, you would not know of Ban Cruach, and the talisman that he left when he went away forever beyond the Gates of Death.”
Camar flung aside the blankets and sat up, his voice gaining a febrile strength.
“I was born and bred in the Thieves’ Quarter under the Wall. I was proud of my skill. And the talisman was a challenge. It was a treasured thing--so treasured that hardly a man has touched it since the days of Ban Cruach who made it. And that was in the days when men still had the lustre on them, before they forgot that they were gods.
“‘Guard well the Gates of Death, ‘ he said, ‘that is the city’s trust. And keep the talisman always, for the day may come when you will need its strength. Who holds Kushat holds Mars--and the talisman will keep the city safe.’
“I was a thief, and proud. And I stole the talisman.”
His hands went to his girdle, a belt of worn leather with a boss of battered steel. But his fingers were already numb.
“Take it, Stark. Open the boss--there, on the side, where the beast’s head is carved...”
Stark took the belt from Camar and found the hidden spring. The rounded top of the boss came free. Inside it was something wrapped in a scrap of silk.
“I had to leave Kushat,” Camar whispered. “I could never go back. But it was enough--to have taken that.”
He watched, shaken between awe and pride and remorse, as Stark unwrapped the bit of silk.
Stark had discounted most of Camar’s talk as superstition, but even so he had expected something more spectacular than the object he held in his palm.
It was a lens, some four inches across--man-made, and made with great skill, but still only a bit of crystal. Turning it about, Stark saw that it was not a simple lens, but an intricate interlocking of many facets. Incredibly complicated, hypnotic if one looked at it too long.
“What is its use?” he asked of Camar.
“We are as children. We have forgotten. But there is a legend, a belief--that Ban Cruach himself made the talisman as a sign that he would not forget us, and would come back when Kushat is threatened. Back through the Gates of Death, to teach us again the power that was his!”
“I do not understand,” said Stark. “What are the Gates of Death?”
Camar answered, “It is a pass that opens into the black mountains beyond Kushat. The city stands guard before it--why, no man remembers, except that it is a great trust.”
His gaze feasted on the talisman.
Stark said, “You wish me to take this to Kushat?”
“Yes. Yes! And yet...” Camar looked at Stark, his eyes filling suddenly with tears. “No. The North is not used to strangers. With me, you might have been safe. But alone ... No, Stark. You have risked too much already. Go back, out of the Norlands, while you can.”
He lay back on the blankets. Stark saw that a bluish pallor had come into the hollows of his cheeks.
“Camar,” he said. And again, “Camar!”
“Go in peace, Camar. I will take the talisman to Kushat.”
The Martian sighed, and smiled, and Stark was glad that he had made the promise.
“The riders of Mekh are wolves,” said Camar suddenly. “They hunt these gorges. Look out for them.”
Stark’s knowledge of the geography of this part of Mars was vague indeed, but he knew that the mountain valleys of Mekh lay ahead and to the north, between him and Kushat. Camar had told him of these upland warriors. He was willing to heed the warning.
Camar had done with talking. Stark knew that he had not long to wait. The wind spoke with the voice of a great organ. The moons had set and it was very dark outside the tower, except for the white glimmering of the snow. Stark looked up at the brooding walls, and shivered. There was a smell of death already in the air.
To keep from thinking, he bent closer to the fire, studying the lens. There were scratches on the bezel, as though it had been held sometime in a clamp, or setting, like a jewel. An ornament, probably, worn as a badge of rank. Strange ornament for a barbarian king, in the dawn of Mars. The firelight made tiny dancing sparks in the endless inner facets. Quite suddenly, he had a curious feeling that the thing was alive.
A pang of primitive and unreasoning fear shot through him, and he fought it down. His vision was beginning to blur, and he shut his eyes, and in the darkness it seemed to him that he could see and hear...
He started up, shaken now with an eerie terror, and raised his hand to hurl the talisman away. But the part of him that had learned with much pain and effort to be civilized made him stop, and think.
