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"A new tale of Barsoom from the pen of Sander the Panthan (a pseudonym for a talented Dutch writer) who knows the fourth planet... and the worlds of H. P. Lovecraft as well!"

— Tangor

From the author:

The story is a cross-over between the Barsoom novels and the Cthulhu Mythos stories featuring the charcter Randolph Carter. I also borrowed elements from the stories "Allan and the Sundered Veil" by Alan Moore (like the idea of John Carter and Randolph Carter being related, and having met before) and "Mars the Home Front" by George Alec Effinger. The story is set between the end of Skeleton Men of Jupiter and the first story from the Tales of the Morgor War project, to which I intend to contribute as well should my first story be accepted for publication. It deals with some of the unresolved plots from the books, like what became of the cruel Jed Ghron of Ghasta (his fate was not disclosed in A Fighting Man of Mars) and what happened to Tan Hadron and Fo-Nar after they where captured by the mutinous crew of the Dusar.

The Shadow Over Barsoom

Sander the Panthan

* * * * * * * *

Contents

1. John Carter's last visit

2. Escape from Sasoom

3. Randolph

4. The Valley Hohr

5. Battle in the Underground City

6. The New Dream-Quest

7. Visions from the Past

8. Reunion in the Pits

9. The Night the Stars Aligned

10. Clash of the Gods

11. To An Uncertain Future

* * * * * * * *

The story as presented here has been adapted from a manuscript found during the demolition of a small cottage near the Hudson River. A cottage that once belonged to captain John Carter of Virginia, and later, after Carter's demise, by his nephew Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Burroughs of course is best remembered for his stories in which he claimed his late uncle was in fact alive and well, and lived on the planet Mars. You have to decide for yourself whether or not you wish to believe this. The manuscript appears to be another one of those stories that Mr. Burroughs, for some reason, never published. It is presented to you in its unaltered form.

1. John Carter's last visit

It was on June 20, 1943, that I last saw my uncle John Carter.

I was staying in the cottage near the Hudson river that my uncle had left me after his supposed "death." Despite my old age, I still loved coming here every summer. It provided a nice escape from the stress of daily life. And one could definitely use that considering what was going on in the world. With wars raging in Europe and Asia, the world was in a state of chaos. For me these times where extra troublesome, since I knew an even bigger war was about to be fought not on Earth, but on our neighboring planet Mars. In fall 1942, John Carter send me a letter in which he described his latest adventure. An adventure in which he had been abducted by aliens that looked like walking skeletons, and took him to the planet Jupiter (or Sasoom as the Martians call it). These Morgors, as they were called, had plans to invade Barsoom. I had published the story February this year in the pulp magazine Amazing Stories. Immediately a lot of fans wrote me to ask why the story was cut off so abruptly, with my uncle still stranded on Jupiter. But truth is, I don't know how it continued. For some reason my uncle refused to tell me.

The sun had just set, but I was not sleepy yet. I decided to read the letter I had received shortly before traveling here, and not bothered to open yet. The letter, send by a notary office in Boston, informed me that Ward Phillips, an acquaintance of mine, had passed away a few days ago, and that I was one of the people named in his will. I was expected to come to Boston within two weeks.

Mr. Phillips I had known for about nine years. He had been a close friend and correspondent of Randolph Carter, a distant relative of mine who is best remembered for his strange statement concerning the disappearance of his friend Harley Warren, before mysteriously disappearing himself on October 7, 1928, leaving behind no traces other than his car and a hideously carved wooden box containing a parchment filled with symbols no-one could read.

Randolph had always been somewhat of the black sheep of our family, and like many of my relatives I hardly ever had contact with him. He was shunned because of his obsession with the occult, and his constant attempts to escape reality and travel to worlds he claimed one could only reach through dreams. There was however one thing Randolph and I had in common; our mutual interest in the adventures of John Carter, the man we had always known as our uncle and, Great-Uncle respectively, even though but we both knew he was in fact much older than he appeared and had been known as Uncle Jack to several generations within our family. The few times Randolph and I met, John Carter was the only subject we ever discussed. Randolph never doubted that the stories about John Carter that I published were retellings of actual events instead of just tall tales I made up. Deep down I had a feeling Randolph envied his, Great-Uncle for his adventurous life, since Randolph himself could be quite spineless and nervous. As far as I knew, Randolph had only met John Carter once, back in 1880 when Randolph himself was only six years old. Randolph himself however always claimed he had met his, Great-Uncle a second time, when during a quest in a realm named the dreamlands he accidently wandered into an astral plane beyond regular time and space, where he met the astral forms of John Carter and the British Adventurer Alan Quatermain. I never really knew what to make of this story, so I never bothered to ask John Carter about it.

But to get back to the subject: I met Ward Phillips in 1934. Back then, Randolph's estate had been held in trust by a mystic named Etienne-Laurent de Marigny for 6 years. Despite requests from Randolph's relatives to have the estate divided among them, Phillips kept insisting to keep it intact. In 1932, when Randolph had been missing for over 4 years, a conference had been held in De Marigny's home in New Orleans to finally decide the fate of Randolph's estate. I myself had been unable to attend this conference, but our family was represented by Ernest Aspinwall. Also attending was a man named Swami Chandraputra, who apparently told everyone a strange story about how Randolph Carter was alive but trapped in the body of some alien wizard. He even went as far as to claim he was Randolph Carter. What truly happened that day I will probably never know, but point is that by the end of the conference Aspinwall was dead (the coroner later confirmed he died of instant cardiac arrest, most likely caused by great shock), and Swami seemingly disappeared into a strange, coffin shaped clock. Randolph's estate was still held in trust by De Marigny two years later, and since no other relatives of us had any interest anymore after what happened to Aspinwall, he had eventually turned to me. I met both him and Phillips (who was still living in Providence, Rhode Island, back then) that year and together we decided to give the entire estate and Randolph's belongings to Phillips so he could hand it over to Randolph again, should he ever come back. He moved into the house the next year. We stayed in touch afterwards, though mostly through letters.

I read the letter over and over, still unwilling to believe Phillips was indeed gone. I was interrupted however by a loud knock on the door.

"It's unlocked," I called out to the visitor outside, already suspecting who he might be.

The door opened up, and a tall, Caucasian man with black hair and steel-grey eyes entered the room. I immediately walked up to him and shook his hand. "John Carter. How good to see you again. And still not a day older I see. What brings you to Earth?"

My uncle didn't answer right away though. And now that I got a good look at him, he seemed different somehow. His face, though still that of a man in his early 30's, showed signs of great stress and his hair had gone gray in a few places. Also, he was not dressed in his Martian harness but in the clothes in which he was buried in his ventilated tomb. This surprised me since usually he liked to show up in his Martian habiliment. One time he even brought his calot Woola with him.

"I have not much time, son," he said. "Tonight might be my last time on Earth. Now that we have the technology for interplanetary travel on Barsoom, I have decided to no longer Astral Project to Barsoom and leave my body here on Earth but instead bring my body to Barsoom as well. That will be much safer considering the current crisis Barsoom faces."

I recalled the ship build by Fal Sivas, that my Uncle had once used to go to Thuria. And the current crisis was no doubt the upcoming war with the Morgors. I asked him if that was what was troubling him.

"It is. I've tried to warn the thirty-one Jeddaks of Barsoom about this threat, but most of them are skeptical."

I was not pleased to hear that this surprise visit from my uncle was apparently only to say goodbye. I insisted we would drink some coffee first, so not much later we were both sitting in front of the fireplace. It was then my uncle noticed the letter.

"Ward Phillips. I remember him yes. I met him in April 1942. Quite an eccentric old fellow," John Carter said.

I was aware of this fact, but found it strange my uncle had not told me this before. I asked him about it. My uncle apparently realized he might have said to much, but when I asked again he sighed. "Well son. Since this is goodbye, I might as well tell you this. But remember, what I'm about to tell you should not be published any time soon, which is why I didn't tell you about it in my last letter. It is an adventure I have never told to anyone else. Not even my allies on Barsoom. The only people who know about it are those who were there when it happened. It is about something that happened to me shortly after my escape from Sasoom, when I met Randolph Carter."

"Randolph? You met him? Is he alive?" I asked.

"Indeed. And he has been of great help to me in averting a crisis that would could have been the end of Barsoom."

"I'm all ears uncle," I said.

My uncle slowly drank the last of his coffee. "I better start where I left off the last time," he said. "I had just arrived in Zanor, the country of Zan Dar, and expected to be reunited with Dejah Thoris there…"

2. Escape from Sasoom

No sooner had I landed my ship, or the Savators that inhabited the village rushed forward to meet me. They showed no sign of fear for me whatsoever. They were talking simultaneously, making it hard for me to understand them, but it was obvious Zan Dar had told them everything he knew about me, and what I had done to help him escape from the Morgors; something to which his people were very grateful. Upon my request, they took me to the home of Zan Dar. Needless to say the Savator was both surprised and glad to see me.

"So you made it after all. Not many manage to escape the Morgors, let alone do it twice."

I gave him a brief description of my escape and the long journey I had to make to get here. "But now I would like to see my princess again," I said.

Zan Dar understood my desire to be with my princess, and he took me to another house. He opened the door and there she was, my beloved princess. And she was not alone; U-Dan and Vaja were also there, and even Vorion the Morgor. Zan Dar told me that, with great effort, he had managed to convince his people to give him asylum, but they only agreed on the condition he would never leave their village again. Basically, he was a prisoner, but he didn't seem to mind. Dejah Thoris' back was turned towards me when I entered, so I simply said "Kaor, my princess."

When she turned around, she first looked at me as if she her first ancestor had suddenly materialized before her eyes. The tears welled up in her eyes as she ran towards me and hugged me tightly. All the long months of waiting for me, not knowing if and when I would show up, had been like hell for her, but now, at last, we were together again.

"My chieftain. I knew you would make it."

I assured her everything would be alright now, but she knew as well as me this was not true. Even though we had escaped, the threat of the Morgors planning to invade Barsoom still remained. We had to go back to Helium and warn the armies of all cities on Barsoom. We could only hope the Morgors had not already begun their invasion during the months it had taken me to get to Zanor.

"You think they will continue their plans, my chieftain?" Dejah Thoris asked.

"I'm afraid so, my princess. They may have failed to get any information from me about Heliums military and defenses, but seeing how warlike these Morgors are I seriously doubt they would let a small setback like that stop them from continuing the invasion anyway. For all I know, we may only have delayed it for some time," I answered.

Zan Dar would like us to stay a little longer, but I insisted we had to depart as soon as possible. I did agree however to wait one more day so that the Savators could prepare our ship for the long journey back. I was feeling tired, the long journey had taken its toll on me. Dejah Thoris took me to the bedroom of the house so I could rest for a while. It was a small chamber with no windows, which was necessary to make it dark enough to sleep since Sasoom has no visible difference between day and night.

"Pleasant dreams, my noble warrior," she said as she left the room.

But my dreams where anything but pleasant…

* * * * * * * *

In fact, that night I had the weirdest and most terrifying nightmare I ever recall to have had. In my dream I was back on Barsoom, or at least I assume it was Barsoom. The planet's surface was the same, but the twin moons were colored dark red and the sky itself was filled with colors like I had never seen before, nor ever hope to see again since they were so alien looking I can find no words to describe them.

"John Carter," a deep, sinister sounding voice, seemingly coming out of nowhere, called to me.

I looked around but saw no-one. Suddenly I could feel myself being lifted into the air and soon I was flying towards a burning Martian city. When I got close enough I noticed to my horror that it was none other than my new home of Helium. Half the city was already burned to the ground and the other half was still burning with flames in the same alien colors as the sky. Above the city, a dark cloud shaped like what looked like some sort of symbol was visible, and from this cloud huge tentacles swept down to the ground, grabbing the people that were fleeing from the city and pulling them into the cloud. An awful buzzing sound was coming from the cloud, but it was soon replaced by the same, dark, alien voice that had called me earlier.

"John Carter. The stars are aligning again. I will be free," the voice said. I found myself being pulled closer and closer to the cloud, which now opened up to reveal some sort of creature inside. I only caught a brief glimpse of it, because the instant the creature revealed itself my eyes closed and refused to open again, as if my brain didn't want to look at this… this… thing. For what I could see in that brief second, it looked mostly like a toad-like squid.

The last thing I recall from the nightmare was the voice shouting a name: "Azhorra-Tha!"

* * * * * * * *

Sweating and panting I flung myself up from the sleeping silks on which I was lying. Dejah Thoris was standing next to me, having heard me toss and turn in my sleep. She asked me what happened.

"Azhorra-Tha," I answered.

She looked at me as if I had gone crazy, and for a moment I thought I had. I quickly consoled her by saying it had just been a bad dream, nothing more. But deep down I knew there was more to this. Not only the name, but also that symbol seemed so familiar and yet I could not recall where or when I had seen it before.

I didn't try to sleep again, since I was wide awake now. Instead I helped prepare our ship. The Savators gave us enough food and water for the journey back. Not much later, U-Dan, Vaja, Dejah Thoris and I boarded the ship. I had rather seen Vorion coming with us as well since he would be the living evidence that the Morgors where real, but the Savators would not allow him to leave and he himself had no intention to go either. To him Barsoom wouldn't be much safer than this village would be. So, with the four of us safely on board, I activated the magnetic hull covering the ship with the sand, rendering it completely invisible once more.

First I decided to make an extra stop to collect some of the sands of invisibility from the shores of the vast ocean. Then we went to the village of Han Du since I hoped he and his wife would like to come with us to Barsoom. We could use strong fighting men like him, but they did not want to leave their own people since they were daily threatened by the Morgors. I respected their choice. U-Dan suggested we could go back to the palace of Bandolian and try to take him captive, but I considered this too big a risk. If we were captured again, he would have us executed on the spot. I steered the ship through the thick clouds that surround Sasoom. We didn't encounter any other ship (or at least not as far as I know off, since they would of course be invisible) and finally left Sasoom behind us.

* * * * * * * *

U-Dan had learned from Vorion how to pilot a Morgor ship, so we could take turns during the journey home. He had also learned several things about the ships that I did not know yet, like that the ships have a flexible tube that can be extended from the main door to some point outside. U-Dan told me this was used to travel from one ship to another while out in space. One thing I could not understand yet was how the Morgors could possibly send a huge fleet if all their ships are invisible. A collision between two or more ships seemed inevitable to me if no-one could see the other coming. U-Dan however told me that all Morgor ships are equipped with a device not unlike the obstruction evader that my son Carthoris had invented, and is now part of every flier and warship in Helium's navy. Besides, the magnetism of the ships hulls provided extra safety since two magnets with the same polarity reject each other, so two invisible ships could never get too close to one another.

"And then there is this little thing," U-Dan said, pointing at a device that looked like a compass, but this one could turn it's needle into all directions both horizontally and vertically. "It is set to react to the magnetism coming from the hull of another Morgor ship. That way Morgors can tell if and where another of their ships is nearby, even if it is invisible," he said.

But no sooner had he finished his explanation or the needle in the compass suddenly moved to the right. U-Dan and I both looked at each other, and we both thought the same thing. "You don't think that…" he started, but we were interrupted by a loud noise that came from the door. Through the windows we could see another Morgor ship was flying next to us. It had deactivated it's magnetic hull (and thus lost its sand cover, rendering it visible again) in order to get close enough, and it's tube was being extended from their door to a point in space where our dour would be. There was no doubt about it, we had been discovered.

Dejah Thoris and Vaja both came into the room, looking worried, but I send them to a room in the back of the ship and ordered them to stay there. Deciding the best defense would be the offense, U-Dan and I both drew our swords and made our way to the door of our own ship. Outside we could already hear Morgors trying to break open the door. On the count to three I opened the door and we both jumped out of the ship and into the tube. There were two Morgors outside, but we took them completely by surprise and ran them through the heart before they even had a chance to react. We then ran into the other Morgor ship, where we encountered four other Morgors. They were prepared however and immediately attacked us. I managed to dodge the first one when he ran towards me, and parred a blow from the second one. The first one had turned around again and attacked me from behind, but I stepped aside at the last moment and instead of me, he ran his sword through his companion, fatally injuring him. From the corner of my eye I notice U-Dan had also managed to kill one of his opponents, so it was two against two again.

Our other opponents slowly backed up as the fight continued, but both U-Dan and me failed to realize they might be luring us into a trap. When we reached the other side of the room, two other Morgors suddenly jumped out of the shadows and grabbed us from behind. We were both disarmed and forced onto our knees.

"Well, well. John Carter. We were expecting you," a voice said. A voice that sounded all too familiar. It was Multis Par, son of the jed of Zor who had been captured and taken to Sasoom before any of us. But something was different about him now. He was dressed in the habiliment of a Morgor.

"Ever since your escape, we knew you would sooner or later try to get back to Barsoom. We have been patrolling this part of the solar system for weeks now. You should have listened to Bandolian Warlord, and taken his offer to help him in exchange for a high position in his new rule over Barsoom. Now, I have been given that honor."

I said nothing, but my blood boiled with anger. Multis Par always seemed a coward to me, but now he had betrayed his own planet and people just to be some tyrants straw man. Multis Par ordered for U-Dan and me to be locked up, and then for our ship to be searched for Dejah Thoris and Vaja. I desperately tried to think of something.

And what happened next came as unexpectedly to us as it came to the Morgors. Suddenly there was a bright flash of light in the middle of the room, that blinded everyone present. When I could see again, I noticed a creature had materialized inside the ship. It was dressed in a turban and robes that appeared to be Earth made, but the creature itself was not like anything I had ever seen on the three planets and 1 moon I had been on by now. It was a snouted, insectile creature with a blue skin, four green buglike eyes, and four arms with 9 long, clawed fingers on each hand. I had seen a lot of repulsive things in my life (the hormads and of course the Morgors coming to mind), but nothing like this.

For a few xats, nobody in the room moved, since the Morgors and Multis Par were just as surprised by this turn of events as I was. The creature itself also seemed confused to suddenly find itself in this surrounding. But his confusion soon gave way to anger. It jumped towards the Morgors that were holding me, grabbed one by the throat, and flung him against the wall. One of the Morgors that was holding U-Dan came to his companions aide. U-Dan and I wasted no time and broke free from our other captors, grabbed our swords and killed them. The creature meanwhile was lashing out at both Morgors with his claws while screaming things in a language I couldn't understand. When it noticed me and U-Dan coming towards him, it suddenly turned around and ran past us, into the connection tube towards our ship. I ordered U-Dan to grab Multis Par and follow me, while I pursued the creature. The two Morgors where too injured to stop U-Dan as he quickly disarmed Multis Par and forced him to come along. I meanwhile was already back in our ship, and saw the creature running towards the room where Dejah Thoris and Vaja where hiding. I managed to grab the creature by its shoulder (by lack of a better term) and knocked it out cold with a single punch.

