To one side the mouth of the cavern yawned dark and forbidding as they went toward it. Andra explained to Karn that it was the mouth of a tunnel which led to the city proper. There were walls about the city which were never opened.
They were almost to the tunnel when the green things came at them. Slimy beings, as tall as Harus and Ven, covered with green scales and four-armed, more lizards than men, they poured from the tunnel.
Emitting bird-like cries they swarmed forward, long spears pointing ahead at waist level. With a scream of fear, Ven spun around and ran. Andra and Harus stood petrified.
Their reactions were typical, apparently, for the Green Ones came on as though used to encountering little resistance. Even the sight of Karn, huge of frame and heavy-thewed, draped in his wolfskin, failed to register. It was a fatal mistake.
As the first of the Green Ones reached him Karn side-stepped nimbly, sweeping the spear aside and tearing it from its bearer's grasp. Karn's other hand shot out and connected with a snout. The man-lizard dropped, its face turned to green and oozing pulp.
In Karn's hands the spear became a club. The Green Ones turned toward him in a body, trying to fend off this unexpected attack. They were met by a whirling staff that crushed whatever it hit. Karn's power was overwhelming. His rush cut a swath of death through the green ranks, forcing them back.
He heard Andra calling and looked back over his shoulder. She was standing at the opening in the ship, screaming to him. In their blind fear, Harus and Ven were prepared to take off and leave him behind.
No saber-tooth could have altered the direction of his charge more quickly than Karn. Before the Green Ones could even attempt to block his retreat, Karn was through them and past them.
Harus and Ven sprawled in their flight chairs, panting as though it were they who had done the fighting. Only Karn seemed relaxed as the ship rose and hovered above the Green Ones.
"Well," Andra said bitterly, "Nobla is gone. There's only Luma now. And soon the Green Ones will have that."
"Nobla was yours?" Karn asked.
"All of Mahlo was ours," Andra told him. "But that was only until the Green Ones got started. Now we have only one city left, and not many Mahloans to defend that."
Scorn flashed from her eyes at Harus and Ven. "And you saw how brave they are," she said to Karn.
"Where is this Luma?" Karn asked, disregarding her thrust at the two Mahloans.
"Not far. After we have a look at what the Green Ones have done to Nobla we'll go there."
The great ball skimmed over the meadow, lifted above the walls of Nobla and rose to the height of the tallest towers of the city. For a while it hovered alongside a great stone gargoyle that peered down into the street below. Bodies were strewn along the streets, Karn saw. They were all male.
"The women escaped," he observed. He heard Andra suck in a sharp breath and turned to her.
She was pointing to a nearby roof. From a doorway there a woman of her kind had emerged and was running across the roof toward the parapet. Behind her came three of the Green Ones.
Only shreds of the woman's clothes remained. Her face was clearly visible to Karn. It was the face of a woman crazed by fear and shock. She reached the parapet, paused, and saw that the Green Ones were almost on her. Without hesitation she jumped. Karn watched her fall until she hit the street.
"This would happen to you too?" he asked Andra.
"If the Green Ones caught me. And eventually they will."
Rage welled up within Karn. The thought of Andra in the clutches of these slimy things sent the blood roaring through him.
"They will not get you," he said.
"No? After Luma there won't be any place to retreat. The voyage that Harus and Ven and I have just made was in search of another world where we might be safe. But the others are as dangerous as Mahlo."
Karn reflected that a people who could not fight these Green Ones had little hope of survival among the Turs and the beasts of his own world. Compared to the great wolves and the saber-tooths the Green Ones were nothing.
"We will kill the Green Ones," he decided aloud. "We will fight them and destroy them."
"Don't make me laugh," Andra said. "You've seen our men when they were in danger."
The ship had lifted and was leaving Nobla behind. Watching the horizon ahead, Karn saw another city come into view within a short time. It looked exactly like Nobla. They must be a great people who could build cities like these, who could make ships that flew through the air.