He sat down again. An instrument of hypnosis? Possibly. And yet that fleeting touch of sight and sound had not been his own, out of his own memories.
He was tempted now, fascinated, like a child that plays with fire. The talisman had been worn somehow. Where? On the breast? On the brow?
He tried the first, with no result. Then he touched the flat surface of the lens to his forehead.
The great tower of stone rose up monstrous to the sky. It was whole, and there were pallid lights within that stirred and flickered, and it was crowned with a shimmering darkness.
He lay outside the tower, on his belly, and he was filled with fear and a great anger, and a loathing such as turns the bones to water. There was no snow. There was ice everywhere, rising to half the tower’s height, sheathing the ground.
Ice. Cold and clear and beautiful--and deadly.
He moved. He glided snakelike, with infinite caution, over the smooth surface. The tower was gone, and far below him was a city. He saw the temples and the palaces, the glittering lovely city beneath him in the ice, blurred and fairylike and strange, a dream half glimpsed through crystal.
He saw the Ones that lived there, moving slowly through the streets. He could not see them clearly, only the vague shining of their bodies, and he was glad.
He hated them, with a hatred that conquered even his fear, which was great indeed.
He was not Eric John Stark. He was Ban Cruach.
The tower and the city vanished, swept away on a reeling tide.
He stood beneath a scarp of black rock, notched with a single pass. The cliffs hung over him, leaning out their vast bulk as though to crush him, and the narrow mouth of the pass was full of evil laughter where the wind went by.
He began to walk forward, into the pass. He was quite alone.
The light was dim and strange at the bottom of that cleft. Little veils of mist crept and clung between the ice and the rock, thickened, became more dense as he went farther and farther into the pass. He could not see, and the wind spoke with many tongues, piping in the crevices of the cliffs.
All at once there was a shadow in the mist before him, a dim gigantic shape that moved toward him, and he knew that he looked at death. He cried out...
It was Stark who yelled in blind atavistic fear, and the echo of his own cry brought him up standing, shaking in every limb. He had dropped the talisman. It lay gleaming in the snow at his feet, and the alien memories were gone--and Camar was dead.
After a time he crouched down, breathing harshly. He did not want to touch the lens again. The part of him that had learned to fear strange gods and evil spirits with every step he took, the primitive aboriginal that lay so close under the surface of his mind, warned him to leave it, to run away, to desert this place of death and ruined stone.
He forced himself to take it up. He did not look at it. He wrapped it in the bit of silk and replaced it inside the iron boss, and clasped the belt around his waist. Then he found the small flask that lay with his gear beside the fire and took a long pull, and tried to think rationally of the thing that had happened.
Memories. Not his own, but the memories of Ban Cruach, a million years ago in the morning of a world. Memories of hate, a secret war against unhuman beings that dwelt in crystal cities cut in the living ice, and used these ruined towers for some dark purpose of their own.
Was that the meaning of the talisman, the power that lay within it? Had Ban Cruach, by some elder and forgotten science, imprisoned the echoes of his own mind in the crystal?
Why? Perhaps as a warning, as a reminder of ageless, alien danger beyond the Gates of Death?
Suddenly one of the beasts tethered outside the ruined tower started up from its sleep with a hissing snarl.
Instantly Stark became motionless.
They came silently on their padded feet, the rangy mountain brutes moving daintily through the sprawling ruin. Their riders too were silent--tall men with fierce eyes and russet hair, wearing leather coats and carrying each a long, straight spear.
There were a score of them around the tower in the windy gloom. Stark did not bother to draw his gun. He had learned very young the difference between courage and idiocy.
He walked out toward them, slowly lest one of them be startled into spearing him, yet not slowly enough to denote fear. And he held up his right hand and gave them greeting.
They did not answer him. They sat their restive mounts and stared at him, and Stark knew that Camar had spoken the truth. These were the riders of Mekh, and they were wolves.