U-Dan entered the ship with Multis Par and closed the door. Through the window I could see the other Morgor ship disconnect the tube and speed away. At least they were of no more concern to us now. I tied up Multis Par with his own harness, after which U-Dan and I took a good look at the creature. Dejah Thoris tried to come in, but I stopped her because I didn't want either her or Vaja to see this thing. It was the kind of creature that could easily cause you to pass out (or worse) from shock if you were suddenly confronted by it without any warning.

"What do you think it is John Carter?" U-Dan asked.

Upon hearing my name, the creature suddenly opened his eyes. I already drew my sword to defend myself, but the creature did not attack. In fact, he just lay there staring at me with its four eyes, but something had changed in them. I can't quite describe what, but they no longer seemed to me the eyes of a confused alien being. Slowly the creature got up and spoke to me, not in its native tongue but in plain English

"John Carter… Help me!"

I could only stare at the creature dumbfounded, not knowing what to say.

"Help me, please… It's me… your grandnephew…, Randolph."

3. Randolph

"It's me, Randolph Carter. I know how strange this sounds but it's true."

I had absolutely no idea what to make of this whole situation. For what I had heard from my nephew, Randolph had been missing since 1928. U-Dan had of course not understood a word that was being said, but I quickly translated most of it for him. Needless to say he too was surprised.

"Your grandnephew? …. I can see the family resemblance," he said sarcastically, but I didn't think this was the right time for jokes.

The creature said: "John Carter, you are much older than you look. Even you don't know how old you are since you can't remember any childhood and as far as you know you've always been a man of around 30. You served in the confederate army during the civil war. You first came to Mars, or Barsoom as you call it, in 1866, while you were digging for gold in Arizona. Your Martian name is Dotar Sojat. You lived among the green Martians, saved Helium from Zodanga, married a Martian princess and had two children with her. You have made friends and enemies among all of Barsoom's main races, including the yellow Martians from the north and the Kaldanes. You exposed Issus as a fake goddess, and had to wait half a Martian year to free your princess from the temple of the sun. Need I say more?"

This was too much coincidence for me, and I decided to give this creature claiming to be my distant relative a chance to prove his laims. "If you are indeed Randolph Carter, tell me, when was the last time we met?"

"Officially we met in 1880 when I was just a child of six years old, but we also met some other time, from your point of view before 1880 and from my point of view after 1880, when we both ended up in that astral plane beyond time and space."

That was all the evidence I needed. I had never told anyone about this small adventure of mine, mostly because during the first days after my arrival on Barsoom I could not remember it. The memory came back to me later in my dreams. But only the real Randolph could know this as well.

Now I myself was filled with questions to ask my grandnephew, and I decided we needed some time alone to sort things out. I ordered for Multis Par to be locked in the back of the ship. I wanted to bring him back to Barsoom to stand trial for his betrayal. Dejah Thoris and Vaja were allowed to come into the front of the ship again, but I made sure they did not get to see Randolph. While U-Dan piloted the ship towards Barsoom, Randolph and I retreated into a room in the back of the ship where we could talk things over.

* * * * * * * *

And so, not much later, we were alone in the back of the ship. There, Randolph gave me a detailed description of all that had happened to him. His desire to regain the lost entrance to the world of dreams, how he found the mysterious silver key, his trip through the ultimate gate and his meeting with Yog-Sothoth. How he had been given the chance to visit a former life of his on a planet called Yaddith, but ended up trapped in the body of this alien, Zkauba. How, after eons on Yaddith, he had eventually made his way back to Earth and went looking for a way to return to the Ultimate Gate, while posing as a Hindu named Swami Chandraputra and keeping Zkauba's personality under control with a drug, that Randolph unfortunately ran out of before he could complete his work. How he attended the conference in New Orleans, where Aspinwall in an act of arrogance and foolishness had unmasked Randolph and died of shock when he saw Zkauba's face.

He ended his narration with a description of how Zkauba had, in this moment of chaos, regained control of their shared body and tried to use a device he called the dream-clock to get back to his own time and planet.

"I knew I should have stayed away from that clock," Randolph sighed, "but I had to go to that conference to secure my estate. That clock is a very ancient and mystical device created by a race long forgotten. I purchased it years ago in of my attempts to regain my lost access to the dream world, but was afraid to use it."

This didn't come as a surprise to me, I knew how nervous and spineless Randolph could be.

"I had send it to my friend Etienne-Laurent de Marigny for both safe-keeping and to get it away from Zkauba, fearing he would realize what it was and try to use it during the rare moments he was in control, since the race that created it once lived on Yaddith as well. Zkauba nearly succeeded. I was still enough in control to sabotage his attempt, but in the chaos the clock caused us to be send here," Randolph finished his story.

He agreed with me he had been exceptionally lucky to end up on the Morgor ship instead of empty space. One thing bothered me though. Randolph specifically said this conference was in 1932. In my palace in Helium I keep an Earth calendar as well as a Martian calendar. When I was captured by the Morgors it had been February 1941, and although it was hard for me to keep track of time while on Sasoom, I guessed it should be somewhere in early spring 1942 by now. I carefully broke this news to Randolph. Needless to say he was not pleased to hear this.

"Ten years! You're saying it send me forward ten years." He sat down to let the information sink in. "Then I guess there is no point any more in trying to get my estate back. It's probably been sold or given to some distant cousin of mine by now."

"At least you still live," I said. That is what I always say to keep up my spirit when I find myself in a particularly bad situation, and considering what Randolph had been through he should be lucky he could say the same thing. Fortunately Randolph realized this as well. He reached into the pockets of his robes and pulled out the Silver Key of which he had told me. The It was a large, curiously shaped key engraved with mysterious arabesque symbols, that had allowed Randolph to revisit his childhood and eventually go to Yaddith.

"This key can be used to enter any realm or dimension there is, open mystical doorways that otherwise stay closed, and much more. I believe I have barely scratched the surface of it's possibilities. Unfortunately I can't do anything with it without the spells. There was a parchment in the box with the key. My friend Ward Phillips has it, but I managed to secure a copy."

He told me he had left this copy behind in his apartment in Boston, that he had been forced to rent since he couldn't reclaim his house while in Zkauba's body. Unfortunately, since that was ten years ago, it was unlikely the parchment was still there. Randolph insisted he needed it, since he couldn't do anything without it. Now I found myself faced with a hard choice. Randolph needed help, that was for sure, but I wanted to get to Helium as fast as possible. I guessed it would take three more days to get to Barsoom, but we were probably already close enough to Barsoom for me to try and astral project back to Earth. So eventually, I agreed to go to Earth and try to locate the parchment for him.

I discussed the plan with Dejah Thoris and U-Dan. Both of them were not too fond of having to stay behind with that "thing" as they described Randolph, and Dejah Thoris didn't want to lose me again, but I assured her I would be fine. It would be impossible for me to try and astral project back into the ship after I had found the parchment Randolph wanted, but that wasn't necessary, since every time I travelled from Earth to Barsoom, I always ended up in the exact same spot; the valley where the Green Martians had first found me. The only exception was that one time I landed in the Valley Dor. So, I instructed U-Dan to go to that valley when he reached Barsoom and pick me up there. However, should I for some reason fail to show up, he had to take Dejah Thoris to Helium right away instead of waiting for me. Randolph promised me he would stay in the back of the ship and try to keep Zkauba under control.

And so, I kissed Dejah Thoris farewell and focused all my attention on my body back on Earth. Ever since Kar Komak taught me how I could take objects like harnesses and swords with me while astral projecting I had always gone to Earth in my Martian habiliment, but since I had to go to Boston now I decided to just travel back into my body that was still safely buried in the ventilated tomb only I could open. I felt my spirit leave the ship and shoot through the black void of space towards my old home planet.

Had I known at that point that Multis Par had overheard Randolph and me talking, and actually understood what we said (since our conversation was of course in English rather than the Barsoomian language), I would not have gone to Earth…

* * * * * * * *

I opened my eyes and stared at the ceiling of the tomb. I tried to get up, but this was quite difficult since my body was very stiff from lying still so long. It took me fifteen minutes before I could finally feel all my muscles again. Dusting off my clothes, I opened a box that was buried in the tomb with me. Inside was some money and a gun, that I had left here just in case. I carefully opened the door of the tomb for a small crack, and made sure nobody was around. Then I left the tomb.

I won't bother you with a detailed description of my journey to Boston. When I arrived there by train, I went straight to the decaying west end where Randolph had told me he rented an apartment. I spoke to the landlord, but he only confirmed what Randolph and I had already suspected. When "Swami" disappeared and stopped paying rent, the apartment was cleaned out and rented to someone else. But I was lucky. It turned out all of Randolph's belongings were picked up by his friend Ward Phillips, who now lived in Randolph's former home here in Boston. On my way there I had the strange feeling someone was spying on me. Several times I turned around, expecting to see someone following me, but I never saw anything out of the ordinary. Once I arrived at the house I indeed found mr. Phillips there. When he opened I tried to introduce myself, but much to my surprise he already knew who I was.

"John Carter…. The John Carter. My god, it is really you. And you still look just as young as in that picture Randolph showed me."

Indeed, Randolph had told him a lot about me, and Phillips had read all the books that Edgar had published so far. He immediately invited me in. From the first moment I saw him Phillips appeared to me as quite eccentric, and that feeling was only increased when I saw his huge collection of books about the occult and other subjects most people rather leave alone. While drinking some tea, I told Phillips all about my meeting with Randolph.

"I knew it," he said. "Etienne was a little skeptical, but I didn't doubt Swami was really Randolph." He fortunately still had the parchment Randolph needed and agreed to give it to me. While he was looking for it, I examined his books more closely. For some unknown reason I found my attention drawn towards a shelf on the other side of the room. Here I noticed another notebook. I don't know why but something told me it might be important, so I took it out of the shelf. It had the word "Mars" written on its cover. When Phillips re-entered the room.

"That one belonged to Randolph, Mr. Carter," he said. "And I have made some contributions to it myself. Maybe you should take it. It contains some of my own attempts to translate the parchment, since Randolph had not finished it entirely back in 1932," he said.

He handed me the parchment, when suddenly there was a explosion outside. It sounded just like a Martian radium pistol being fired. The explosion shattered the window of the living room, but fortunately neither of us got hit by the flying glass. For a second I thought I saw a man standing just outside the house, but in the blink of an eye he was gone. Phillips insisted that I better returned to Barsoom fast. He would take care of things here should someone come to ask questions about the explosion.

"Just tell Randolph he can have his estate back if he wants," Phillips told me.

It was during the train ride the next day that I decided to read the notebook I had taken from Randolph's apartment. Flipping through the pages, it soon became obvious to me that the book contained attempts by Randolph and Phillips to analyze my stories about Mars and make connections with the creatures they had read about in other books.

"Mars, one of the planets colonized by the Elder Things and the Mi-Go," the first page said. That first name didn't ring a bell, but I definitely recalled the Mi-Go from our adventure with the time traveler.

I read on. "Kaldanes and Sarmaks; possible descendants of the spawn of Cthulhu." Again that name didn't say much to me, but I do recall Ghek the Kaldane telling me they where distant relatives of the Sarmaks, those bloodthirsty parasitic aliens all armies of Barsoom had fought against years ago (in 1898 according to Earth's calendar). They invaded Earth shortly after but where defeated there as well.

I really had to ask Randolph what all these theories of his where about. I flipped the page, and stared in shock at what I saw next. Because there, on the page in front of me, was that name again… "Azhorra-Tha!"

"Outer god. Imprisoned on Mars after he fled from Earth." That was the only description Randolph had written next to it.

I didn't really believe in gods, especially not since I had unmasked Issus as a fake. But still.

The page contained two more names of other deities associated with Mars: D'endrrah and Uvhash, the blood mad god of the void and a possible rival of Azhorra-Tha.

I closed the book and let the information sink in. I was hoping to make sense of it all, but this new revelation only created more questions.

* * * * * * * *

That night I arrived back at the tomb. There was nobody to see, but I noticed fresh footprints in the mud. Somebody had been here recently. And to be honest, I had the strange feeling somebody was watching me. I carefully opened the door of the tomb when suddenly I heard something in the bushed behind me. I turned around and saw the same man I had seen yesterday in Boston, and only now did I realize he was a thern!

He was armed with a radium pistol, which he aimed at me and fired. I however managed to dodge the shot, and since the sun had already set the bullet did not explode. I saw him aim again. Thinking quickly, I ran into the tomb, grabbed the gun, and returned fire. My first shot hit the Thern in his arm and he dropped his pistol. I ran towards him and kicked the pistol out of his reach. Now that I was closer to him, I noticed how strange and ugly looking this Thern was. His blonde wig and white skin combined with the Martian harness proved he was a Thern, but he had a ugly, wrinkled face and, much to my surprise, hair all over his body. Around his neck he had a medallion with the same symbol as that cloud from my dream painted on it.

"John Carter. We meet again. And you're as hard to kill as ever," he said. I however had no idea who this Thern was and asked him his name. The Thern raised his eyebrows. "You don't recognize me anymore? I'm Qual Fjel, one of the five high priests of the cult of Azhorra-Tha."

Again that name. This was too much to be coincidence. But the name of the Thern didn't seem familiar to me. Qual Fjel must have noticed the confused look on my face, since he smiled wickedly. "So you're memories where erased after all. When you came back to Barsoom we feared you somehow still remembered everything. Well, in that case we won't have to kill you John Carter, you can't stop us if you don't even know what you're up against. Oh, and don't think you will see your princess and friends again, Warlord…"

"Dejah Thoris!" I had no idea what this Thern was talking about, but if he had done something to her! I aimed my gun at him and demanded to know what he was talking about, but instead he merely shouted a phrase that mostly sounded like "qrtx wraqx mglw'nafh Azhorra-Tha." In a flash of light, the Thern was gone. It was clear to me what he had done; he astral projected.

For a moment I just stood there, not sure what just happened. This Thern knew me, but I had no idea who he was. But that was not important right now. I entered my tomb and closed the door. Then I lay down and closed my eyes, focusing on Mars. I felt my spirit leave my body again, but it stayed in the tomb long enough for it to grab hold of the parchment and the notebook. Then I shot through the dark void of space once again, making my way towards the red planet.

4. The Valley Hohr

I opened my eyes again. I was back on Barsoom, that was for sure. Finally, after all these months I had returned to the planet that was now my home. Next to me where the book and parchment, but otherwise I was naked and without any weapons or other objects, just like the first time I came to Barsoom. It was night, but fortunately both moons where in the sky providing enough light for me to see.

I was indeed in the place I had anticipated to arrive; the moss covered valley where the Thark once kept one of their incubators. But there was no sign of the Morgor ship. I called out for Dejah Thoris, U-Dan, Vaja and Randolph, but received no answer. I waited for one zode, but still no ship showed up. Out of other options I spend the night in a cave where I usually hide a flier when I visit Earth. I was lucky it was not occupied by a Banth. The following morning I drank some milk-like sap from a mantalia bush to ease my stomach.

There was still no sign of the ship and by now I feared it might not come either. But now that the sun was up I saw something I had missed the night before. Footprints, made by thoats. I followed them for a little while and soon came to a small crater, obviously made by a flier or other kind of ship. Around the crater there had not too long ago been a severe fight. Half buried under the sand I noticed the corpses of two Red Martians, both fat and oily-looking, and dressed in harnesses I did not recognize. They both still had their swords. Around them I noticed a broken sword, and several pieces of harnesses. I examined the sword and to my horror I noticed it was not a Martian Sword but a Morgor sword. This could only have been U-Dan's weapon. The crater in which I was standing… I realized now it must have been from the Morgor ship. I recalled Qual Fjel's threat. He wasn't bluffing. This was somehow his work.

I cursed silently. My beloved princess was taken from me again, and I didn't know where to look for her now. I stripped one of the dead Martians of his harness and weapon so that at least I was armed and clothed again. I placed the notebook and parchment in the pockets of the harness. The bodies had clearly been dead for only a day or so, so whatever happened here must have happened shortly before my return.

I quickly evaluated my situation. I had encountered the Tharks here when I first came to Barsoom, but this was not their territory. They jus hid their incubator here. Their territory was east of here. It would take days to reach Helium or one of its allied countries on foot and the chances that a friendly flier might pass by were slim to none. The tracks left behind by the thoats were going west, a direction the Tharks had never dared to go when I was with them. Mostly because the territory of another Green Martian Tribe, the Thurd, was located there. But there was more. According to their legends a sinister and forbidden land was located in that direction. But still, these riders where the ones who captured my princess and friends and stole the ship, so following their track would at least give me a target to go towards. It was against better judgment, but sometimes you have to take some risks.

* * * * * * * *

I followed the tracks an entire day, stopping only a few xats at the time to rest. I spend the night in another cave, and this proved to be a good thing, because the cave was occupied by a Thoat. It was only a small thoat, hardly the size of an Earth horse, so I knew it belonged to Red Martians. It still had a saddle on it's back, and it's trappings resembled that of the harness I was now wearing. The creature was at first afraid of me, but I managed to gain his trust.

With a thoat at my disposal I could cover a much greater distance. For two more days and nights I traveled. I boldly went straight through the Thurd's territory, but I did not encounter any Green Martians. I knew Helium was north of me and for a brief moment I considered going there first, but there were a lot of storms in this time of the year and I feared that one would soon wipe out the tracks, leaving me unable to ever find my princess again. The second night we were attacked by a banth. I managed to kill the creature, but unfortunately not before it mortally injured my thoat. The following morning my fears where confirmed; a sand storm had wiped away the tracks, but fortunately I did remember the direction in which they headed. In the distance I noticed a tall mountain. It was cone shaped and with a flat top, suggesting it might be a dead volcano. Seeing no other landmarks to focus on, I continued my way towards the volcano. It took me another day to finally get there. The sun was already beginning to set when I arrived at the foot of the volcano. I spend the night there, hiding behind a tall rock to stay out of sight.

