THE CAVES OF MARS by Gregory KH Bryant
Chapter 6: Jor-Taq’s Vengeance
Horath ushered me through the gate – I had but a glimpse of the work that was being done to repair the outer wall, as well as the walls of the main building, before we were deep inside, hurrying through many long and darkened halls.
My guard – for that is what I concluded Horath and his assassins must be – took me directly to Jor-Taq, who waited in his apartments.
Jor-Taq glared at me without speaking, as Horath recounted to him the circumstances of my return. When Horath finished speaking, I told the same story to Jor-Taq I had to Horath earlier that day, and the old man listened in silence, the only indication of his response a sneer that grew slowly as I spoke.
When I had done, the old man glared at me for a long moment, rapping his fingers on the table before him.
Suddenly rising, he thrust an accusing finger at me.
“Liar!” he fairly screamed. “Liar! Oh, you can fool an idiot like Horath, but you can’t fool me!”
Turning to the assassins who surrounded me, he shouted, “Take that sword away from him and lock him up! We’ll lay him out on my table!”
One of the burly fellows swiftly plucked the sword from my scabbard, while three others pinned my arms behind me, and then they hustled me out of Jor-Taq’s apartments. They took me down many flights of stairs to the dark basements beneath his house.
They threw me into a tiny room with stone walls and a metal door, which they instantly slammed shut. I heard the bolts sliding outside. I sat on the floor, consoling myself that, bleak as things seemed for me at the moment, at least Azora had eluded recapture.
And, too, there was the hope that Torq-aa would make good on his plans, and come in that night to kill Jor-Taq. But would that happen before Jor-Taq had splayed me and flayed me? I had no doubt but that was what he intended. Azora had already told me in some detail what it was that went on in Jor-Taq’s laboratory. I was not sanguine about my immediate prospects.
The time weighed heavily upon me in that dark room. It was so dark I could not even see my hand in front of my face. All was silent and the room was quite stuffy. To pass the time, I explored the room, feeling about with my hands. One, two three paces in depth, and then I bumped up against a wall. Feeling along that wall, I made three more paces, and then bumped up against a third wall. Another three paces, and I found myself touching the fourth wall, this one with the door bolted shut.
So that marked the extent of my freedom, three paces by three square. I reached upward and my knuckles came into instant contact with the stone ceiling, but a foot above my head. That was it. There was no hope of escape from those remorseless walls.
How long after that it was that Jor-Taq’s guard came for me I do not know. It seemed ages, yet it could not have been more than a few hours. There were six of the fellows, in addition to Horath himself. Though Horath made no effort to disguise himself the others all wore black hoods over their heads, with narrow slits cut through for the eyes. The hoods covered not just their heads, but their chests and backs as well.
Horath stood outside the door of my cell, while one of the hooded men opened the door and gestured to me to come outside. Horath kept the point of his sword directed at my belly. Once I was in the hallway, two of the hooded men bound my arms tightly behind my back with leather cords, cinching the cords painfully tight, so that my wrists were at a level with my shoulder blades.
And then, once I had been securely bound, Horath led us all down the long and darkened hall. Three men walked before me, the other three behind me, while Horath himself walked alongside me, the point of his sword now touching the small of my back all the way.
Not a word was uttered. We moved on in silence. I smelled the rank sweat of the men in that narrow corridor, and heard only the soft pads of their sandals against the stone floor.
They ushered me up many stairs to the laboratory where Jor-Taq carried out his sadistic inquiries. There, the six hooded men stepped aside, taking their places on either side of the door, while Horath knocked on the door to the laboratory. A moment later, Jor-Taq, who had been awaiting us, opened the door, and nodded in silence to Horath.
With the point of his sword, Horath pushed me into Jor-Taq’s laboratory, and then he turned and shut the door, locking it.
The sight that met my eyes devastated me. There, upon a table, was the naked form of Shala, hands and ankles bound tightly to the corners.
Nearby, Haia was bound by her wrists to a chain hung from the ceiling. She, too, had been stripped of all garments.
They both seemed unconscious – their eyes closed, and their faces stained with the streams of dried tears. I could see that Jor-Taq had not yet paid them his attentions, but how long it would be before he did, I could not guess.