But they could hardly be called men. What sort of man was it who did not have even the instinct for self preservation? What sort was it who would not defend his woman? Andra read Karn's thoughts.
"What kind of men?" she said. "I'll tell you. They never built the cities of Mahlo. Those have stood for thousands of generations, erected by some forgotten ancestors.
"The men of Mahlo have never had to fight. There was no danger here. So they spent their time in idle chatter, in philosophy, in the invention of luxuries. But they retained control of the government. When the Green Ones came out of the forests of the south and began their conquering march, our men decreed that we must retreat before them.
"When only Nobla and Luma remained to us, the men decreed that we must retreat from Mahlo to a world without dangers. Unfortunately there is no such place."
Karn thought for a moment. "What about the Green Ones?"
"They are more reptile than human, as you saw. But they do have a rudimentary intelligence. Added to their instinct for aggression it is sufficient to destroy us. Wait until you see our Council in session. You won't wonder then."
Luma had turned out en masse to welcome Andra and her two companions. Karn had been the center of attraction and interest for a few minutes. But it was the report of the three Mahloans which mattered most.
Andra gave it to them straight. There was no hope elsewhere. The Green Ones were only minor terrors among the blood-lusting creatures the Universe had spawned. Unless the men of Mahlo fought back they were doomed.
Yet Karn saw no sign that a fight was even imaginable. Shoulders sagged, heads dropped in resignation, but that was all. As he and his three companions walked with the throng to the Council forum, Karn saw brows knit in contemplation, none in anger.
There were as many women as men in the great hall of assembly. They cast no votes, but they had plenty to say.
"We might consider retreating to the northern deserts," Ven said after he had called the meeting to order.
The women shouted him down. What it was that the women wanted, Karn could not guess. But the men quailed before them and became confused. The most important assembly in Mahlo's history was going to break up with nothing done.
"We can only wait, then," Ven said regretfully. A chorus of assent rose like a dirge.
It was all Karn could take. For himself death was nothing. All his life had been lived in its shadow. But that Andra should fall into the hands of the Green Ones was another thing. And that these men should allow their women to meet similar fates filled him with contempt.
"You can do something!" he shouted, coming to his feet. "You can fight!"
Beside him Andra pulled at his arm.
"But we don't know how. No Mahloan has ever lifted his hand in anger. Don't you see?"
The rest of the women were shrilling the same sentiments, drowning out the men. Listening to them, Karn began to understand a great deal. But it was not time for that now.
"Be silent!" he roared. "I see only that you are all going to die. At least die like men!"
The women's voices shrilled in his ears but he shouted them down. By sheer lung power he silenced them, and the sight of his giant figure awed them and kept them silent.
"I am going to pick one hundred of the men," Karn told them. "With nothing but pointed sticks and clubs they are going to follow me. And they are going to fight! Do you hear? They are going to fight!"
Darkness held no terrors for Karn. His eyes were sharp, his hearing as acute as a bird's, his sense of smell infallible. Beyond Nobla's wall he caught the scent of the Green Ones, foul and slightly acrid.
He had to move fast. The men of Mahlo were not as well equipped as he. They had to have light to find their way around. And in an hour the sun would be up.
Karn moved away from the gates, edged along the high wall until he found a rough section. His fingers sought crevices. Then, with the agility of a monkey, he made his way upward. At the top of the wall he waited, listening to the sounds of deep breathing on his right and below.
The Green Ones slept. Their guards were at the gate as a matter of course. But they slept secure in the belief that there could be no attack. Karn grinned into the darkness as he dropped.
Peering ahead, he saw vague figures and moved toward them on soundless feet. Only three or four of them here. It would not take long. His hands reached out and closed on a throat.
It was ridiculous that the Mahloans should be afraid of these creatures. But they were afraid of their own women, so it might have been expected. Yet they were more afraid of Karn than of either.
He had bunched his muscles and scowled at them. And they had quailed. They were afraid to follow him. But they were more afraid not to follow. Karn thought that when the sun rose he would find his men waiting outside the gates of Nobla.
Four of the Green Ones lay dead at his feet as he sought for the bolts that held the gate shut. Very slowly he drew those bolts. All it would take to open the gates would be the slightest push.
But it was taking him longer than he had expected. Already the sky was purpling. Running now, Karn sped down the broad avenue toward a tall, gargoyle-topped building.
He found ledges, plenty of hand-holds, but it was a long climb. The rising sun caught him still twenty feet from the roof. Below, the city stirred and came awake.
Green Ones were in the street. Karn prayed that they would not look up. His prayer proved futile. He moved faster as bird-like cries came up to him. He had been discovered.
Climbing desperately now, he got a hand over the parapet just as a green snout poked its way over. Karn struck out and the snout vanished. Then he was over.
More of the Green Ones came at him as he gained the roof. Snatching up a fallen spear, Karn drove them back. By sheer ferocity of his attack he forced them back through the doorway from which they had emerged. The door slammed between them.
They thought he was going to follow. He could hear them chattering among themselves on the other side of the door. They were trying to decide what to do. Their discussion gave Karn exactly the time he needed.
His eyes roved the roof, trying to find something that would be heavy enough to hold the door against those on the other side. He had to protect his back. But the roof seemed blank.
But there was something Karn could use. The gargoyles. Great architectural excrescenses, they had never served any purpose. They could serve a purpose now.
Each was the size of a small boulder, weighing close to six hundred pounds. Karn lifted one easily, carried it to the door, and set it down. One more trip and he was safe.
From the edge of the roof he could see beyond the wall. His hundred were there, puny indeed from this height. His yell brought them around.
They could see him, but they were still afraid. Indecision held them motionless for an instant. Then they began to move. And they moved forward.
The Green Ones had not seen them yet. Their own eyes were turned up at this shouting giant on the roof. Then the gates of the city swung open and Karn's men were in the broad street.
Swarms of the Green Ones poured from the buildings. They paused to form a line of attack, their spears poised in readiness. That was when Karn went into action.
He ripped a gargoyle loose from the mortar that held it and dropped it over the parapet. Before it landed he had started another on its way down.
On the Green Ones they fell with devastating suddenness, each one crushing dozens. Another of the great missiles fell, and another. A half dozen of them there had been in all, and when the last one landed the street was a shambles.
Karn's men fell on the disorganized remnants of the Green Ones. Hairless the Mahloans were, and puny. But there was a trace of manhood still in them. Spears darted and clubs flailed, and the Green Ones fell.
Karn had known that only the taste of blood was needed. And he had been right. Now his men knew that they too could fight, and that the Green Ones were not irresistible.
By the time Karn reached the ground again the Green Ones were in full flight. As long as they had held the upper hand they had been brave enough. In the face of resistance they were cowardly.
Like Tur, Kara thought. Or like any other bully.
Then he looked up. A shadow crossed his path and he saw the great ball skim over the city. Tur was forgotten now. As he went toward the landing field with his men, Karn knew that he would never return to Earth. As long as Andra was on Mahlo he wanted to be there too.
"You beat them!" she cried as she came from the ship.
"Yes. And we will drive them from every city on Mahlo and back to the forests from which they came."
"But that won't be necessary. There's no reason for you to risk your life. That's the trouble with--"
"There is only one trouble," Karn interrupted. "The women of Mahlo have turned their men into women too."
"You can't talk to me like that!" Andra flared.
Karn found his men watching him. He had led them to victory over the Green Ones. But with women it was another story. Could he stand up to Andra? They were watching Karn, ready to follow him again. But which way would he go?
"Woman," Karn said, "hold your tongue!"
Her face reddened with anger, then turned white as Karn took a threatening step forward. Her head dropped in submission.
It was victory, complete and final. Before Karn's eyes the men of Mahlo seemed to grow inches taller. Their shoulders straightened. For the first time they were out of bondage. They were men. And it was this man from another world, Karn, who made them so.
By Roger D. Aycock
The next worst thing to hell is being shanghaied into the Paradise of an alien planet!