The following day I walked around the volcano. It turned out to be much taller than I had anticipated. I noticed footprints, suggesting other people came here frequently. And several times I could swear I heard the sound of rushing water, coming from inside the volcano. After walking for several miles I noticed something that made my heart stop for a minute. Could it be? I ran towards the object and indeed, it was the Morgor ship. I opened the door and went inside. There was no sign of Dejah Thoris, Randolph, U-Dan or Vaja, or Multis Par for that matter. I tried to start the ship, but it didn't respond.

"The door is open," I heard someone shout. I ran to the door and noticed at least twenty Red Martians dressed in the same harness as me and just as fat as those two dead Red Martians I encountered earlier, standing outside. They noticed me as well. "The Jasoomian. Get him!" the first one shouted.

I jumped out of the ship and drew my sword. The first warrior ran towards me, but now that I was back on Barsoom my Earthly mussles gave me a great advantage again, especially over enemies that were as fat and slow as these warriors. I simply jumped over the first warrior, and landed just in front of the second warrior, running him through the heart before he even realized what was happening. The other warrior surrounded me and attacked from multiple sides at the time. Jumping over them again, I landed outside the circle. The warrior that had attacked me first was now closest to me. I managed to par his blow with my sword, throw his sword aside, and with a swift stroke I chopped off his head. Another warrior attacked me from behind, but I dodged his blade and soon he too fell to the ground dead.

The remaining seventeen warriors became reluctant to attack me directly, So they opted for a different approach. Soon they had me surrounded again. First only the two in front of me attacked. I managed to block both their swords and slice the throat of one of them, but before I could jump away again three warriors grabbed my legs from behind. Another seized my sword hand and disarmed me. Not much later they had tied me up. One warrior, clearly the Padwar, stepped forward.

"Impressive. The last prisoners we captured only managed to kill two of us, and you killed four on your own. But your skills won't save you, Warlord of Barsoom," he said. So they knew who I was. "Take him away. Ghron and his fellow High Priests would like to see him," the Padwar ordered.

"Ghron?" that name sounded familiar. I tried to think where I had heard it before and suddenly it occurred to me; he was the cruel Jed that Tan Hadron had told me about. Years ago, he and Nur An had ended up in a lush and green valley called the Valley Hohr through an underground river, after they had been sentenced to "the death" by Haj Osis, the jed of Tjanath. But this place that looked like paradise at first (save for those giant spiders) turned out to be a hell when they met Ghron, the Jed of Ghasta (the only city in this valley). I clearly recall the stories Tan Hadron had told me about the pits, the tortures and mutilations Ghron inflicted upon his victims, and how Tan Hadron and Nur An had barely managed to escape. Ever since I learned about Ghron I had sworn to end his tyranny, but somehow none of our scout fliers ever managed to locate this valley. Even Tan Hadron found himself unable to find the valley again. When he tried to get there by following the underground river from Tjanath once more, he found his way blocked by a cave-in. Eventually, he was forced to give up on the matter. And now, by sheer accident, I had apparently located the valley Hohr again, and I realized how much trouble I was in if the stories about Ghron were true.

The sixteen warriors led me away from the ship. We walked another mile before coming across a small opening in the side of the volcano. A huge rock was located next to it, and the marks on the ground proved it could be moved in front of the opening to seal it off completely. From the darkness I heard the sound of rushing water again. But I also picked up something else. The sound of a small, flier. The warriors must also have heard it since they turned around. Suddenly, one of them let out a loud cry of pain and fell to the ground. I noticed an arrow was sticking out of his chest. I turned around and noticed, just behind us, an army of about thirty archers. They all simultaneously aimed their arrows at us, and within seconds all warriors where dead.

Just above the archers was indeed a two-person flier, with two white skinned people on board. When it landed, the archers suddenly disappeared into the thin air. I looked at the dead bodies besides me and saw the arrows had disappeared too. The Red warriors where still dead, but their bodies no longer showed any signs of injury. I couldn't help but smile since I knew what this meant.

"Kaor Kar Komak!" I shouted.

Indeed, it was the phantom bowman come to life, who had helped my son Carthoris and his wife Thuvia escape from Lotaria. He had been an ally of Helium ever since, although he liked to wander around and never stayed in Helium for long, which I considered a shame since there were numerous times we could have used him and his bowmen. When I walked up to the flier, I also recognized the other man on board. It was none other than Ulysses Paxton, or Vad Varo as he was called here on Barsoom, the only other Earthmen I knew that had managed to travel to Mars and who was now prince of Duhor as well as a respected surgeon thanks to the training he received from Ras Thavas.

"Kaor, John Carter!" they both greeted me.

* * * * * * * *

Fortunately for me, Vad Varo and Kar Komak had brought food and water with them for the journey, so I could finally get some much needed refreshments. Vad Varo also brought along two radium grenades (a rather recent invention mad by Helium scientists).

We had a lot of catching up to do, so I asked the two of them what brought them here.

"News about your disappearance had quickly spread across Barsoom, John Carter," Vad Varo began. "I offered the fleet and soldiers of Duhor to help the navy of Helium in its search for you. It was in Helium I met Kar Komak."

From here Kar Komak continued the story. "For several weeks now I have sensed dark and disturbing things happening on Barsoom, John Carter. No-one else seemed to notice. I guess I must be more sensitive to these kind of things because for one I'm in fact not a natural being but a construct of the mind, and second the Lotharians, from whose mind I have been born, are among the greatest psychics on the planet. Several nights in a row, I saw a vision in my dreams about you, fighting a monster I cannot describe in any words of the Barsoomian language. I also saw this volcano in my vision. When I told Vad Varo about it he was skeptical at first, but eventually agreed to come with me to look for you."

"Which wasn't easy," Vad Varo said. "We must have passed over this place three times without noticing the volcano. It was only after Kar Komak took over the controls that we found it, and just in time too."

Now it was my turn to tell them how I had ended up here, and I didn't leave out any details. Especially not the part about my own nightmare. When I told about Randolph however, Vad Varo interrupted me for a second.

"Randolph? From Arkham?" he asked.

As it turned out he and Randolph had met each other in France when they served in the United States army and French Foreign Legion respectively during World War I. Randolph had still been recovering from a severe injury he suffered in 1916. The two men had quickly become friends when they discovered their mutual interest in my stories.

Now that we were all on the same page again, we had to decide what to do. Warning Helium was still high on my list of priorities, but I knew I was close to the place my princess was held captive. We all decided to investigate the opening in the volcano's side. I was sure we would find Randolph, Dejah Thoris and the others there and Kar Komak wanted to know more about this place, especially when I told him this was most likely the valley Tan Hadron had visited.

We walked through a small tunnel that eventually led us to the banks of an underground river. So that was the water I had heard. To our right the river disappeared into the darkness. To our left we could see light. Deciding that this would be the best way to go, we followed the river and emerged in a place you don't often see on Barsoom. It was indeed a valley inside the volcano's long extinct crater, and it was in every way as lush and green as Tan Hadron had described it. The river we had followed neatly cut the valley in half. On the other side I could see a waterfall where the river emerged from another underground cave. No doubt that was the way through which Tan Hadron and Nur An had entered this place when they first visited it. I also noticed the giant spider webs everywhere, and in the distance I could see the gloomy city of Ghasta with its buildings made from black, volcanic rock.

"And then to think such a beautiful place houses such a terrible secret," I said. The mere thought that my beloved princess was now a captive of such a mad man as Ghron was unbearable. I had to get her out of here fast.

Kar Komak sadly shook his head. "If it is the tortures of Ghron you're talking about, I'm afraid that's not the true thing one should fear here. I already suspected what this place was when Tan Hadron first mentioned the name Valley Hohr to me, and now that I've seen all this I know it for sure."

"Know what?" I asked.

He told me the Valley Hohr is mentioned in the mythology of the Therns as a place travelers making the last pilgrimage might pass through. The legends say that in the beginning of time the Mighty Iss had taken the last of the evil, those who even She could not purify, and hidden them in this valley, placing the giant spiders along the river to contain these unholy creatures that masquerade as men. He had heard about this legend during his many journeys on Barsoom. I asked Kar Komak if he believed in this. Although he couldn't tell for sure, I had to agree with him everything was slowly falling into place; his visions about something bad going to happen, my nightmare about the same thing, the three of us happening to meet right here in this place no-one had been able to find before and that according to legends houses something terrible….

"Guys, we're getting company," Vad Varo said. In the distance a group of soldiers was approaching.

"Should I summon my bowmen and take care of them?" Kar Komak asked, but I feared that would only attract more attention.

", Great-Uncle John!" a voice shouted behind me. All three of us turned around and noticed Randolph standing in the cave behind us. He slowly walked towards us, but it was obvious to me this was taking him a lot of effort to do. Kar Komak and Vad Varo both grabbed their swords to defend themselves against this alien thing, but I stopped them before they could attack Randolph.

"Come quick… there is a… cave… down here," Randolph said, breathing heavily between his words. He was also sweating. It was obvious something was wrong with him. "Come… those soldiers… They won't enter… it."

Kar Komak and Vad Varo where reluctant to come along with Randolph, but I assured them it was okay. Randolph now realized who the other human in the group was, and greeted Vad Varo the same way they always did in the army. Although still not entirely convinced, it did cause Vad Varo to, for now, believe my claims about this creature being Randolph. The three of us followed Randolph. He led us back over the river bank, past the tunnel through which we had come, and into the darkness.

5. Battle in the Underground City

Randolph led us deeper and deeper into the cave, as fast as his current condition would allow. We followed the river for about a mile before the tunnel made a sharp turn and went away from the river, deeper into the ground. Soon it made another sharp turn and were heading back in the direction of the valley, but I estimated we would be several feet below the surface by now, and the small corridor was still leading down. We didn't have torches with us, but this was not necessary. The walls of this corridor where covered in some sort of fluorescent material. The deeper we went, the more I smelled a strange, rotting smell that I could not quite place. Randolph's condition seemed to be slightly improving at these depths however; he wasn't breathing that heavily any more, but he was still sweating and struggling to stay on his feet.

Vad Varo was walking in front of me, talking to Randolph. Randolph's knowledge of their days in the army was enough proof for Vad Varo that this alien creature was indeed his old friend. Randolph told Vad Varo he had been there when his body was brought into a field hospital, severely injured and showing no signs of consciousness despite heart and brain still functioning. Randolph had realized what must had happened and arranged for Vad Varo's body to be shipped back to the U.S. and stored safely in a well ventilated tomb, just like the one I used for my own body on Earth.

I realized Vad Varo and Randolph had a lot of catching up to do, but there were more important things to worry about right now. I asked Randolph what had happened after I had left the ship.

"We arrived on Mars a day sooner than expected," Randolph started. I thought it over and realized I must have made a miscalculation. When I was captured the journey to Sasoom took eighteen days, but Sasoom and Barsoom where now probably closer to one another. Randolph continued. "When we landed in the location you requested, we were suddenly ambushed by about thirty red skinned soldiers, riding these creatures the size of a horse ("a thoat", I corrected him). They were led by two other humanoids; one with a skin black as charcoal, and one with a skin yellow like a ripe lemon. And both had very hairy, ugly bodies."

A yellow and a black Martian? Together and leading the soldiers of Ghasta? This was getting stranger by the minute.

"They boarded the ship before we could do something. U-Dan managed to kill two of them but they quickly overpowered him. They tied up U-Dan and the women, and locked me in the back of the ship. I did see how they freed that Multis Par guy though. It was obvious he knew the black and yellow men. He had a medallion with him identical to went quite fast after that. Multis Par took over the controls of the ship and steered it towards here. Through the window I could see the other soldiers leave again on their animals. They didn't bother to bring their fallen comrades along, and one of the two now riderless thoats managed to flee. When the soldiers that had come on board tried to capture me, Zkauba gained the upper hand again. He attacked Multis Par and caused the ship to crash land just outside the volcano. The door was opened by the crash and I, or rather Zkauba, ran. He ended up in this cave, and for some reason the soldiers refused to follow me, or him, or us. I don't know what happened to U-Dan or the others. I stayed hidden here for a long time, until I heard you and Paxton talk."

I translated the most essential parts of what Randolph said for Kar Komak. By now the corridor was getting wider and not much later we emerged in a gigantic underground cave, also entirely covered in the fluorescent material. The cave itself was filled with the ruins of what must have been an ancient city, but it was build in an architectural style unlike any I had ever seen on Barsoom, or Earth for that matter. The buildings consisted of mostly cubes and cone-like shapes. Some buildings had completely collapsed into piles of rubble, others were still partly standing. The smell of rotting material was stronger here.

"What is this place?" Kar Komak asked.

"Probably the remains of an settlement of the Elder Things. There is a city just like this one on the Earth's south pole, behind a huge mountain range," Randolph answered. This reminded me of the notebook I still had with me and I asked him what these Elder Things where.

"They were a highly advanced, extraterrestrial race that is believed to have been responsible for the creation of life on Earth. Most likely they did the same thing here on Mars. That would explain why Martian and Earth creatures evolved in basically the same directions." This theory sounded pretty plausible to me, but then again I'm not a biologist.

Randolph suddenly collapsed onto the floor. Vad Varo was quick to help him get back up, although I could tell from the look on his face he didn't like the idea of having to touch Zkauba's body. I couldn't really blame him considering how utterly alien Randolph's current body was for us. I asked Randolph what was wrong. He said he probably contacted some sort of Martian virus his current, alien body was not familiar with. It could very well be lethal. When he had left Yaddith and come to Earth he had to take a lot of precautions to protect himself against Earthly conditions that would be hostile to his alien body. But since he had no idea he would be visiting Mars as well, he was unprepared for any of the conditions here. While Vad Varo stayed with Randolph, Kar Komak and I examined the cave more closely. Judging by its size, it wouldn't surprise me if this cave was as big as the valley Hohr itself. The deeper we went into it however, the more I thought something moving. One moment both Kar Komak and I could see some of the rubble moving and heard something get away as we approached it.

"Probably an Ulsio or one of those three legged rats," Kar Komak said. But I was not too sure. It sounded more like something that slithered across the floor, like a snake. But whatever the creature was, it had drawn my attention to another section of the cave. This section was clearly not a natural formation but was cut out by someone or something. Inside was a wall filled with symbols that looked like the ones on Randolph's parchment. And among them was the symbol that had haunted me in my nightmares for several days now… the symbol of Azhorra-Tha!

Randolph and Vad Varo followed us into this new section, stating they had seen something sneak up to them. "I don't like this place John Carter. There is something here, I just don't know what," Vad Varo said.

I didn't admit it, but I felt it too. It wasn't just the smell or the movements I just saw. There was something to this entire place that made me feel uneasy, as if some unseen presence was watching our every move.

Randolph too noticed the wall and confirmed that these symbols where indeed related to those on his parchment. "Except that these are more simplified versions," he added. These symbols, he told me, where part of an ancient language that had been brought to Earth and Mars by the spawn of Cthulhu, and been used by several ancient races that lived on both planets eons ago. He however didn't believe the Elder Things had written this message on the wall, since they predated even the arrival of the Cthulhuhoids.

After carefully examining the symbols for a while, Randolph suddenly stepped back, gasping in horror as if he had just seen, or rather read, something that terrified him.

"Unbelievable….just unbelievable," was all he said. It took quite some effort from both me and Vad Varo to break Randolph's trance and finally have him say what it was he had read.

"It's a message left by the Mi-Go. It tells about the history of this city. It was indeed a settlement of the Elder Things, but they were driven into extinction when their city was inhabited by a great evil. An outer god driven off the planet Earth by the Elder gods and imprisoned here on Mars…., Great-Uncle John… we are now standing in the prison of Azhorra-Tha."

"You mean…" I started

"Yes, he's basically all around us, but he can't directly interact with us because of his imprisonment."

Mighty Iss had taken the last of the evil, those who even She could not purify and hidden them in the Valley Hohr. That was what Kar Komak had told me. So there was an element of truth in this Thern legend.

"The Mi-Go, whose own gods where enemies of Azhorra-Tha, realized this too, and took precautions to make sure nobody could ever find this place," Randolph said. "It doesn't state what they did, but apparently they arranged for Mars to appear devoted of life to an outside observer, and for this valley to remain hidden for anyone that is actively searching for it. You can only see it if you stumble upon it accidently."

This explained so much. I always wondered why, prior to the Sarmak invasion of 1898, our astronomers on Earth where so convinced Mars could not contain life, and even now most where skeptical about the idea of multiple intelligent life forms existing on Mars, despite the fact that the Martian cities should be visible from Earth with a powerful telescope. And it also explained why none of our scouts, or even Tan Hadron, had been able to locate the valley Hohr. "We must have passed over this place 3 times without noticing the volcano," Vad Varo had said. And that was when he was steering the flier. Only after Kar Komak took over did they find it. I theorized Kar Komak was somehow immune to whatever the Mi-Go had done to this valley, because of his supernatural origin.

Speaking of Kar Komak, he had been exploring the cave while the three of us where talking. Suddenly he came running towards us, shouting "We have to leave now! We're not alone!."

Just behind him I saw a huge shadow, made by some creature that slithered across the floor. Suddenly a tentacle, made from a thick, tar-like slime and completely covered in eyes shot out of the darkness and grabbed Randolph. Wasting no time, I drew my sword and chopped it off. A deep, alien sounding scream of pain could be heard as the severed tentacle slithered back into the darkness.

All four of us left the small section we were standing in and ran back into the city. Vad Varo was carrying Randolph. Behind us I could hear the mysterious creature approach us at great speed.

"Watch out John Carter!" Vad Varo shouted. I turned around and noticed the thing was about to grab me. Had we been on Earth, it would have succeeded, but here on Barsoom my Earthly muscles allowed me to leap high into the air and the creature passed underneath me. I landed safely on my feet, but with the creature now between me and the others. I could now clearly see what it was. It looked most like a massive amoeba-like creature, with a body that seemed to be made of Tar. It's entire body was covered in eyes, but they kept disappearing and reappearing all over him, constantly changing the creatures appearance. And it had multiple tentacles sticking out of its body.

"What in the name of my first Ancestor is that thing?" Kar Komak shouted.

"A Shoggoth! It's a Shoggoth!" I heard Randolph scream.