It was clear that the cruel old man intended this night to be an orgy of sadism. His eyes shined with evil anticipation of the horrors he was soon to inflict. Horath’s face, too, was illumined with malevolent glee.
Jor-Taq nodded at Horath – an obviously pre-arranged signal between them, for without a word, Horath muscled me into an iron chair and chained me into it with metal cuffs around my wrists, my ankles and my throat.
And now Jor-Taq spoke.
“We have given you the best seat in the house, Grae-Don, that you may savour the spectacle of your friends’ slow demise. Your precious Shala will go under my scalpel first. Then Haia, after I have allowed Horath his little pleasure with her. And then you shall be the last. Perhaps I ought to remove your eyelids for you, that you might not blink and miss even an instant of tonight’s little show.”
Turning to Horath, Jor-Taq asked, “Do your guards stand yet outside?”
“Yes, Jor-Taq,” he answered.
“I do not trust them. Send them away,” Jor-Taq said. “We need no witnesses this night.”
Horath did as Jor-Taq instructed, and a moment later he returned.
“Now wake the two ladies,” Jor-Taq said with a smirk. “We shall permit a little reunion between these old friends. It should be most instructive to see how these silly sentimental creatures will respond to their situation.”
Horath strode across the room and picked up a metal pail from near the table where Shala was strapped down. It was filled with cold water, and he splashed it upon her naked body. The shock of the cold water roused her instantly, and she jerked awake.
Then Horath threw the remainder of the water upon the insensible form of Haia, and she, too, wrenched into consciousness.
“Ah! Ah!” she cried, her voice cracking in her wretchedness.
Jor-Taq chuckled, gloating at the tableau of misery he had made.
“Awake, my dears, awake,” he said. “I have brought you a friend, and now our party can begin.”
Shala turned her head, and spying me, she cried out, “Oh, Grae-Don! I am so sorry he has caught you. Now we must all die.”
“Not so quickly, dearie,” Jor-Taq said. “You are so hasty, you women. Everything in its turn.”
Haia, now fully roused, saw me as well, and though her eyes were heavy with sadness, she said nothing.
“Horath,” Jor-Taq snapped. “Loosen the girl’s chains a bit, so she may say her goodbyes to her friend. Perhaps I shall change my plans. I think we shall start this evening’s experiments with her, instead, so I may study the mother’s response to the slow demise of her daughter before her living eyes.”
The chains from which Haia were hanging were strung through a metal loop in the ceiling, and tied down to a bolt in the wall. By loosening the chain at the bolt, Horath gave it sufficient length that Haia was able to stumble across the chamber to the metal chair where I was bound.
She crawled up into my lap, nuzzling her face against mine, as the tears flowed freely down her face. She wept silently, and did not cry out, for she knew that the old sadist would take great pleasure in her misery, and she would not give him the satisfaction. Images of happier times ran through my mind, moments when we, Shala, Haia, and I lived in peace and they taught me how to speak, how to read, how to write. Vividly I recalled the happy hours we passed playing board games, and puzzles.
“A pretty picture,” Jor-Taq intruded. “A pretty picture, indeed. He, he, he,” he cackled.
“Come child,” the old man said, grabbing Haia by the arm and seeking to pull her off my lap.
“Let us begin. I have such plans for you, such delights to show you, and I have promised Horath his bit of fun before I spoil that pretty face of yours. Now, come to Horath.”
With her wrists bound by the chain that held them, Haia looped her arms around my neck and stubbornly buried her face in my chest.
I spat at the old man, and said, “I pity you, Jor-Taq. A pitiable creature you surely are.”
“You pity me?” Jor-Taq screeched in mocking tones. “If there is anyone here in need of pity, I should think it would be you!”
I laughed in the man’s face. “Whatever my sufferings may be, they will be over shortly, and I will be free of you. So will Haia. So will Shala. We will all be free of you. But you, you are condemned to be Jor-Taq forever, and there is nothing you can do about that.”
“Ha!” Jor-Taq laughed. “`Condemned to be Jor-Taq’” he mocked. “I can think of worse things.”
“I can’t,” I retorted. “What a miserable, unhappy thing you are, never to know what it is to have a friend. Never to know what it is to have the trust or the honour of another. I have not been long in this world, Jor-Taq, but already I have made many friends, and there are many who will grieve my passing from this world.
“You, though, you have lived long, and never once in all these years have you ever once felt the touch of friendship, never once have you known what it is to be loved.
“Oh, you have accumulated your cold wealth, and you sit on your pile, surrounded by those who loathe and despise you. There is not one who would but slit your throat if he thought he had the chance.
“You could have had many friends, old fool. You could have had the honour, and the love that I have known. Shala here could have been a friend to you, and Haia, too. And Azora – for they are all people with great friendship in their hearts. But you, cold and cowardly creature, you’ve thrown that all away. Fearful of friendship, jealous of beauty, you spend all your crapulent days hiding out here, afraid of your enemies, and doing what you can to avoid all contact with your kind. You coward!”
“Coward? Coward, you call me?” Jor-Taq sputtered. “You… you…” his face grew purple with rage.
“Why you insignificant… you petty…
“Of course, of course…” he said, recovering himself somewhat. “Of course you call me a coward, for you cannot understand the intellect before you! You are no different than all the rest, confounded by a mind so far beyond yours, you reach into your packet of common epithets.”
Jor-Taq whipped himself into a fine rant. At that moment, he had everything his craven heart wanted or could understand. A captive audience, all within his power, all who had no choice but to listen patiently as he expounded at great length upon his favourite subject, himself.
“You do not know… you cannot know the thoughts that have passed through this mighty mind of mine, you little creature, you, who can think of nothing but your own appetites, your own cravings and desires!
“What do I care for this `friendship’ you speak of? What do I care for this `honour’? Both are sham conceits, existing only to keep you petty creatures down, and to curb your petty appetites. `Oh, I do not dare to do this thing, or that,’” he said in mocking tones, “`Or my friends shall cease to honour me!’ Ptah!” he spat.
“That is what I think of your honour! That is what I think of your friendship! Ptah! I say! Ptah!”
The old man fumed and cursed. And he launched himself into a long monologue, haranguing Shala, Haia and me at huge length for our ignorance, our pettiness, and the smallness of our souls, in comparison with him, who braved all kinds of moral horrors for the sake of expanding human knowledge.
“But that is courage that you cannot comprehend, isn’t it? That is a virtue that is beyond your selfish, sentimental imaginings. What is a bit of pain, especially inflicted upon small and insignificant creatures such as yourselves? You should feel pride, pride that I, the great Jor-Taq, have deigned to include you as subjects of my researches.
“But instead you insult me, you chide me, as a spoiled child may chide an adult. You…”
At that instant, the door to Jor-Taq’s laboratory was rent with a huge pounding.
“Boom! Boom! Boom!”
Jor-Taq spun and looked at the door, ready to call Horath, when the door suddenly burst from its hinges and fell to the floor.
“What?” Jor-Taq screamed. “What? What is this?”
Koax and Brekkex came bounding through the shattered door, their swords drawn and ready.
Before Jor-Taq could utter another word, Torq-aa leaped through the door, his eyes blazing.
Jor-Taq must have seen his own death in the blazing eyes of Torq-aa, for he let loose with a high-pitched scream, stumbling backward and away until he bumbled into Horath.
“Kill him! Kill him!” Jor-Taq howled.
Horath, shocked, fumbled his sword from its scabbard, but he had no sooner grasped it, poised to swing, than three quick darts flew through the air, puncturing his wrist. He jerked his hand away with a cry of pain.
I craned my neck in my chair to see where the darts had come from, and was surprised to see that it was Azora who had hurled them. Even as I looked, she was reaching into a pouch slung from her harness and withdrawing another handful to throw.
Horath swept the darts from his forearm, just as another four struck him. They pierced his arm and his chest, and he grunted in pain. Azora’s tactic worked well, for she kept Horath busy, giving Bendar, Turuk and Jotar time to rush in and surround Horath
Seeing that Horath was fully occupied with three swordsmen at this throat, Azora ceased hurtling her darts at him, and rushed over to me, where I was locked in Jor-Taq’s metal chair of torture, with Haia still upon my lap. Wasting no time with words, Azora put her full attention directly to the task of loosening the bolts that held me down.