The creature had cornered Vad Varo, Randolph and Kar Komak against one of the buildings, and I could see it reshape its frontal body into a head with a huge mouth. Wasting no time, I ran towards the Shoggoth and drove my sword deep into its body. The shoggoth immediately turned around, allowing the others to get away. It lashed out at me with one of its tentacles, knocking me into a wall. It then reshaped its body so that the mouth was now located where my sword was sticking out of his body, and it spat out the sword. Or what was left of it anyway, because only the handle fell to the ground. The blade itself had completely dissolved.

Vad Varo put Randolph down, tossed me his short sword, and took out his radium pistol, firing a couple of shots at the Shoggoth. This didn't seem to harm the creature in the least.

"There comes another one!" Kar Komak shouted, drawing his own pistol to defend himself against the Shoggoth.

"I should have known they were here. They used to be the servants of the Elder Things," Randolph said. I silently cursed my grandnephew for not realizing this sooner. After all, he was supposed to be the expert here when it came to these eldritch abominations. The two Shoggoths where slowly driving us into another corner. I estimated Vad Varo and I would be able to leap onto the roof, but we couldn't leave Kar Komak and Randolph behind. Besides, Randolph made it clear there was no point in trying to outrun these creatures. They are vaster than a subway train.

Realizing no ordinary weapon would do any good against these creatures, I ordered Kar Komak to try and use his bowmen against them. Kar Komak dropped his pistol and focused his attention on the Shoggoths. One by one the phantom bowmen materialized between us and them. The first rain of arrows caught the Shoggoths by surprise and they backed up a little, but they soon shook off the effect and attacked again.

"I don't think it's helping much," Kar Komak said. The Shoggoths tried to grab the bowmen, only for their tentacles to go straight through them. The bowmen fired their arrows again while he Shoggoths could only lash out at thin air, but still it was obvious the best the bowmen could do was slow them down.

Looking around, I noticed another corridor not far away from us. I ordered Vad Varo, Kar Komak and Randolph to make their way there while I would keep the Shoggoths busy. I picked up Kar Komaks radium pistol and asked Vad Varo to give me one of the grenades. I then jumped over the two creatures, firing at them in the process. One Shoggoth turned around and came after me, while the other was still fighting the bowmen. I leaped onto the roof of another building. The Shoggoth didn't seem to mind and reshaped its tentacles into a pair of arms, using them to scale the wall and follow me. From the roof I could see Vad Varo, carrying Randolph, and Kar Komak run for the corridor. The other Shoggoth was following them, but the bowmen slowed him down.

The Shoggoth that was pursuing me had now reached the top of the building. This was the moment I had waited for. I jumped off the roof again, took the grenade, and threw it at the building. The radium explosion was too much for the eons old building and it collapsed, dragging the Shoggoth along. I feared however this wouldn't hold him back for long; I could already see the tar-like substance it was made of oozing out from under the rubble.

I too ran for the corridor under cover of the bowmen's arrows. Joining up again with Randolph, Vad Varo and Kar Komak, we retreated further into the corridor. Vad Varo and I both shot at the ceiling, causing it to collapse and block the Shoggoths path. We kept doing so until our ammunition ran out. We paused for a while to make sure the Shoggoth had given up its chase.

"Looks like we lost them. Let's hope there are no more out here," Vad Varo said. I agreed. Personally, I would rather face an army of white apes than any more of those Shoggoths.

Now that our way back was blocked, we continued our way through the corridor. It turned out to be pretty long, making several turns and leading us back towards the surface. Vad Varo was still carrying Randolph, whose sickness was evidently increasing. His blue skin had now turned grey in several places. I feared he did not have much time left. Eventually, we came across a door blocking our path. I tried to open it, but it turned out to be locked. Behind the door I could hear voices, speaking in a language I didn't understand, but it sounded like what Qual Fjel yelled shortly before astral projecting away from Earth.

"Stand back," I said as I tried to use my short sword to force the lock open. It wasn't easy, but I managed. I opened the door just a crack and carefully took a look. Behind the door was another cave, smaller than the one we had just left but still large enough to hold the entire palace of Ghron. I figured it couldn't be more than a few feet under the ground, and considering how many turns the last corridor made it probably wasn't too far from the cave containing the ancient city.

In the center was a huge building that resembled a temple. It was build in a very ancient Barsoomian style, so I figured it hailed from the time Mars was still a lush and green planet. For example; the temple had a staircase leading to a higher platform, but stairs are not seen in any Barsoomian building today. Ramps are being used instead. In the temple, standing next to what looked like an altar were five humanoids, all dressed in some sort of ceremonial harnesses and robes I had never seen before.

The five humanoids in the temple were clearly performing some sort of ritual, and I had the feeling I had seen this before. Under the robes I could make out their skin colors; there were two Red Martians, one white Martian, one black Martian and one yellow Martian. The black, yellow and first red Martian I did not recognize, but the White Martian and other Red Martian seemed familiar. When the five started to walk around the altar I could catch a glimpse of their faces, and my suspicions where confirmed. The White Martian was Qual Fjel, the Thern who attacked me on Earth. And one of the Red Martians was none other than Multis Par. The other Red Martian, I guessed, had to be Ghron. He matched the description Tan Hadron had given me.

It was the cult of Azhorra-Tha. There was no doubt about that. But what was Multis Par doing with them. U-Dan had always been very close to the royal family of Zor, but he never told me about this.

I opened the door a little further. In front of the temple I saw three more Shoggoths. Between them was a group of about twenty Red Martians, all unarmed and bound in chains. They too seemed familiar. I focused my attention on the Red Martian in front and couldn't believe my eyes… it was Fo-Nar, the Red Martian who had served under me on board the Dusar

6. The New Dream-Quest

The other Red Martians I also recognized now. They were the rest of the crew of the Dusar. They all looked very tired and pale, and I figured they must have been captives here for a long time.

Kar Komak was standing next to me and saw the same thing. From the look on my face he must have realized I recognizes these Red Martians, and asked who they were. I quickly told him how a few years ago I had infiltrated the army of Hin Abtol during its siege of the city of Gathol, and managed to acquire a war flier called the Dusar. How I had gathered a crew of assassins and mercenaries who were willing to betray Hin Abtol, including Fo-Nar, and how to my surprise Tan Hadron was among them as well. How we had set a course for the north pole, but how the crew eventually chickened out at the idea of going back to the city of Panar and risk being frozen again, and mutinied against me. How I and a Martian named Gor-Don had been left behind on the North Pole while the Dusar took off with Fo-Nar and Tan Hadron as prisoners of the mutinous crew. Despite several search attempts by the navy of Helium, the ship and its crew where never found, much to the dismay of Tan Hadron's wife Tavia. But now I finally knew what fate had befallen them, and I honestly felt sorry for them.

I carefully examined each member of the group, but Tan Hadron was not among them. Suddenly the ominous chanting of the five Martians around the altar became louder and the altar started to glow in the same alien colors I had seen in my nightmare. A huge flame shot out of the altar, down the stairs, and straight to the twenty prisoners. It completely engulfed them and I could hear them scream in agony. In an instant their bodies where flayed down to skeletons, which crumbled to dust. The flame then shot up again and engulfed the five Martians around the altar. Then the flame died out, but the five Martians at the altar still had a glowing aura around them. About 10 tals later the aura vanished. I closed the door, disgusted at what I had just seen.

"Just what the hell was that?" Vad Varo asked.

"A ritual… to both please Azhorra-Tha and gain immortality. Azhorra-Tha … transferred the life force of those twenty Martians to those five cult members," I said, surprised at my own sudden knowledge of the event. It was as if witnessing that cruel ritual had somehow awakened a long suppressed memory of mine. Kar Komak carefully took another look and told me the temple had been abandoned. The cult members had disappeared through a door at the other side of the cave and the Shoggoths where nowhere to be seen. Still, I thought it was safer to stay here in this corridor until we had a plan.

"Whatever you plan to do, it better be something to help Randolph here. I'm afraid he's dying," Vad Varo said. I looked at my grandnephew. His body was now entirely grey and his eyes had gone from green to yellow. He was still conscious, but barely.

I quickly took the notebook and the parchment out of the pocket on my harness and handed both to Randolph. Randolph himself took the silver key out of his robes. Upon seeing the key, I could see Kar Komak's eyes widen in shock. Randolph meanwhile analyzed the parchment and the extra translations Phillips had made.

"Come... With me..., Great-Uncle John," he said. "You… helped me… I … can help you... Get more... Information. On this cult... And… get you… allies..."

I thought it over. I wanted to rescue Dejah Thoris as fast as possible, but this cult was clearly not like any enemy I had encountered so far. Learning more about them would be of great help to me. And getting allies was of course more than welcome. I feared that going back to Helium to fetch the navy would take too much time, even if they would believe me when I would tell them about this place. I made my choice to accompany Randolph known to Vad Varo and Kar Komak.

"I'm coming too," Kar Komak said.

I protested. Our bodies could not stay here unguarded while we were wandering around in a dreamworld, but Vad Varo assured me he would stay here and stand guard them on his own. Randolph held up the Silver Key and started chanting something in an alien tongue. The next moment everything turned black in front of my eyes and I could feel my consciousness being ripped from my body.

* * * * * * * *

Darkness.

Nothing but pure darkness surrounded me. Next to me I noticed Kar Komak, and to my other side Randolph. I looked at myself. I was still dressed in my Martian harness and still had Vad Varo's short sword with me. Slowly a landscape started to form around me. Under my feet I could now see grass, and around me I saw a wild mix of different kinds of vegetation. It all seemed very familiar to me, and then I remembered. This was the realm where Randolph and I had met all those years ago, and started our adventure with the time traveler. I carefully looked around, but I did not see any of the creatures that had tried to attack us back then.

I asked Randolph, whose health seemed to be increasing again now that he was here, if this was the place he could finally free himself from Zkauba. "I'm afraid not, Great-Uncle John. We are currently in the highest plane the two of you can still safely visit, just above the dreamlands. I need to go back to the Ultimate Gate and see Yog-Sothoth again, but I have to go there alone. Last time I had Umr at-Tawi as a guide, but now that I have the parchment I won't need him. Wait for me to get back.

I insisted of going with him, but Randolph warned me about the dangers that he so foolishly had ignored during his last travel through the gates and when he made his deal with Yog-Sothoth. "Once behind the gates you seize to exist as a corporeal being and become what you really are; a facet of a higher creature. One mistake can cause you to suffer the same fate as me and become trapped in an earlier or later facet of the same creature," he said.

I asked him what would happen if he didn't come back.

"For you that wouldn't change much. You are only here in spirit, Great-Uncle John. You're body is still on Mars. You can go back any time. Kar Komak her however would be trapped here without the Silver Key I'm afraid. I could only bring him here with both body and mind since I found it impossible to separate them. Must have something to do with the fact that he is a psychic construct."

Randolph focused his attention once more on the parchment, and before our eyes he disappeared. Kar Komak and I were left behind.

"Why did you react so surprised when you saw the silver key?," I asked him.

"Because I wasn't expecting to see that key when you told me and Vad Varo about your grandnephew John Carter. I've seen it before… and I know what great powers it holds."

There was no time to ask further questions because just as quickly as he had disappeared, Randolph reappeared again. No longer trapped in the body of Zkauba the wizard, but once again the black haired, skinny antiquarian from Providence, Rhode Island. He looked remarkably young, most likely somewhere in his 20's even though he should be in his 60's by now. Evidently he had given his human body a makeover when reclaiming it. In his hand he held the Silver Key.

"Now that's the Randolph I know," I said.

"Where's Zkauba?" Kar Komak asked.

"He's dead. He died when I left his body," Randolph answered. I couldn't help but feel some pity for Zkauba. After all, he never asked for his body to become possessed by (from his point of view) such a strange creature from a distant planet and time. Suddenly it occurred to me that when Randolph answered, he spoke in the Barsoomian Language. When I asked him about it, he revealed that was one of the extra abilities he had given his new body when leaving Zkauba.

"I understand the Silver Key better now than I used to," he said. "Now to keep my promise, Great-Uncle John. Let's go." Randolph cited another spell from the parchment and once again everything became black before my eyes.

* * * * * * * *

The twin moons of Barsoom hovered in the sky above me when I opened my eyes, but they looked different somehow. They were blue instead of white. I was in a forest. Randolph and Kar Komak where there too. I asked Randolph where we were, but he had no clue.

"I wanted to send us to the dreamlands and hope of recruiting some allies there. I may not be a fighting man myself, but I have my connections," Randolph said. "After that we could try and find out more about your past, Great-Uncle John."

"We are in the dreamlands. The Barsoomian part of the dreamlands that is," Kar Komak said. "I can tell, since I've been here before. The ancient Lotharians often came here. Some still live here."

Randolph and I both looked at him quite confused.

"Like I told you before John Carter; it's true that I'm a construct created by Tario, but my appearance and memories are modeled after a Lotharian who once really existed. Eons ago, when our people still sailed the seas of Barsoom. It was in that time our greatest mystics often traveled to other realms and worlds, with the help of a silver key they had found in the ruins under our city. I myself traveled to here several times.

"So the key originated on Mars?" Randolph asked. This information was apparently new to him as well.

"Yes. I have Tario's memories as well since I was born from his mind. From his experience I know that when Mars started to die, our mystics and anyone who wished to come with them departed for the dreamlands permanently, taking the key with them. All knowledge about it was lost afterward to modern Lotharians. Those ancient Lotharians still live here, and maybe they can help us get the information we need. Follow me, I know where their city is."

We walked through the forest for at least 2 zodes. Randolph was unfamiliar with this part of the dreamlands so we had no choice but to led Kar Komak lead the way. I didn't have time for this since I wanted to rescue Dejah Thoris now that Randolph was okay, but Randolph assured me there was no need to hurry. "Time in the dreamlands is not related to time in the waking world. I once spend months in here looking for the city of Kadath, but when I woke up only a single night had passed in the waking universe," he said.

Finally we left the forest and emerged on a beach. And in the distance, I could see a city build in ancient Barsoomian style. In front of it was a small harbor.

"It's still here," Kar Komak said. "There we will find help."

Suddenly we noticed a black galley descent from the sky. It set a course for the city. On board I noticed several creatures that looked like toads, without any eyes, but with a curious vibrating mass of short pink tentacles on the end of its blunt, vague snout. Their skin was crimson red.

Randolph gulped. "Moon-beasts. They look just like those moon-beasts, except those are grayish white."

"Maybe they are related," I suggested. Randolph agreed. Kar Komak only looked worried. "So these things are still here too," he said. I asked him if he was familiar with these creatures. "Unfortunately yes. These creatures, that we call Chaqzeeks, sail here from the realm of Rhylkos, where they worship…"

"…the god Uvhash," I finished, recalling that name from Randolphs notebook.

In the city they had obviously seen the galley since an alarm was sounded and the gates to the harbor where closed. Randolph, Kar Komak and I got closer to the city, staying hidden behind bushes. The Chaqzeeks had now left their galley and where wandering around the harbor, looking for something or someone I figured. Then we noticed three white Martians, who had apparently not made it back into the city in time and where now cornered by 4 Chaqzeeks. They had auburn hair so I figured they had to be Lotharians. The Chaqzeeks where carrying nets, so it was obvious they intended to capture the three Lotharians for whatever purpose. I could hear Kar Komak grind his teeth, and I too felled like I should help them. I'm not someone to turn his back on a person in need. I quickly asked Randolph if these moon-beasts he mentioned earlier where anything like Shoggoths, or if it was possible to harm and even kill them.

"They are mortal, Great-Uncle John. I once led an attack of dozens of ghouls and Night-Gaunts in a battle against them."

I had no idea what ghouls and Night-Gaunts where, but if the moon-beasts where mortal than I figured so where these Chaqzeeks. I drew my short sword and ran towards them. Kar Komak handed Randolph his own short sword and drew his long sword to join me in battle. Our attack came as a complete surprise to the Chaqzeeks. I ran the first one through the head, lifted him up in the air, and tossed him into the sea. To my delight the Barsoomian dreamlands had the same low gravity as Barsoom itself, so I could fully benefit from my Earthly muscles and strength in this fight. Kar Komak had now joined me and together we killed another Chaqzeek.

The three Lotharians could only watch in utter surprise at the scene that played out in front of them. I saw two more Chaqzeeks decent from their galley. Kar Komak also noticed them and quickly conjured up two of his bowmen to fight them off. The bowmen fired their arrows…. But nothing happened. The Chaqzeeks instead ran straight through them towards us. One of them would have killed me had I not jumped up in time. I landed close behind him and ran him through the head, tossing him into the sea as well. Kar Komak meanwhile was cornered by the remaining three Chaqzeeks. He tried his bowmen again, to no avail. Seeing this technique wouldn't work, he threw himself on top of the Chaqzeek closest to him. I took on another one. The last Chaqzeek tried to attack me from behind, when suddenly he was stabbed in his back by none other than Randolph. This came as a pleasant surprise to me, and I congratulated my grandnephew for finally showing some courage.

With all Chaqzeeks taken care of, the few that must have still been on board the galley suddenly turned the ship around and sailed away.

I turned towards the three Lotharians, who were still shaken by the whole ordeal. I just greeted them with a polite "Kaor." They responded in the same manner. One of them stepped forward.

"My name is Baq-Tu, one of the nobles of this city. Who can I thank for our rescue?"

I introduced myself, Randolph and Kar Komak.

"John Carter? The Warlord of Barsoom. Even here in the dream-lands we have heard about your reputation. And you, Kar Komak, you are a Lotharian as well aren't you?"

"Indeed I am," he answered.

Baq-Tu then looked at Randolph, and more precisely at Randolph's pocket. The Silver Key was still partly sticking out. Randolph must have noticed since he quickly put it deeper in his pocket.

"I would like to invite you all for a meal in our city. We own you our gratitude," Baq-Tu said.

I accepted his invitation. At least we had made some allies, and if Kar Komak was right we could find even more help here. While we entered the city, I talked to Randolph about his participation in the fight.

"I wasn't always the nervous man you came to now during our adventure with the time traveler, Great-Uncle John. That was before I became an adventurer myself. When I traveled to the dreamlands in my younger days I had many adventures there. I feel much more at ease here. It's the waking world that makes me nervous."

* * * * * * * *

That evening we were hailed as heroes by the Lotharians. Baq-Tu and Kar Komak talked a long time. Baq-Tu wanted to know all about the Lotharians that had stayed behind on Barsoom, and wasn't pleased to learn what their once proud race had turned into during the many years of isolation from other cultures. Kar Komak also told Baq-Tu about the trick of creating Phantom Bowmen and how he himself was in fact one. To this Baq-Tu replied the Lotharians here in the dreamlands had also discovered that trick and demonstrated it by summoning a bowman of his own.

"Unfortunately, the Chaqzeek know it's nothing but a very realistic illusion, so therefore these archers are useless against them." He sighed. "they've destroyed our navy as well, and now frequently raid our city. They want sacrifices for their blood-thirsty god. We can't fight back. Our people have never been a warrior race."

After dinner we were brought to a chamber filled with sleeping silks and furs in Baq-Tu's house. He promised that the next day he would help us with our quest.

That night I had the nightmare again, but with a slight twist this time. I now saw Dejah Thoris being consumed by Azhorra-Tha. When I woke up I noticed a faint glow coming from the other side of the room. It came from Randolph's pocket. I carefully woke him up and when he opened his pocket, the Silver Key flew out of it, through the window and into the street. I quickly woke up Kar Komak as well and we carefully left the house, following the Silver Key as it slowly flew through the narrow streets. It stopped in front of a large building in the center of the city. When I examined the door I saw there was a symbol on it that looked remarkably like the Silver Key. I asked Randolph is if he knew something about this, but he had no idea. Kar Komak also had never seen this before but he had a feeling this was what we were looking for. I tried to the door but it was locked. I however managed to open it with my short sword and we entered.

The building turned out to be some sort of library. The key hovered to the center of the building and then fell to the ground. Randolph picked it up again, noticing something on the floor.

", Great-Uncle John. Look at this."

I too saw it. There was a huge stone image on the ground that depicted the Silver Key, surrounded by 5 medallions. Those medallions looked a lot like the ones the Cult of Azhorra-Tha used, except they didn't have Azhorra-Tha's symbol painted on them. Then again, that symbol could have been added later by the cult.

Randolph was examining the many books and scrolls around him. Most were written in the same symbols as the parchment, but some had been translated already in the Barsoomian language, and fortunately in a writing I could read.

"This one is about the history of the Silver Key, Great-Uncle John," Randolph said. "Apparently, the silver key and the medallions where created by the Cthulhuhoids that came to Mars around the time the Elder Gods fought the Great Old Ones and the Outer Gods. The same Cthulhuhoids that brought this language to both Mars and Earth, and whose descendants still live on Mars today."

"You mean the Kaldanes I presume," I said. Randolph confirmed this. "The medallions are in fact weaker versions of the Silver Key. They have the same basic abilities, but none of the more complex ones."

Kar Komak was also reading some scrolls. Suddenly I saw his eyes widen. He called me and Randolph to him and showed us the scroll he had found. The symbol on top said enough. It was about Azhorra-Tha.

"The prison of Azhorra-Tha can be unlocked with the Silver Key, or through the ritual of the five medallions," I read out loud.

"That's true," a voice said. All three of us turned around and saw Baq-Tu standing in the doorway.

"I want you to know that I'm terribly sorry for this John Carter. But it has to be done. We have lived under the threat of the Chaqzeek and their god for too long. Only Azhorra-Tha can bring an end to it."

Behind him I noticed two other figures, standing in the shadows. They stepped forward into the light, revealing their ceremonial harnesses, medallions and ugly, haired bodies…

It were the black and yellow Martians from the cult of Azhorra-Tha...

7. Visions from the Past

Randolp cried: "It's them! The Black and Yellow men that led the attack on our ship!"

I could not believe my eyes. Baq-Tu was going to betray us to this cult, even after we had saved him.

Almost as if he could read my mind (which he couldn't—no Martian has ever been able to do that) Baq-Tu hung his head in shame. "I'm sorry John Carter," he said once again. "But this was a deal we already made about 350 years ago (note: he was talking about Barsoomian years, so it must have been about 700 Earth years). In return for the Silver Key, they would pray to Azhorra-Tha to relieve us of the Chaqzeek. Their god Uvhash is a rival of Azhorra-Tha.

The Black and Yellow Martians stepped forward. "We might as well introduce ourselves first. I'm Luviq. He is Xer-D'a," the Yellow Martian said.

I drew my short sword, but Luvic responded by drawing his own sword (a hooked one, like the Yellow Martians on the North Pole use). Randolph carefully grabbed a few scrolls while keeping his eyes on the whole scene. Kar Komak did not respond. I myself had a strong feeling of déjà-vu. When I saved the life of the Ovarian Pan Dan Chee I was sentenced to death by his Jeddak. And now I was again betrayed by a man that I rescued.

"Let me guess. You're both high priests of Azhorra-Tha," I said. Luviq and Xer-D'a confirmed this. "For a moment we feared the key was lost to us again when he (he pointed at Randolph) fled into the ancient city with it when we attacked that alien ship of yours. I never thought we would have to get the key from this place a second time. Not a very smart move to bring it back to its place of origin Warlord," Xer-D'a said.

"He's right, Great-Uncle John. This building we're standing in is basically a reconstruction of the one made by the ancient Cthulhuoids who created the key. It must have been reconstructed here in the dreamlands after its original decayed to the ruins Kar Komak mentioned ear…", but I gestured him to remain silent. This was no time for detailed explanations. I turned my attention to Baq-Tu. "Unbelievable that a seemingly noble man like you would get involved with scum like this. I've seen the kind of things they do."

"We know, Warlord. I hope you enjoyed the little show. By the way, impressive that you managed to escape from our Shoggoths," Luviq said.

I froze. They knew we had seen them perform the ritual and kill those twenty Red Martians. But if they knew we were there then… Vad Varo!

There was no time to waste. I ran towards Luviq, but he easily pared my blow with his own sword. Soon I found myself in a severe fight with him. Behind me Kar Komak engaged Xer-D'a in battle. I fought with all my might, but it was pretty clear Luviq was a superb swordsmen, and I was hindered by the fact that I only had a short sword to fight with. Luviq left absolutely no chance for an attack, even when attacking himself, forcing me to fight defensive. Only once had I met another man that could rival me in fighting skills, and he too had been a Yellow Martian: Solan. Kar Komak wasn't doing any better against Xer-D'a. In a desperate move, he summoned two of his bowmen. Xer-D'a however quickly grabbed the medallion around his neck and uttered a spell. Instantly, the bowmen disappeared again.

"Nice try Lotharian. But we too have certain powers you know. And that trick you just saw… it works just as well on more permanent creations of the mind." He raised his medallion and shouted "Atrrqx, trwyx, qqatarw Azhorra-Tha." I could hear Kar Komak scream, and then the sound of his long sword falling to the ground when the hand that held it just a second earlier disappeared into thin air. Kar Komak was gone!

The shock of seeing Kar Komak disappear distracted me long enough for Luviq to disarm me. Suddenly Ran­dolph grabbed my arm and I heard him say another one of the spells on his parchment. Instantly I could feel myself being pulled through time and space again.

* * * * * * * *

Again I found myself in complete darkness for a while, but it didn't last long. A dodecahedron shaped object, radiating a yellow glow, appeared underneath me. I was pulled towards it and eventually into it. Randolph was already there. I knew what this thing was… A chrono-crystal. Just like the one we stranded in when we helped the time traveler. Apparently Randolph had tried to get us as far away from the dreamlands as possible, and thus ended up sending us out of time itself.

"This was the only place I could think of, Great-Uncle John," he said, still holding the Silver Key tightly in his hand.

"Kar Komak," I muttered, and angrily smashed my hand against one of the facets of the crystal. Kar Komak had been killed. And I had been unable to prevent it. How could this get any worse?

"Look, Great-Uncle," Randolph said. He pointed at the facet I had just hit. In it I saw pictures moving. First blurry, but they quickly became sharper. And I could hear voices too. I the facet, I saw myself fighting against the army of Hin Abtol.

"The past. This chrono-crystal shows you the past, just like that other one showed the future", but I didn't need this explanation from Randolph to figure that out. The image now changed:

I saw Pew Mogel, sitting in his laboratory in Korvas. He was clearly working on what would become Joog the Giant. And behind him was Qual Fjel. They were talking to each other. "Do this, and you will be greatly rewarded. Your fellow Hormad failed, but you must succeed," Qual Fjel told Pew Mogel.

Was Pew Mogel working for the cult?

The image changed again: I saw Luviq standing among the seven Hormad Jeds. "Why should you work any longer for that mad scientist? You are superior to him. Superior to anyone. You should rule all of Barsoom. Azhorra-Tha will reward you for it," I could hear him tell them.

Another change: I saw what was clearly a battlefield on Earth. A group of soldiers had just been attacked. One of them was laying on the ground, severely injured. When I looked at him closely, I saw that it was Vad Varo. He was looking up into the sky towards the planet Mars, failing to notice Xer-D'a walking towards them. Xer-D'a raised his medallion and the next moment Vad Varo's spirit left his body and was send through the void of space towards Barsoom. The scene changed to show his arrival on Ras Thavas' island, where Luviq was already waiting for him. Xer-D'a arrived as well.

"This isn't the one we need," he told Xer-D'a. "Go back and see if you can find the real owner of the silver key."

"What about him?" Xer-D'a asked.

"Leave him. He's of no use to us"

So that was how Vad Varo came to Mars. Not on his own. This cult had brought him here. But why?

"He mentioned the silver key. I guess it was me they were truly after. I was also present during that battle," Randolph said. I agreed with this theory. No doubt the cult knew Randolph's family had the Silver Key, but at this point in his life Randolph had not found it yet.

I looked into the facet again, and saw two more scenes in which various members of the cult convinced Hin Abtol and Tul Axtar that they should conquer all of Barsoom. Three more Jeddaks followed, all of whom I knew had already been defeated before they could carry out their plans for world domination.

I now saw myself, laying on a bed. Judging by my clothes it must have been somewhere in the mid to late 1600's. A young man was standing next to me.

"That's Edmund Carter," Randolph said.

Edmund carefully woke me up. "Uncle Jack? Are you okay?. I got up and looked at him confused. "What is this place? Where am I? Who am I?" I asked.

"Get help. He's got amnesia," Edmund shouted to his wife.

This I remembered. It was the oldest memory I still had. I recalled the confusion I felt back then. It took me weeks to remember just my name and my family, but other memories never returned. I was anxious to see more. Maybe now I could finally learn more about my past.

The next scène however came as a shock. I saw myself, standing between the smoldering remains of a burned down farm. I was looking through the remains of the farm, finally finding what I was apparently looking for… the charred bodies of a woman and three children. I saw myself falling to my knees in despair, when suddenly Qual Fjel appeared behind me.

"I told you we would have our revenge for what you and your friend did Jasoomian," he gloated.

I grabbed a still burning piece of wood and attacked Qual Fjel, catching him off guard. He grabbed his sword and tried to kill me, but I overpowered him and disarmed him. In a desperate move, he pulled out his medallion, put it against my head and shouted a spell. For a minute my body was engulfed in a blue aura. Then I fell to the ground unconscious.

"Even if I can't kill you, at least now you're of no more threat to us Jasoomian," Qual Fjel said. He then noticed Edmund coming towards my house and quickly astral projected back to Barsoom.

My wife… my children! Seeing this image in the facet brought back the memories I lost so long ago. I felled a tear well up in my eye. The cult of Azhorra-Tha. So I dealt with them before. And they did the unforgivable to me. Randolph put his hand on my shoulder.

"I'm sorry, Great-Uncle John," he said.

I now saw myself and a man that Randolph identified as his ancestor Sir Randolph Carter, leaving a ship that had just arrived in Jamestown, Virginia. We had just immigrated to the British colony.

"Are you sure you're not going to stay here but move to Salem instead?" I asked him. Sir Carter nodded.

"Take this then. I can't keep it forever. Should they ever find out Ibrahim never truly send it away, they will come to Earth and look for it. It's safer in your hands." I handed him the hideously carved wooden box containing the silver key.

So that is how the key ended up with Randolph's side of the family. But how did I myself get it? Hopefully the crystal would show me that soon.

I saw myself again, standing near a house in a place that looked like the Middle-East. I was dressed in the clothes of a crusader. A man dressed in Saracen clothes left the house and handed me a pair of identical clothes.

"You better put these on for the first half of your journey. You never make it out of this country alive as a crusader."

I took the clothes and shook the man's hand. "Thanks Ibrahim. You've been a good friend."

Ibrahim reached into his pocket and took out the Silver Key and the parchment. "Take these too. They're not safe here."

I took the items. "You sly dog. You never send it away," I said.

"No. But it can take centuries before that cult finds out," he said.

I walked away, but turned around one last time. "Tell me, that incident…. How long do you think I will live now?"

"I wish I could tell you, but only Allah knows I'm afraid. Centuries. Millennia even. Make the best of it, and have a save journey John Carter."

Randolph looked at me. "You? I knew I had an ancestor who was a crusader and learned various secrets from the Muslims that captured im, but I never knew it was you, Great-Uncle John."

Neither did I. I knew I was old, but that old?

I now saw myself and Ibrahim on Barsoom! We were dressed in Martian harnesses and standing outside the volcano that hides the Valley Hohr. We were surrounded by the soldiers of Ghasta. Ghron, Qual Fjel, Xer-D'a and Luviq were standing in front of us. Ibrahim was holding the Silver Key.

"You killed one of our members, violated our holy temple, and took the sacrifice for our God. Azhorra-Tha will punish you for this," Qual Fjel threatened.

"You all had it coming. I defy any God that demands war and torture as tribute, and turns whole worlds in wastelands like this," I shouted. Two of the soldiers attacked us, but I easily defeated them.

"Azhorra-Tha will never be released without this. You want it, go and get it," Ibrahim shouted. He muttered a spell and instantly the Silver Key vanished from his hand. I could see the look of horror on the faces of the 4 high priests. Ibrahim quickly seized me by the arm and we both focused our attention on Earth, leaving Barsoom behind and astral projecting back to Earth. The last thing I could hear was Qual Fjel shouting they would have their revenge.

"You've been on Barsoom before, Great-Uncle John?" Randolph asked.

"Apparently," I said. I must have forgotten about it and the knowledge of how to do so when Qual Fjel erased my memories, until that fateful night in march 1866 this dormant power reawakened and I was once again sent to the red planet.

Randolph was looking into the facet again, and I could see his eyes widen. ", Great-Uncle John!"

I saw the temple of Azhorra-Tha. Ibrahim and I were standing at the bottom of the stairs. The four High Priests were standing at the altar. Qual Fjel had taken a red Martian woman hostage and was about to slice her throat. Xer-D'a was standing next to him, holding the silver key.

"Congratulations Jasoomians. You did what nobody else ever managed," I could tell Qual Fjel was quite pissed off for some reason.

"The exact time may not be now, but that doesn't matter now that we have the Silver Key. Azhorra-Tha will rise once more." Suddenly Qual Fjel slid the woman's throat and allowed the blood to flow over the altar. He then dipped the key into it and all four priests started to chant. Ibrahim just watched in horror, but I grabbed a dagger from my harness and hurled it up the stairs towards the altar. I hid Qual fjell in his hand and he dropped the key, screaming in pain. The key fell halfway down the stairs, where I grabbed it.

"Stop them!" I heard Ghron shout.

"No wonder they were mad at you, Great-Uncle John. They finally came so close, and then you ruined it for them," Randolph said.

I saw the temple once more. The five high priests had gathered around the altar, and where clearly in the process of performing the ritual to sacrifice a group of prisoners. Ibrahim was one of the prisoners, and so was the Martian woman from the previous vision. They where once again bound in chains, but surrounded by ordinary Red Martian guard rather than Shoggoths. I saw myself hiding behind a pillar of the temple. At least, I knew it had to be me, but something was different about me. My eyes; I had for some reason bright, fiery eyes. I noticed the fifth high priest was not a second Red Martian, but a Green Martian!

The ominous chanting got louder and louder and the altar already started to glow, when suddenly I revealed my presence.

"Stop!" I shouted. I ran towards the altar. Luviq and Ghron tried to stop me, but I leaped over them towards the Green Martian priest, and punched him in the face. The strength of my blow send him flying down the stairs… right in front of the colored flame that was to devour the prisoners at the foot of the temple. The flame consumed the Green Martian, but also partly bounced off his medallion and struck some of the guards. It devoured every one of them, leaving only the medallion of the Green Martian behind. I pushed myself a way past the other High Priests, and was hit by the flame when it made its way back to the altar. I took the full hit and for a minute I was glowing in the same colors as the flame. Then it faded.

For a moment everyone just stared at me. I wasted no time however and ran down the stairs to the prisoners, using my sword to cut through their chains.

"John Carter, your eyes. They have changed color," I heard Ibrahim say.

The other guards didn't dare to approach me after what they had seen. Behind me, Luviq had descended the stairs and picked up the medallion.

"Hy'thur…. you killed him… sacrificed him … and took his life force all for yourself!" Angrily he grabbed the woman and dragged her up the stairs.

I pulled my head away from the facet and fell to my knees. I suddenly felt very dirty. Not physical, but internal.

Some more visions followed. I shall not describe them here in full detail, mostly because I didn't realy pay attention to them. Randolph did however. I shall instead recap them in chronological order. We saw a vision from what must have been millennia ago, since it showed Mars in it's prime. We saw how the cult of Azhorra-Tha first discovered his prison and had the temple built. They started worshipping him, causing him to gain enough power to start draining the life force from Barsoom itself. We saw how I joined the crusade, was captured by the Muslims, and met Ibrahim, whose full name was revealed to be Ibrahim Alhazred, descendant of the legendary Abdul Alhazred. We saw how he eventually learned to trust me, and after several months took me into confidence. He teached me the secret of astral projection, something he had learned from Martian scholars who had fled Barsoom to escape the dying planet. During our first journey to Barsoom we where captured by the red Martians of Ghasta, and learned the Barsoomian language from fellow prisoners while trapped inside the pits underneath the city. There we also learned the dark secret of Ghasta, and the threat it meant to Barsoom.

For me these later visions didn't matter that much. I finally had an answer to the questions that had haunted me for so long. I now knew how old I really was, and why I could remember no childhood. I now realized what kind of enemy I was truly dealing with, or in some way had been dealing with ever since I came to Barsoom. Hin Abtol, Pew Mogel, The Hormads and all those other madmen who had tried to conquer all of Barsoom. This cult had secretly been the master mind behind each and every one of them. Not to mention the fact that this cult was indirectly responsible for the decaying of Barsoom. They had awakened the god that slowly drained Barsoom of its life.

But most importantly, I now knew why I never seemed to age. But that last thing I wished I had never found out. Immortality can be great, but not when achieved in a way like this…

8. Reunion in the Pits

Randolph sat down next to me. He was clearly as shocked and surprised by what he had seen as I was.

"I'm sorry, Great-Uncle John," Randolph said.

I remained silent, but my mind was working at top speed. I always considered my agelessness a blessing, but now it felt more like a curse.

"Come on, Great-Uncle. I admit some pretty bad things happened to you, but at least you still…", but Randolph quickly swallowed the last part of his sentence, realizing my usual saying would be a very poor choice of words in this matter. He quickly changed the subject. "Look on the bright side, Great-Uncle. One of the victims was a high priest of that cult. He must have sacrificed who knows how many innocent lives to extent his own. If you ask me, he had it coming."

I had to admit Randolph had a point there. I pulled myself together. "It's okay Randolph. I wanted to learn more about the cult of Azhorra-Tha, and I just learned all I need to know. This cult is the root of all evil on Barsoom. And it's about time someone puts a stop to their plans once and for all. At least, maybe then, I can make up for my immoral way of gaining immortality. If they ever manage to release that god of theirs, Barsoom is lost. Or do you know a way to fight a thing like that?"

Randolph thought about it. "It's not necessarily impossible, Great-Uncle John. I recall an incident from Dunwich where three professors from the Miskatonic University defeated the spawn of Yog-Sothoth. Besides, gods that have a physical form can in theory be harmed when you apply enough force. Ramming them with a ship for example is known to work against certain Great Old Ones, but I'm not sure if that will work on an Outer God like Azhorra-Tha."

Suddenly, and without any warning, I was pulled out of the chrono-crystal, along with Randolph. I asked him where he was sending us now, but Randolph claimed this wasn't his doing. Everything became dark again before my eyes. When I could see again, I found myself back in the dreamlands, in the building where we had battled Luviq and Xer-D'a. Not surprising they were still there, chanting some kind of spell. Baq-Tu was nowhere to be seen.

"Welcome back Warlord," Luviq said.

I asked how he brought us back, and Luviq smiled wickedly. "Ever since the last time you escaped with the Silver Key we've been searching for a way to bring it back to us. Just last week we finally found the spell that can send the key to a keeper of one the five medallions here in this library. Escape is futile now John Carter."

Xer-D'a grabbed Randolph and searched his pockets. I noticed Kar Komak's long sword on the floor besides me, grabbed it, and attacked Xer-D'a, but Luviq quickly got between us and blocked my attack with his own sword. I threatened that he'd better get of my way if he didn't want to end like Hy'thur. It wasn't my usual nature to make death threats to someone, but this cult had pushed me too far by now.

"Hy'thur? So you do remember?" Luviq asked.

"I do now. And I still find it hard to believe I could ever forget such ugly faces," I said. Luviq did not take it as an insult however. He instead twisted some of the hair on his chest around his finger. "I admit we're not exactly as handsome as most Martians. An unfortunate side effect of the ritual that prolongs our lives. I actually envy you Warlord that on Jasoomians the only side effect is apparently a change of eye color. Multis Par thinks he has it easy since he only recently inherited his late father's place among us and has undergone only one ritual so far, but soon he will notice his body is changing as well."

So Zu Tith had been a High Priests of this cult as well, serving as a replacement for Hy'thur. Why the cult had decided to let another Red Martian take his place instead of a new Green Martian I didn't know, but I didn't really care either. I told Luviq I remembered much more about his insane cult. How they caused Barsoom to become the wasteland it is now and tried to have their allies conquer it all for them. "You wasted millions of lives and for what?" I asked.

"Because it had to be done warlord," Xer-D'a said. "The medallions we found in the ruins under Ghasta, but we originally had no idea about the existence of the Silver Key. Before we found it, and after we lost it again thanks to you, the only way we knew to release the great Azhorra-Tha was the alternative ritual of the five medallions. Which unfortunately has to be performed from specific locations across the world, making it necessary to conquer all of Barsoom first. Besides, bloodshed and war is what pleases the great Azhorra-Tha." He finally found the Silver Key and took it from Randolph's pocket, tossing Randolph aside like a rag doll.

With all my strength I pushed Luviq backwards. He reacted much faster than I anticipated from a Martian and lashed out at me with his sword, scratching my chest. This came as quite a shock to me; never before had a Martian been able to actually injure me in a swordfight, not even Solan.

"Have it your way warlord. I would have loved to see you suffer at the hands of Azhorra-Tha, but killing you myself will probably be just as much fun," Luviq gloated. He attacked again, but this time I managed to dodge his attack and cut him across his left arm. Luviq remained unfazed by this however and began circling around me, striking out at me with his sword from seemingly multiple angles at once. Such speed and agility I had never witnessed before from a Martian. Normally I had an easy time fighting a Martian opponent, but now I had to summon all my skills just to keep Luviq from killing me. I had to get to higher ground if I wanted to win this. The building fortunately had a second floor, with a balustrade. Summoning my strength I leaped up and landed on this balustrade.

Luviq quickly followed me using the ramp and we continued our battle here. At least there was less room here for Luviq to try the same strategy again. Xer-D'a wasn't even attempting to help him, but just enjoyed the battle. Luviq forced me into the defense again, but this time I had a better weapon and was able to block all his attacks. Still, if I could find no way to overpower him fast I would lose this fight. As much as I hated Luviq, I had to admit his swordsmanship was marvelous.

Luviq attacked again. I waited for him to get as close as possible before raising my sword to block his attack. Then, acting purely on instinct, I quickly reached out with my other hand, grabbed his medallion, and pulled it from his neck, tossing it into a corner of the building. This provoked exactly the kind of reaction I was hoping for; Luviq panicked and tried to grab the medallion, thus letting go of his defense. As he ran passed me, I decapitated him with a swift blow from my sword. His still screaming head fell off the balustrade to the ground floor, landing in front of Xer-D'a. He watched in horror as it aged rapidly and eventually fell apart into a pile of dust. Turning around, I noticed Luviq's body had suffered the same fate.

I wiped the sweat from my face and jumped down the balustrade, landing in front of Xer-D'a.

"I guess that makes two. Better give me back that key if you don't want me to make it three."

I thought Xer-D'a was still frozen with shock from the sudden death of Luviq, but he snapped out of it remarkably fast. He took his dagger from his harness and grabbed Randolph, who had been unconscious so far and missed the entire battle. With Randolph as his hostage, he made his way towards the door. I followed close behind, waiting for an opportunity to strike. When we reached the door Xer-D'a reached into a pocket pouch on his harness while keeping the dagger on Randolph's throat with his other hand.

"We part ways here Warlord. But one more thing. You're friend Vad Varo sends his regards." Suddenly he pulled the second radium grenade Vad Varo had brought with him out of the pocket pouch, and pushed Randolph towards me. He stepped out the door and threw the grenade in. I quickly grabbed Randolph and rushed back into the building. The grenade exploded behind us and the shockwave of the explosion send us both flying into the wall on the other side of the library. I knocked my head against the wall and lost consciousness for a minute. When I came through again, Randolph and Baq-Tu where standing next to me. Half the library had been destroyed. Randolph was holding the medallion from Luviq, which he had found on the second floor and which Xer-D'a had failed to take along. Apparently the cult had no more need for it now that they had the Silver Key.

I angrily turned towards Baq-Tu. "You have any idea what you've done?" I asked him. He tried to defend his actions by stating only the cult could help him, but when I told him all the things I had seen in the chrono-crystal he finally realized the error of his ways. "I promise I shall do all I can to help you John Carter. It's just… I want my people to live here safely and I thought…."

"You're not the only one that cult deceived," Randolph said, telling him how they had tricked several powerful Jeddaks into their attempts to conquer all of Barsoom.

I had to get back to Barsoom fast. Vad Varo had evidently been captured as well, and since I was only here in spirit no doubt they had found my unconscious body as well. I asked Randolph to come along.

"I'm afraid I can't, Great-Uncle John. I'm here with both body and mind remember? Without the Silver Key I can't open the gateway between the dreamlands and the waking universe. This medallion here theoretically contains some of the same abilities, but I've no idea how to use it. But I guess, if it was made by the same creatures that made the Silver Key, I might find the answers among these books"

I couldn't wait for that. Time was running out. I had to go back to the waking world and stop the cult from performing their ritual. Randolph understood my decision. "Go, Great-Uncle. I shall try to gather the allies I originally had in mind. Take this."

He put a piece of paper in my hand with a spell written on it in the Barsoomian language. I carefully read it and memorized it.

"When you are in close range of the Silver Key, shout it out loud," Randolph said. I nodded and bid farewell to both Randolph and Baq-Tu, wishing them luck with whatever it was they planned to do. I then focused my mind on my body back on Mars, and reminded myself I was just asleep.

Slowly, the library faded away around me.

* * * * * * * *

Screams…

Screams of agony. That was the first thing I heard when I woke up. And I could smell the stench of burning flesh. As I opened my eyes, it became clear to me I was not in the corridor anymore but in some sort of prison cell. I was chained to a wall. There were three other men in the room, staring at me. When my eyes adjusted to the dark I recognized U-Dan, Vad Varo and… Tan Hadron!

I sat up. Vad Varo realized I was awake, but gestured me to remain silent. In the distance I could hear voices screaming and other voices laughing maniacally. I carefully asked Vad Varo what was going on.

"We're in the pits under the palace of Ghron," he whispered. "After you fell asleep and Randolph and Kar Komak disappeared, a group of guards found me and overpowered me."

I told him the high priests had known all along we had been watching them because the Shoggoths had somehow warned them of our presence.

"Don't let the guards hear you're awake. I heard Ghron say he has a particularly nasty death in store for you if he finds out you're still alive," Vad Varo warned me.

I understood. I turned to Tan Hadron and apologized for the fact that I failed to save him from the crew of the Dusar, and that we had to meet again under these circumstances.

"It's okay John Carter. There was nothing anyone could have done. After Fo-Nar and I had been forced to maroon you and Gor-Don at the North Pole, we wandered around aimlessly for several days. The rest of the crew just couldn't agree on where to go to. Eventually we were caught by a severe storm and crashed here in Ghasta."

He silenced for a while. "When I realized where we were, I tried to get away as fast as possible by following the river, but we found our way blocked by gigantic tar-like creatures covered entirely in eyes. No doubt they are the reason why no-one that tries to leave the valley that way is ever seen again, and why people that arrive in the valley from that direction are so crazed from the horrors they have witnessed. Soon we were all captured by the guards of Ghron. You can understand what a shock it was to find myself back in the clutches of that maniac, and even more to learn he was apparently not the only mad man here in Ghasta. He would make sure I could never escape again so he had me confined in the pits. I later learned that he had Sharu, the girl who aided us in our last escape, killed in a way so cruel I don't even dare to describe it."

I now noticed in what a bad condition Tan Hadron was. He had burn marks all over his body. Evidently he had been subjected to Ghron's tortures as well. I felt truly sorry for him. I carefully told him about the fate of Fo-Nar and the other crewmembers of the Dusar. I then gave all three men a detailed description of all that I had seen and learned about the secrets of the Valley Hohr.

"I knew it," U-Dan sighed. "When we were captured, I heard Multis Par exchange a few words with that Black Martian. He had somehow overheard you and your grandnephew talk about a Silver Key, and then used his medallion to send a warning to his allies on Barsoom. This was something I had never expected from him. I don't know how he managed to keep his involvement in this cult a secret from everyone in the palace of Zor."

It didn't came as a surprise to me that Multis Par apparently spoke English. The high priests of this cult where capable of so many things, so why not being able to speak the main language of their neighboring planet as well?

The screams in the distance became louder. "Ghron has gone completely insane," Tan Hadron said. "The last week or so his rate of tortures has more than tripled. He even selects people from his own city to be subjected to the tortures. The grills and mutilation chambers are in use every xat of the day."

"To think such a small band of madmen can cause so much horrors," I said a little too loud, because immediately footsteps approached our cell. I quickly lied down on the ground and tried to hold my breath as long as possible. I heard the door open. Carefully peeking through my eyelids, I saw Ghron, two guards, Xer-D'ah and Multis Par standing in the doorway. Ghron demanded to know who just called the cult "a small band of madman." Covering for me, Tan Hadron took the blame and had to endure a few beatings to the stomach for it.

"After all this time you still don't grasp our true might," Ghron said. "The influence of Azhorra-Tha reaches to every corner of Barsoom. We have followers among four of the five great races of this planet. Even the cult of Issus feared us. Tomorrow night you will see. Our followers are on their way here. The stars are aligning, and we have all we need for the holy ritual. The moment we waited for all these millennia is finally here."

He looked at me. "So he's still unconscious. Looks like you actually killed him Xer-D'a. I would have loved to see Azhorra-Tha suck the life out of him, make him crumble to dust like he did to Hy'thur and Luviq. But his dead body will be a nice sacrifice as well." He closed the door. I waited for a while untill I was certain they were gone. I thought about what Ghron just said. The entire cult was going to gather in 1 place. The perfect opportunity to take them down once and for all. I wondered for a minute how they could possibly find this place since the Valley Hohr is unfindable to anyone looking for it, but I guessed the High Priests had found a way to temporarily undo the Mi-Go's protection.

I asked U-Dan if he knew where Dejah Thoris and Vaja had been imprisoned, but he didn't. For zodes on end I sat in the cell, trying to think of what to do. I looked at the chain around my ankle. It was rusty and evidently very old. So maybe…

I summoned all my strength and pulled. The first two times nothing happened, but the third time I managed to break a shackle. Next I examined the lock of the door. It was an ordinary lock, and when trapped on Sasoom I had seen Vorion pick the lock of our cell door. Using a piece of metal from my harness, I tried the same thing and it worked. I carefully opened the door a little and looked around. There were no guards to be seen. I tried to break the chains of U-Dan, Vad Varo and Tan Hadron as well, but they were too strong even for me.

"I'm going to try to find a guard who has the keys," I whispered. "If meanwhile a guard come by, make sure he doesn't notice I'm gone." The three men nodded. Hanging what remained of the chain around my shoulder, I carefully left the cell…

9. The Night the Stars Aligned

Walking around without making too much noise proved difficult since I had to drag the chain around, but fortunately there where barely any lights down here in the pits and there were a lot of chambers I could hide in should I run into any guards. But this did not happen. In fact, the pits seemed to be empty. I passed several chambers, all filled with instruments of torture, including some too gruesome to describe here. The blood stains on some of them proved they had been used very recently. But all the cells I passed where empty. I also passed two beautifully decorated rooms. It was in one of these rooms that Tan Hadron and Nur An had been tempted by Sharu to become officers in the service of Ghron. The pits where quite a maze, but my memories about the last time I was here where slowly starting to return. In my mind I could see myself and Ibrahim again as we ran for our lives through the pits, trying to reach the palace above and the way out of the city.

In the distance I heard voices and recognized one of them as being Ghron's. I also heard screams. Following the sound I walked up a small ramp that ended at a door. I knew there was somebody in the room next to it so I didn't dare to open it, but fortunately the keyhole was large enough for me to see through. I could see another beautifully decorated room. Ghron was in there, sitting on a throne, and smiling wickedly at something just out of my sight. However, the screams and smells made it painfully obvious what he was looking at; someone was being grilled alive. I wished I was able to do something for the poor victim in the room, but I was unarmed and if I were captured again everything would be lost. Suddenly a door on the other side of the room opened and Multis Par came in. He was once more dressed in the ceremonial robes and harness of the cult.

"The guests have arrived, and all prisoners have been gathered except the Jasoomians and the two red warriors," he told Ghron. Ghron ordered two guards to untie the victim from the grill and bring her to the others. I feared they would come in my direction, but instead the guards carried the woman out the door Multis Par had come through. From what I was able to see all her hair had been burned off and her skin was pitch black in several spots. It was disgusting to see. If only I had a sword right now…

"That was the last one. Would it have been enough?" Multis Par asked.

"We tripled the sacrifices the past few days. Azhorra-Tha will be pleased, even more after the huge feast we prepared for him tonight. Come, we shouldn't let our guest wait," Ghron said. The two of them left the room. I thought about what they had just said. So all these tortures and mutilations were in also sacrifices for their mad god. I say "also," because it was obvious from the way he enjoyed it Ghron was doing it mostly for his own pleasure. I carefully opened the door and walked into the room. The smell of burning flesh was still in the air and the grill was still hot. Just when I reached for the other door, it was already opened from the other side by a guard. Fortunately, he was as surprised to see me as I was to see him, so he froze in shock for a second. Acting on instinct, I grabbed the chain from my shoulder, swung it around the guards neck, and strangled him with it. I then dragged the body back to the pits and hid it in an empty cell. The guard unfortunately did not have the keys with him, but he did have a sword. With it I managed to open the lock around my ankle and free myself from the chain.

Now armed and free from the load of the chain, I once more tried to make my way out of the pits. This time I encountered no guards. Behind the door I found a ramp that led to the ground floor of the palace. I didn't see anyone but I could hear several voices. The walls here were all decorated with huge fabric murals depicting ugly half spiders. No wonder Ghron was known as "the human spider of Ghasta." The murals reached all the way to the floor, so they could provide a good hiding place should I run into some guards, but the palace, just like the pits, was awfully quiet. A ramp ahead of me would take me to the second level of the palace, but there I would probably not find what I was looking for. Staying in the shadows and making as less noise as possible, I made my way to the back of the palace, where I guessed the barracks of the guards would be. Opening a door at random, I found myself in a small weapon storage room. It wasn't what I was looking for, but it certainly was the next best thing. I took four small daggers with me that could easily be hidden in one's harness.

On the ground floor I could find no-one. And now that I thought about it, what would I do if I found the keys to the chains of U-Dan, Vad Varo and Tan Hadron? We had no idea how many enemy soldiers we would face, where Dejah Thoris and Vaja were imprisoned, or how to escape from the valley itself. No doubt the entrance at the river would be sealed off now. I needed to get a better idea of the whole situation. I knew it was a bold move, but I ascended the ramp to the second level, planning to make my way to the giant tower that formed the heart of the palace. The tower in which Tan Hadron and Nur An had been imprisoned and the center of which consists I knew was a chimney that led all the way down to the pits. When I arrived on the second level however I quickly had to hide behind a column, for a group of five soldiers cam marching through the hallway. Between them where 10 woman, horribly deformed and mutilated. The soldiers where openly mocking them as the led the women down the corridor. In the distance I could hear laughter and music. Evidently the banquet hall was there, and the girls where lead to the room to perform their dance for Ghron and his guests.

"Dance like it's your last dance. Because it is!" one of the guards mocked the woman next to him.

I liked to get a look at the other guests, knowing them to be the followers of the cult, but there was no time for that. I waited for the guards and dancers to leave, then I made my way down the corridor to the ramp that would take me up the tower. Going that way was risky; should someone else come up after me, the only way out would be to jump out the window. But the tower was also abandoned. I opened the first door I encountered and stepped into the room. I was only halfway up the tower, but the view from the window was all I needed. I could see the gloomy city. Not a single light was on in the houses, but I could clearly hear people talking. I looked down from the tower and what I saw there made my heart stop for a second.

The plaza directly around the palace was filled with cages, and those cages where filled with people. A lot of them had signs of injuries or burning marks, so I figured they had to be slaves or victims of Ghron. But I also say men, woman and even children that certainly did not look like slaves. Elsewhere in the city I saw the fat, greasy guards of Ghasta entering a house and forcing the inhabitants to come along, locking them in a cage with the rest. Also on the plaza was Qual Fjel. I could hear him ordering the guards to hurry up since the ceremony would start at the eight zode. Now I knew why the palace and the pits where abandoned. I recalled Ghron talking to Multis Par about "a huge feast" for Azhorra-Tha and the awful truth hit me like a stone.

"They were going to sacrifice all the inhabitants of Ghasta!"

I looked at the city wall, but the situation wasn't much better there. To my horror I noticed the only way out was guarded by three Shoggoths. Behind the wall I noticed the agricultural fields, the forest with the spiders, and eventually the river where the only way out of the valley was located. Unreachable now considering the situation.

The spiders….

They could provide a distraction. But to get them to the city you would require getting past the Shoggoths first.

I left the room and made my way to a room located on the other side of the tower. Here too I could see the plaza filled with cages. Most of the people inside where silent, but I could see the looks of fear on their faces. But I also saw just the thing I needed. Fliers. At least 7 large fliers where located on a platform at the back of the palace, no doubt belonging to the guests of Ghron.

Suddenly I felt drowsy. Before I realized what was happening I fell to the ground and my eyes closed almost as if by themselves.

", Great-Uncle John," I heard Randolph's voice. I was in total darkness. When Randolph called again, I responded.

"I found an army, Great-Uncle. But I need the Silver Key. I can't bring them to you with just this medallion."

This news couldn't have come at a better time. Now I had to think fast. The Silver Key was no doubt already at the temple, and the best way to get near it would be going back to the pits and allowing myself to be taken to the temple to be sacrificed. Tan Hadron, Vad Varo and U-Dan would no doubt be locked in the cages on the plaza, but that would be just the place I needed them to be. I asked Randolph what kind of army he had gathered, and the answer was better than what I was hoping for. I quickly told him what I had in mind and he agreed. The next moment I woke up. I looked out the window again. Judging by the position of the moons it was the seventh zode, and on the plaza I saw guards lock the dancers I had seen earlier in a cage with the other people. The banquet was clearly over. I had to hurry.

I managed to make my way back to the pits without being spotted. I grabbed the chain and went straight back to the prison cell. My sword I had to leave behind since I had no way to hide it. Along the way I thought my plan over. I knew Ghasta had a population of about 600, but I guessed about 200 of them would be soldiers, so that meant 7 fliers for 400 people. Barely enough, but it was all we had. When I arrived back in the cell I quickly handed Tan Hadron, Vad Varo and U-Dan each a dagger, hiding the fourth one in my own harness, and told them my plan. I then put the chain back on my ankle and placed the rest of it on the floor in such a way you couldn't notice it was broken off.

* * * * * * * *

The four of us didn't have to wait long for soon we heard the guards coming our way. The door was opened and ten guards entered the cell. They first unchained Vad Varo, Tan Hadron and U-Dan and forced them to come along. I meanwhile pretended to be still unconscious. I felt them unchaining my ankle and dragging me out of the cell.

I was dragged through a corridor hidden behind a curtain in the room with the grill, which eventually ended in the cave that contained the temple. Peering through my eyelids, I saw the cave was filled with dozens of people; red, black, yellow and white Martians, all dressed in different harnesses and trappings from a great number of cities, but strangely no Green Martians. Among them I recognizes some of the black Martians from the Valley Dor and from Kamtol, some of the Yellow Martians from Okar, and some Therns. Among the Red Martians I saw, much to my dismay, at least four lesser nobles from Helium. The power of this cult reached further than I already suspected. I could see them looking at me; their mighty prince, finally defeated and soon to be sacrificed. There were also quite some guards present.

I was dragged towards the temple. I could see Ghron, Multis Par, Qual Fjel and Xer-D'a standing around the altar. Some of the Yellow Martians in the crowd demanded to know where their High Priest, Luviq, was, but none of the other priests answered. And next to the priests I saw Vaja and Dejah Thoris. Both were chained to the columns of the temple. I could see Dejah Thoris looking at me and the tears welling up in her eyes. How much I wanted to let her know I was still alive, but I couldn't. Not now. Timing was crucial in this case.

I was put on top of the altar and Ghron gestured everyone to be silent.

"Behold, John Carter. The once mighty warlord of Barsoom, who opposed our noble cult time and time again. The man who killed two or our fellow High Priests. But now he's dead, slain in spirit in another world. And his body shall be the first meal of our great god. For tonight, the stars are aligned again, and all of Barsoom shall know the true meaning of power," Ghron announced. The crowd cheered and shouted the name of their wicked god. Dejah Thoris hung her head, tears falling on the floor below her.

Qual Fjel reached into the pockets of his robes and revealed the Silver Key. Multis Par and Xer-D'a where handed daggers by two guards, and I knew what they were meant for. The ritual required a blood sacrifice. Above the temple a hatch was opened an through it I could see the starlight. I realized it was the chimney that led all the way through the central tower. I smiled; this would make my plan only easier.

Multis Par approached Dejah Thoris with the dagger while Qual Fjel started to chant. Now was the time! Without a warning I jumped up from the altar and shouted the spell that Randolph had given me. In an instant the Silver Key disappeared from Qual Fjel's hand. A gasp of shock went through the crowd, but I didn't pay attention to it. I grabbed the dagger from my harness and tossed it at Multis Par, hitting him in the hand and causing him to drop his own dagger. Xer-D'a, who was about to slice Vaja's throat, now turned his attention to me.

"I still live!" I shouted hard enough for everyone to hear. "And this madness ends tonight."

At least twenty armed guards ran up the stairs. The four High Priests glared at me in anger. "You shall wish you had really died in the dream world Warlord. Now, we shall make your death as painful as possible," Ghron threatened. I positioned myself between Dejah Thoris and the guards to protect her, but I couldn't hold on for long with only a dagger as a weapon.

"Randolph… hurry up," I thought.

Suddenly I heard several people in the crowd scream in terror, and pointing towards something above us. The first guard reached the top of the stairs when he was snatched up by a black, winged creature. I looked up. Just above the temple a portal had appeared, and more of these black creatures came through it. They all had a vaguely human shape, but no face and a skin that looked like it was made of rubber. They also had a long barbed tail. Some of them where alone. Others were carrying gruesome looking humanoids armed with javelins. And another one was carrying Randolph.

"Kaor, Great-Uncle John," he shouted. I greeted him back, picked up a sword that one of the guards had dropped and used it to cut both Dejah Thoris and Vaja free.

Dejah Thoris immediately embraced me so tightly I feared she would give me a hernia. "My prince. I knew you would come. But who or what are those?" she pointed at the creatures that where now attacking the cult members, causing massive panic.

"The winged ones are called Night-Gaunts, and the others are ghouls. They are friends of Randolph," I said. It was true what Randolph had told me earlier. He might not be a fighting man, but he had his connections. Riding on his own Night-Gaunt, he was commanding the creatures in their native tongue like a general commanding his army. What a difference this was from the nervous Randolph I had originally come to known. Apparently, the spirit had not disappeared yet from the Carter clan.

I looked around. The cult members all tried to flee back to the palace, but their way was blocked. More and more of them where impaled by the ghouls or snatched up by the Night-Gaunts and carried through the chimney to outside. I guess they would be dropped to their death there. To call it a pandemonium would be an understatement. Randolph knew what Tan Hadron, U-Dan and Vad Varo where doing outside so he ordered some Night-Gaunts to help them. Multis Par was still standing next to the altar. His hand was bleeding but he had reclaimed his dagger. Raising the dagger in the air, he ran towards me but I easily overpowered him, snatching his medallion from his neck and throwing him down the stairs. Ghron and Qual Fjel had disappeared, but I could see Xer-D'a had made his way to the corridor that led to the ancient city. He was holding his medallion in his hands, chanting something. Suddenly the door burst open and one of the two Shoggoths that we had fought against in the ruins entered the cave. It grabbed two ghouls and devoured them.

"The medallion. That's how they control the shoggoths!" Randolph shouted. He commanded the Night-Gaunts to stay away from the vile creature. I told Dejah Thoris and Vaja to stay put while I ran down the stairs, killing two more guards on my way down. A Night-Gaunt picked me up and I climbed on his back. An aerial attack would stand the best chance against this Shoggoth. The creature was now almost at the foot of the temple, lashing out at the ghouls and Night-Gaunts. My Night-Gaunt came within its reach and was grabbed by the tentacles, but I managed to jump of him in time, landing behind the Shoggoth and in front of Xer-D'a. He drew his sword and the two of us engaged in a duel.

"You never win, Warlord. Look!" To my horror I saw Ghron descending from the temple stairs with Dejah Thoris as his hostage. The shock of seeing my princess like this almost caused me to drop my guard, but I managed to snap out of my trance and par a blow from Xer-D'a before he could run me through the heart. I admit he was a good swordsman, but not as good as Luviq, and I had all the more reason now to end this fast. I attacked with more aggression than I ever had, forcing him entirely into the defense. With one mighty blow I managed to knock the sword out of his hands. I then grabbed him by his harness, snatched the medallion from his neck, and tossed him towards the Shoggoth. The creature, realizing Xer-D'a's control over him was broken, grabbed the fallen High Priest with one of his slimy tentacles and devoured him in a single bite.

10. Clash of the Gods

I didn't pay attention to the Shoggoth devouring his former master. I jumped over the creature and ran towards Ghron, who had already reached the door that led to the pits. Behind me the Shoggoth was attacked by a flock of Night-Gaunts. Ghron saw me approaching and ordered me to stand back, when suddenly the door was opened from the other side and Tan Hadron entered the cave, sword in hand. Before Ghron realized what happened, Tan Hadron had decapitated him. Just like Luviq, Ghron's body instantly fell apart in a pile of dust. The cruel reign of the human spider of Ghasta was finally put to an end. Tan Hadron picked up Ghron's medallion, and tossed it to me. Dejah Thoris ran to my side.

"You have no idea how long I've been waiting for this opportunity," Tan Hadrons said. I asked him how things went in the city and he told me everything was going according to plan.

The chaos in the cave was starting to calm down. Most guards and cult members had been killed, and so had nearly all the High Priests by now. The floor was covered in bodies and even more in blood. The Night-Gaunts and ghouls were fighting the Shoggoth now, attacking the creature from multiple angles at once, but it was obvious the Shoggoth was too strong for them. Multis Par had fled the cave and I guessed he would be harmless now without his medallion. Only Qual Fjel remained, but where was he? Randolph was still commanding the Night-Gaunts, when suddenly a tentacle shot out of the darkness and grabbed him, pulling him off his Night-Gaunt and onto the temple floor. To my horror, the second Shoggoth from the ruined city had made his way to the temple. Randolph landed next to the Altar, where Qual Fjel was standing. He had taken Vaja hostage and with his free hand he took the Silver Key out of Randolph's pocket.

"Smart move Warlord, using the spell we discovered against us to send the key back to your ally. But it won't help you." He kicked Randolph down the stairs. I ran towards my grandnephew. He seemed to be okay.

"You son of a Calot!" I shouted to Qual Fjel. I wanted to run up to the temple, but the Shoggoth blocked my path and the other Shoggoth was keeping the Night-Gaunts and Ghouls busy. I had no choice but to take the direct approach. With my sword in my hand I ran up the stairs towards the towering Shoggoth, chopping off his tentacles as he tried to grab me. Behind him I could hear Qual Fjel chanting and around me the walls were starting to glow in the unearthly colors of my nightmare. I ran to the left end of the stairs, but then suddenly changed direction and jumped to the right. This confused the Shoggoth and I was able to pass him.

But I was too late. I saw Vaja lying on the altar… dead. Her throat sliced open. Qual Fjel was holding the Silver Key high into the air. The portal summoned by Randolph closed and the temple began to shake violently. Mad with rage I jumped over the altar and ran Qual Fjel through the stomach. He staggered and fell backwards.

"That was for Vaja. And even more for my family," I shouted. The mad Thern only laughed however and shouted "qwycvb wryghas qxrrraglswega Azhorra-Tha!... you lose Warlord. Barsoom will tremble before the great god… and soon… Jasoom, too."

He finally succumbed to his injuries and his body crumbled to dust. I grabbed the Silver Key and the last medallion and put them in a pocket pouch of my harness. Behind me the Shoggoth had reached the top of the stairs, when suddenly he busted into black and green flames and fell from the stairs. I saw the other Shoggoth suffered the same fate. A bright, unearthly or unbarsoomian light emerged from the corridor that led to the ancient city, and above the temple two gigantic, very alien, very evil looking eyes appeared. The very thing I had tried to prevent had happened. Azhorra-Tha had awoken.

I picked up Vaja's body and rushed down the stairs like a madman. Randolph had regained consciousness and ordered the Ghouls and Night-Gaunts to leave through the chimney. One Night-Gaunt picked him up and carried him out. Dejah Thoris had apparently fainted upon seeing the eyes, since Tan Hadron was carrying her now. I ordered him to get out of here fast. We left the cave and rushed back through the pits to the palace above. Behind us the burning Shoggoths where absorbed by the malevolent Outer God.

* * * * * * * *

The whole palace was shaking on its foundations. When the four of us reached the top floor and ran out of the building onto the plaza, we noticed the sheer chaos out here. In the distance I saw the forest burning and at the city gate, which had been forced open, the three Shoggoths where fighting against hordes of the spiders. My plan had worked. When Tan Hadron, Vad Varo and U-Dan were taken out here to be put in a cage with the other prisoners, they used their daggers to kill some guards, take their weapons and highjack a flier. With the flyer they had gone to the forest and set it ablaze, driving the spiders towards the city. It's true the spiders are basically blind without their web to guide them, but even a blind creature will flee when threatened with fire. The chaos of the spiders attacking the city provided a good distraction, and backed up by the Night-Gaunts that soon followed they had started to free the prisoners and evacuate them with the fliers.

I ran into Vad Varo, who had just brought the first 100 prisoners to safety and now returned for more. In the distance I saw U-Dan directing people into a second flier. He saw me and greeted me, but then he noticed Vaja in my arms and dropped his sword.

"I'm sorry," was all I could say, but those mere words would never be enough to apologize for the sad thing that had happened. U-Dan snatched the dead body of his beloved from my arms and clutched her to his chest. He dropped to his knees and although he tried to hide it from me, I knew he was sobbing.

"Qual Fjel did this, but he's dead now. But we have to get out of here, he summoned…" but before I could say more, a thick smoke emerged from the chimney on top of the tower and formed a cloud shaped like Azhorra-Tha's symbol. It was exactly like the thing from my nightmare. At the city gates the Shoggoths suddenly busted into flames and their burning bodies were sucked up into the cloud along with most of the spiders. And from the cloud the awful, alien buzzing sound could be heard.

I noticed another abandoned flier and remembered what Randolph had told me. U-Dan was too shaken by the death of Vaja to be of use to me now, so I ordered Tan Hadron to take Dejah Thoris aboard U-Dan's flier and bring all the people in it to safety. I myself ran for the abandoned fliers while everywhere around me the city of Ghasta started to collapse. Behind the burning forest the river was now boiling. To get an impression of the situation, try to imagine what the mythical apocalypse might look like. I managed to reach the flier and start it. While I took off, Tan Hadron and Vad Varo departed in their fliers with as many people as they could gather. U-Dan and Vaja's corpse where snatched away from the collapsing city just in time by two Night-Gaunts. The next moment the entire tower of Ghron's palace split in half and then collapsed while the rest of the palace and the buildings around it busted into the alien colored flames from my nightmare. Azhorra-Tha was free!

The mad god was clearly taken delight in the chaos in the valley Hohr. He snatched up some of the people that had been left behind with his tentacles and pulled them into the cloud. By the looks on their faces I could tell most of them had already died of shock before they reached the cloud. Below him the fires from both the forest and the city started to spread out to other areas of the valley. I steered the flier directly towards the cloud, but before I could make my move, three Night-Gaunts landed on the deck of my flier, carrying Randolph, U-Dan and Vaja's corpse.

"Don't do it, Great-Uncle," Randolph said, evidently having guessed what I was planning to do. I asked him if he knew a better solution. "The Silver key set him free, maybe it can seal him again. While Baq-Tu and I were traveling the dreamlands, I talked to some of the more benevolent gods, including Nodens, and he told me the secret of a ritual that can banish Outer Gods to realms unknown. It's just…"

"Just what," I asked.

"…I'm not sure if it will be a permanent solution. Azhorra-Tha is very powerful."

Even Randolph was out of ideas apparently, but when he mentioned Baq-Tu an idea entered my mind. A very bold, very outrageous idea, but when dealing with creatures like this you have no choice. "We have a saying on Barsoom," I started. "A White Ape stands the best chance of defeating another White Ape." You could say it was the Barsoomian equivalent of "Fighting fire with fire."

Randolph looked at me as if I had gone crazy. "Think about it. Baq-Tu wanted to help the High Priests get the key, in hopes that Azhorra-Tha would defeat the god Uvhash for him and thus free the Lotharians of the Chaqzeeks," I shouted.

"You suggest… summoning Uvhash? But, Great-Uncle John, he's about as destructive as Azhorra-Tha, and ill fate befalls all that deal with him," Randolph protested. For a moment he looked again like the nervous man I had first come to know. But I was in no mood to go into an argument with my grandnephew. If this god was not stopped now that he was still in the Valley Hohr, Barsoom was lost. The valley was already one huge sea of flames (some in even weirder colors than the others), except for the riverbanks. "Just do it," I commanded.

Randolph was taken aback by my sudden outburst. "But… it will require a blood sacrifice."

I was about to volunteer for this, when U-Dan suddenly got up stating he would provide the sacrifice. Vaja died to summon this monster. He would die to stop it again. I tried to stop him, stating it was my fault Vaja got killed and I should be the one to bring this sacrifice, but U-Dan insisted. "Barsoom needs it's warlord—when the Morgors come," he said.

The Morgors! I had completely forgotten about them in the chaos. I realized the truth in U-Dan's words and reluctantly, I agreed.

"Blessed be your ancestors U-Dan," I saluted him. I handed Randolph the four medallions I had taken from the High Priests, and the Silver Key. Randolph still had the fifth medallion with him. He and U-Dan left the flier with two Night-Gaunts. The third one stayed behind to help me should it be necessary. I saw the cloud was moving towards the edges of the crater. I had to keep Azhorra-Tha busy a little longer. Going back to my original plan, I steered the flier at full speed towards the cloud. As I approached it, it opened before my eyes and Azhorra-Tha revealed himself to me.

Although I had seen this horrible face several times in my nightmares, I could never get used to it, nor ever hope to fully describe it. My eyes closed against my will and every bit of common sense in me screamed to get the hell out of there. I even dare to say that for the first time ever, in my entire centuries old life, I felt truly terrified. And can you honestly blame me considering the fact I was coming face to face with a creature whose mere appearance could drive the weak minded insane and who could wipe out entire cities in a matter of tals? But it is in situations like this that the difference between cowardice and courage becomes clear, because I kept the flier at a steady course for the malevolent Outer God.

The shock that went through the flier when it struck its target was enough evidence that Azhorra-Tha had indeed a (partly) physical shape. I heard the god let out a roar of pain that send chills down my spine, so utterly unnatural did it sound. I was so perplexed and overjoyed by the fact that it had worked, that I forgot the flier was too damaged to stay airborne. The Night-Gaunt fortunately grabbed me and took off with me. I saw the symbol shaped cloud stagger backwards into the valley. At least Azhorra-Tha was stopped for a brief moment. The Night-Gaunt put me down at the river bank, where, trapped between the boiling water and the colored flames, Randolph and U-Dan had just finished the ritual. U-Dan was standing in a circle made from the five medallions, while Randolph shouted the spell "AI NODENS! AI NODENS! N'GHA-YHAA! IA UVHASH THAGN GHYU RHYLKOS!"

Azhorra-Tha was closing in on us when suddenly a huge gust of wind drove him back. The sky directly above us turned dark and lightning flashed, as U-Dan was lifted into the air by an unknown force. For a tal he just hung there, then his body was twisted in several ways and rapidly deflated as the blood gushed out of multiple wounds that had appeared all over him. But not a single drop of it hit the ground. Instead the blood was sucked into what looked like a black hole, and from this black hole a colossal, vampiric, red mass of tentacles and eyes emerged. The Blood-Mad God of the Void had arrived, and having tasted the blood of a Red Martian, he was hungry for more. U-Dan's dead, deflated body dropped on the ground before us, but as mauled and twisted as it looked, he still had a satisfying smile on his face. At least he was back with Vaja now, wherever it is we go after our time in this world is up.

Just in time did the Night-Gaunts pick me and Randolph up and carry us high above the valley, as below us the two gods went into an epic battle, lashing out at each other with their cosmic powers. Watching them would give you a good impression of what the war between the Greek Gods and the Titans might have looked like. The walls of the volcano started to crumble and collapse while the still burning ground was caving in, revealing the ancient city deep underneath the Valley Hohr. I hoped and prayed I had made the right move, and these two deities would eventually destroy or severely weaken each other. The battle I witnessed was one like I had never witnessed before. I'm not even sure I correctly recall all the details while telling you this, since events of this magnitude simply don't fit in the brain of a mere human. Not even an ageless human like me.

Randolph tossed me three of the four medallions, while he himself grabbed the remaining two and the Silver Key.

"This is our chance, Great-Uncle John. If we banish them now they will be locked in an eternal battle, never bothering Barsoom, the dreamlands or whatever place ever again," he shouted. "Repeat after me!" He started to chant the spell he had learned in the dreamlands. The spell passed down to him by Nodens himself, and which no mortal had ever been allowed to learn. The words where even more unpronounceable than the chanting used to summon Azhorra-Tha, so for that reason I'm not even going to try and put them down here on paper, but I managed to repeat every word Randolph said while below us the two gods continued their struggle.

Just when we said the last word, the five medallions flew away from us and started hovering above the valley in a circle formation, all glowing brightly. The Silver Key unleashed a ray of light that shot towards the center of the circle and a new portal opened. This one was white, and I guessed it led to a place that consisted of pure nothingness. Below us in the valley the colored flames suddenly shot up in a huge column, engulfing both gods. To someone on the outside it must have looked like the volcano was erupting again, but it would be the most unusual eruption ever witnessed by human or Martian eyes. The unearthly screams of both gods could be heard as the fiery column lifted them up into the air and through the portal, which closed immediately after them. As the portal closed I could see the medallions were melting and when it was closed permanently, they had become five shapeless clumps of silver, which fell down to what was once the valley Hohr, but what was now nothing but a huge crater of charred Earth and rock. The volcano's cone had entirely collapsed inwards and the unearthly fire had destroyed Ghasta, the forest and everyone and everything that was still in the valley when Azhorra-Tha was released. No doubt the ruins of the ancient city had suffered the same fate, as had the temple of Azhorra-Tha.

Seeing the massive damaged I felt sorry for those we could not save, but I also felt a great relieve come over me. It was finally over. The greatest thorn in Barsoom's side had finally been removed. The very source of this planet's decay was taken from it. And at the same time the cruel reign of Ghron was put to an end. But I knew the events from that day would haunt my mind for many more years to come. You often don't realize how dangerous something you do is and how lucky you are to survive it until you think it over afterwards, and that is exactly what I felt now. Had I really been mad enough to attack a god with a flier?

Next to me Randolph was still on his Night-Gaunt, holding the Silver Key and looking very exhausted. The ordeal had taken his toll on him as well.

Not far from the collapsed crater I noticed the two fliers of Tan Hadron and Vad Varo, the Night-Gaunts, the Ghouls, and the people they had managed to safe. Randolph ordered our Night-Gaunts to bring us to them.

11. To An Uncertain Future

As we landed next to the two fliers, we were greeted by Tan Hadron. I asked him how Dejah Thoris was doing. She was still unconscious, but when I took her in my arms she opened her eyes.

"My prince. I just had the most horrible dream. I saw you fighting a creature of so awful, so… so… I cannot describe it."

I nodded in understanding. "Then don't try to describe it my princess. It will only force you to think about it more. It's over now, it was just a bad dream." I did not have the heart to tell her that her dream was in fact real. The mere shock that such a monster really existed would be too much for her.

I told Tan Hadron and Vad Varo the sad news about U-Dan's and Vaja's deaths. Randolph meanwhile was talking to one of the ghouls, whom he introduced to me as Richard Upton Pickman, a former artist from Earth who had found his way to the dreamlands and stayed to life there forever. He told me they had managed to save about two-hundred-fifty people, just over half of the number of people I hoped to save. But they had lost nearly a third of their own troops, both Ghouls and Night-Gaunts. In the light of the twin moons I saw the survivors, mostly woman, looking around very confused.

"They have no idea what truly happened, Great-Uncle. No one here has. The high cliffs that made up the volcano's cone and the thick cloud surrounding Azhorra-Tha shielded everyone outside the volcano from the battle that was raging inside. All they saw was the huge column of fire when we banished those gods," Randolph said.

Vad Varo and Tan Hadron gathered all the rescued Ghastans near one of the fliers. I climbed on it so I could speak to all of them. Dejah Thoris was standing at my side.

"People of Ghasta. It is with great delight that I announce the death of the cruel Jed that has tormented your lives for so long. He and his accomplices have all been wiped out tonight. It wasn't without a price however. Many of our new allies, and three close friends of mine, have given their lives. Ghasta, along with the entire Valley Hohr, has been destroyed, but I promise you I can offer you a home and shelter in either Helium or one of its allied cities."

Below me the people started talking amongst each other. Some found it very hard to believe Ghron was indeed gone. He had been around longer than any of them could remember. But still, I also heard some of them ask questions like "what did he look like again?"

Randolph also climbed on board the flier. "It seems that their memories are fading away, Great-Uncle John." He told me that was often a side effect for people who deal with Outer Gods or other Eldritch Abominations. The people of Ghasta had lived under influence of Azhorra-Tha all their lives, but now that he was gone all the memories about him and his High Priests where slowly disappearing. I had all the people board the fliers, and asked Vad Varo and Tan Hadron to take them to Helium. Tan Hadron was eager to be reunited with Tavia again, and I told him she had been faithfully waiting for him to come back. But as the rescued citizens from Ghasta boarded the fliers, someone else suddenly jumped off the deck and ran away. He was gone before I could see who it was.

With everyone on board, the fliers took off. Dejah Thoris and I would follow with the Morgor ship, providing that it was still in one piece. Tan Hadron promised to come back for us if we failed to show up in Helium within a day.

I asked Randolph if he was interested in coming to Helium with us, but he declined my offer. "I don't think I will ever belong to this world, Great-Uncle John. It was an honor to have seen the famous Barsoom and fight at your side again, but I have decided to follow Pickman's example and retreat to the dreamlands permanently. During the months I stayed behind in the dreamlands while you went back to Barsoom, Baq-tu and I have become good friends. When we figured out how the medallion worked, I showed him the Earthly dreamlands and introduced him to my allies there, the ones that fought with us tonight. The Night-Gaunts helped fight off another attack from the Chaqzeeks."

I insisted of coming with him one more time to say farewell to him and the Ghouls. Using the key once more, Randolph opened the gates to the dreamlands. Flying on the backs of the Night-Gaunts, we entered the portal (all three of us with both body and mind, I didn't like the idea of our bodies staying behind asleep and defenseless out in the open), emerging at the Lotharian city. We were given a warm welcome by the Lotharians there, not in the least Baq-tu. And standing by his side was none other than Kar Komak. I was so surprised to see him again that I could only say "Kaor."

"I understand you are surprised to see your friend again Warlord," Baq-tu said. "I already demonstrated to you that I too have the ability of summoning beings with my mind. When I learned that this Tario had managed to not only create bowmen, but make them stay materialized all the time, I tried desperately to repeat this process and revive your fallen friend. It was the least I could do since it was my betrayal that cost him his life. I succeeded just a day ago."

I couldn't thank him enough. But he, too, was exceptionally grateful when I told him the fate that had befallen Uvhash. With the blood mad god from the realm of Rhylkos gone and the Ghouls and Night-Gaunts now being their allies, they would never have to worry about the Chaqzeeks again.

We could only stay here for a brief moment. I discussed the fate of the Silver Key with Randolph. The medallions were destroyed, but the key should never fall into evil hands again. Randolph promised he would keep it with him day and night from now on. We also agreed it would be wise to never open the portal between the dreamlands and Barsoom again, no matter what. He agreed. Dejah Thoris would loved to stay a little longer and see this wonderful world that gave her an impression of how Barsoom was like in ancient times, but she knew there was no time for that. Bidding my grandnephew farewell, he send the three of us back to the waking world.

We emerged next to the Morgor ship, which fortunately had not been hit by the debris from the collapsing volcano. And neither had Kar Komak's flier. But when we approached the ship, a Red Martian suddenly stepped into view. No doubt he was the man I had seen jumping off the flier earlier. And now I recognized him. It was Multis Par.

I wanted to draw my sword, but stopped when I noticed he was unarmed. He slowly walked towards us, with a wide, evil grin on his face. "You did a good job Warlord, trying to give those pitiful people some hope for the futurem while you and I both know there is no hope for them, nor for anyone on Barsoom. Your ancestors were clearly with you tonight Warlord, but they won't be with you forever. You cornered the princess, but you haven't captured her yet, and now she uses her escape," (note from the author: this last remark was a Barsoomian term borrowed from the game Jetan, meaning something was not over yet).

He started to laugh maniacally, an obvious sign he had lost his mind. The defeat of his cult and his god was too much for him.

"We wanted Barsoom conquered for the alternative ritual, but our allies here kept failing. So we had to seek help from outside Barsoom. Yes, that's right Warlord. WE attracted the Morgor's attention. To them Barsoom seemed as lifeless as it does to your scientist on Jasoom, until we told them it was in fact inhabited, made them see through the illusion. Me being captured by them was all part of the plan to inspire them to attack Barsoom. They will come Warlord, and they will destroy all that you have come to lov…"

Suddenly Dejah Thoris snatched the dagger from my harness, and before I or Kar Komak could stop her she stabbed Multis Par straight through his evil heart. He dropped to the ground dead, but still with that wicked smile on his face. His body did not crumble to dust however, possibly because he hadn't been a High Priest for that long yet.

Dejah handed the dagger back to me. "I still owned him one for what he tried to do in Bandolian's Palace," she said.

I couldn't blame her for what she had done, but personally I had rather taken Multis Par to Helium so he could prove my story about the Morgors.

Kar Komak offered to stay behind a little longer to bury the body. Dejah Thoris and I meanwhile boarded the Morgor ship. It still wouldn't start, but with no warriors interfering me this time I had time to inspect the ship and discover the crash landing had dislodged some of the instruments. Putting them back in place only took half a zode and soon the ship was ready to fly again. Activating the magnetic hull, once more covering the ship in its cloak of invisibility sand, we took off towards Helium. I estimated we would arrive shortly after sunrise.

* * * * * * * *

"I estimated we would arrive shortly after sunrise."

With these words my uncle ended his story. I had been listening to him without ever interrupting him or leaving my chair at the fireplace. I could understand why he had been reluctant to tell me about this before.

"So, you finally know," I said carefully.

My uncle nodded.

I have to say it was kind of uneasy to realize the man sitting in front of me was in fact well over 700 years old. I asked him how much longer he thought he would live.

"I cannot tell, son. The fact that the High Priests performed the ritual every few centuries proves it's effects don't last forever, so I will someday grow old and die, but when that will be I have no idea. But personally, I don't mind the idea that I will die someday, now that I remember the origin of my agelessness," my uncle answered.

"What happened to Randolph. Or the survivors from Ghasta? You said you never told anyone about this adventure before, but there had to be at least two-hundred witnesses," is asked.

"I still see Randolph from time to time, when I sleep deep enough for my mind to enter the dreamlands. He now rules as king in a place called Iled-Vak, but how he achieved that is another story. He and Baq-Tu also established a trading route between the Lotharian city and Iled-Vak. The people from Ghasta have been evacuated to Helium, like I planned. And like I told you, their memories are slowly fading now that they are free from Azhorra-Tha's influence. Soon they will no longer recall the events from that night, only that they had once been slaves of a very cruel Jed and that they had been liberated from him. Dejah Thoris, Tan Hadron and Vad Varo will probably suffer the same fate. Even I have, from time to time, trouble recalling how my adventure went exactly, but my memories are stronger than theirs. After all, they have not seen what I have seen; the true face of Azhorra-Tha. And Uvhash of course."

My uncle glanced out the window to the sky, where Mars could very vaguely be seen as a tiny red star. He looked very remorseful at it.

"What matters is that Azhorra-Tha and his wicked cult are gone. But I fear his influence on Barsoom will never truly disappear. His evil has been rooted too deeply into the planet. There will always be maniacs suffering allusions of grandeur, who want to conquer all of Barsoom. And of course there is the Morgor invasion which the cult has brought upon us."

I too looked at the planet. How many times I had wished that I would someday be able to travel there. I told my uncle his actions had not gone unnoticed entirely. I recalled a newspaper report from spring last year, when several astronomers noticed a weird volcanic eruption on Mars. It caused some panic of course, considering what happened the last time they saw a volcanic eruption on Mars. But when no capsules carrying invading aliens showed up on Earth, the whole matter was forgotten.

"Yes, things like that are too strong even for the Mi-Go's defenses to hide. The destruction of the Valley Hohr undid the protection the Mi-Go put on it. I can visit the crater now whenever I want. The protection around the planet still seems to be there. At least, I haven't heard any news that astronomers on Earth discovered more life on Mars."

I asked him if he already knew more about what this protection is exactly. My uncle answered that he frequently discussed it with Randolph during their nighttime meetings. He had a theory that the protection the Mi-Go put on Mars worked in the same way as the powers of the Tarids from Thuria, who could make themselves invisible and inaudible through hypnotic suggestions. If you know the trick, or if you are somehow immune to it, can you see through the illusion and view Mars the way it actually is, but otherwise you will just see a dead world. My uncle had been given the ability to see through the illusion by Ibrahim Alhazred, and Vad Varo could see through it because he so firmly believed in my uncles stories and thus, deep down, knew what Mars should look like, but any unprepared human setting foot on Mars would find himself on a seemingly abandoned world. My uncle also theorized that should humans ever develop the ability to send unmanned exploration vehicles to Mars, it would be doubtful if they would see anything, but only time would tell if this would be the case.

Suddenly I was startled by a strange sound like some sort of heavy engine. My uncle smiled. "Looks like my flight is here." We went outside and I saw the magnificent Barsoomian spaceship descent from the sky. My uncle directed the mechanical brain to land the ship just outside the cottage. He told me Helium had several smaller ships like this now, and used them to trade goods between Mars and Thuria.

"Considering you are taking these kind of precautions; do you think the Morgors will actually come to Earth too? People haven't forgotten the invasion of 1898 yet," I said.

"Maybe, if they manage to conquer Barsoom first, but we won't let that happen. It's true most of the Jeddaks don't believe me, but they will come around when the invasion starts. At least Helium will be prepared. I managed to unite the races of Barsoom once against a common foe, I can do it again," my uncle assured me.

We shook hands for probably the last time, after which my uncle boarded the ship. As I watched the ship fly away into the night, I was left to wonder what to do with this last story I had been told.

I put it to paper, but I'm still in doubt if I should publish it or not.

* * * * * * * *

I didn't hear anything from my uncle again, until on June 6 1944. I received a message through Gridley Wave:

"They have come. Helium is under attack."

* * * * * * * *

TO BE CONTINUED


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