Haia clambered down from my lap and ran the length of the chain that held her to the table where her mother was bound. She instantly set about seeking to unloose Shala from her straps.
Horath, I must say, gave a good account for himself. Bellowing loudly to call for reinforcements, he swung his sword in vast circles about himself, narrowly missing Bendar and Turuk time after time. They lunged in at him repeatedly, seeking to cut through his defence, but Horath’s arms were long, and he managed to hold the two at bay.
Jor-Taq, on his side, proved himself the coward he was. With Torq-aa bearing down hard upon him, the old man fell back, and barricaded himself behind the table where Shala was tied down. Pushing Haia away with one hand, Jor-Taq whipped a knife from his harness and laid it upon Shala’s throat, declaring in a high-pitched voice of panic, “Stop! Stop! Or she dies!”
Torq-aa stood upon the opposite side of the table, his sword pointed directly at Jor-Taq’s head. With a single swift motion, he could have cut the man’s head in twain, but no matter how swiftly he plunged his sword into the face of Jor-Taq, the old man would surely cut Shala’s throat quite through before he died.
Haia lay upon the floor at Jor-Taq’s feet, not daring to move, lest she cause her mother’s death.
And just at that instant, twelve of Horath’s assassins came bursting through the broken door. They instantly set upon Bendar, Turuk and Jotar. Torq-aa spun on his heels to meet the three swordsmen who broke off from the group to attack him.
All, it seemed was suddenly lost.
But things happened then with a swiftness that was appalling. Even now I can scarce recollect all that transpired in those instants, so rapidly did so many things take place.
At that precise instant, Azora completed unlocking my bounds. With a single smooth motion, she turned and plucked a half dozen darts from her pouch, hurling them in swift succession directly at the faces of the men who attacked Brekkex, Koax, Bendar, Turuk and Jotar. Two of them went down instantly, Azora’s darts having pierced them through the eye. A third caught a dart in the ear, and his head jerked to the side with the sudden shock.
Quickly taking advantage of the opening, Bendar leaped in and ran his sword through the man’s chest. Now the five men were facing only seven opponents, including Horath, who still filled the room with his huge bellowing and curses.
Torq-aa, in the meanwhile, was proving to be a most dangerous swordsman. Already he had accounted for one of the three who attacked him, with a slash to the head that sent him stumbling backward, and another jab at the man’s groin that laid him open to his waist. Now Torq-aa faced two.
Instantly Azora freed me from my bonds, I leapt up from the chair to lend my assistance to my friends. As Azora threw the last of her darts at the two men who faced off with Torq-aa, then swiftly pulling her knife from its scabbard at her hip, I looked about helplessly for anything I might use as a weapon.
My eye fell upon the long chain that still bound Haia. It dragged along the floor, along the path from where it dangled by the hook in the ceiling. I saw that Haia had carried it partly along with her as she ran back to her mother, Shala, strapped to the table. And that the chain was most inconveniently underfoot – inconvenient for our enemies, that is.
As Azora hurried forward to plunge her knife into the side of one of the men who confronted Torq-aa, I grasped the long chain in both hands and gave it a huge jerk upward. Torq-aa’s opponent fell to Azora’s swift blade, with a huge gash in his side haemorrhaging shocking quantities of blood, and the chain caught two of the men who opposed Brekkex, Koax, Bendar and the others. I yanked upon the chain again, swinging it to the left, and then, again, to the right, and the assassins found themselves slipping, trying to keep from getting tripped up by the chain.
With the floor slick with blood, this was no easy feat, and I was ecstatic to see my efforts rewarded, at last, when two of the assassins fell to the floor. Bendar ran one through with his sword, and Jotar easily dispatched the second.
Now, seeing that the odds were beginning to fall in our favour, Jor-Taq commenced squealing in high-pitched terror.
“Stop! Stop, I say! Stop, or she dies!”
But Haia had seen the confusion I had wrought with the chain that bound her, and instantly picking up on the example, she swung the chain about so that it caught Jor-Taq by the ankles. He fell backward, still screaming, and Haia quickly looped the chain that bound her hands together about Jor-Taq’s neck.
Standing suddenly, she pulled on the chain, giving it several hard yanks, striving to choke Jor-Taq, or to break his neck. Her arms were too young, and too frail, for the task, but she did keep Jor-Taq occupied, skipping about the room with his neck looped in the chain, as he swung his knife in futile circles, striving to cut her.
With Azora’s ready knife assisting, Torq-aa found little trouble in finishing off the last of the three assassins who faced off with him. Leaving the remainder to Brekkex, Koax, Bendar, Turuk and Jotar, Torq-aa ran to Shala’s side, and with three swift strokes, he cut her loose from the table where she had been bound. She stumbled from the table, and allowed Torq-aa to wrap her in his arms.
“Ah! Torq-aa!” she wept, tears running freely down her face.
“Shala. My wife. At last,” he said, looking down into her eyes.
Now it was but Horath, Jor-Taq, and three of the assassins opposing us.
Jotar pulled away from the fray and turned to assist Haia. The struggle between she and Jor-Taq had come to be almost comical now, so grotesque had Jor-Taq’s useless flailing become. Constantly slipping on the floor, slick with the blood of his assassins, while trying at once to loosen the chain Haia kept secure and tight about his neck, and to slash at her with the knife he gripped in his panicked hand, he made sure only that all his efforts were useless.
Now Jotar stepped up, and placed the point of his bloodied sword at Jor-Taq’s throat.
“Cease your babbling, old fool,” he demanded.
Jor-Taq fell to his knees.
“Have mercy on an old man,” he squealed.
We looked about his laboratory, and were revolted by what we saw. Everywhere we looked, the evidences of Jor-Taq’s many victims assaulted our eyes. Parts of bodies lay in a heap in a mouldering corner – hands, feet, legs and arms, all sundered from their bodies. Flesh flayed from the faces of sufferers innumerable, his `subjects’, hung from the walls like so many trophies, their blind, lidless eyes staring hopelessly in death.
With horror growing, we saw that the beast had made fetishes of the bodies of his subjects, chains strung with human ears, pendants and necklaces of human fingers. Indeed, the wretched man wore several of these about his scrawny neck, even as he begged us for mercy. We saw now, with horror, that the apron he wore strung about his bloated belly was fashioned of human flesh. Dried twisted fingerlike projections dangled upon his bowed legs.
We were all repulsed at what we saw. Indeed, now that the battle was done, and she had the time to appreciate what her eyes were taking in, Azora was overtaken with a fit of retching. Jotar and Turuk, too, doubled over with nausea, vomiting copiously upon the bloodied floor.
“You foul, soulless thing!” Torq-aa declared, his voice rising in rage.
He raised his sword above his head, and with Shala hanging upon him, he brought the sword down upon the gibbering form of Jor-Taq. Once! Twice! Three times! Torq-aa’s sword flashed in the dim light, and Jor-Taq, the self-proclaimed genius of Pella’mir, was dead.
Azora ran to my side, and buried her face against my chest. I felt the warmth of her breasts, and the heat of her breath. I encircled her with my arms and held her close.
We had only Horath and his two remaining assassins to deal with now. They kneeled on the floor, disarmed, with Brekkex, Koax and Bendar watching over them, their swords aimed directly at the men’s chests.
“Shall we kill them now?” Koax asked of us all.
“No! Not I!” one of the assassins screamed.
“Nor I! Nor I!” quailed his fellows.
“We did not know,” the first one said. “We did not know what horror Jor-Taq wrought!”
“No!” said his fellow. “Had I known what Jor-Taq did, I would never have set foot in this foul place. I am glad he is dead. Give me but a moment, after learning this horror, I would have killed him myself.”
“Gladly!” the others agreed. “We’d have killed him gladly!”
“You have heard your assassins, Horath,” I said to him. “You do not have their excuse. You were not ignorant of Jor-Taq’s abominations. You assisted him.”
“What else could I do?” Horath pleaded. “The man was a monster, and I was but his servant, as you were, yourself, Grae-Don. You stood guard outside, yourself, as Jor-Taq inflicted his torment upon these creatures. Did you not fear him, as I did? As we all did? He would have killed you in your sleep, Grae-Don. And me. No one was safe.”
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK