Two pounds of soft, virgin gold of a quality as fine as any he had seen amongst all the treasures brought out of Mexico, Yucatan, and Peru combined!
But the gold was not the only thing. If Kirby was human enough to think in terms of treasure, he was also enough of an amateur anthropologist to hold his breath over the carvings on the yellow surface.
First he recognized the ancient symbols of Sun and Moon. And then a representation, semi-realistic, semi-conventionalized, of Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent, known in all the annals of primitive Mexican religions.
But the mere symbols by no means told the whole story of the cylinder. The workmanship was archaic, older than any Aztec art Kirby knew, older than Toltec, older far, he ventured to guess, than even earliest archaic Mayan carvings.
God, what a find!
* * * * *
For a moment it seemed almost impossible that he, Freddie Kirby, native of Kansas, unromantic aviator, should have been the one to discover this relic of an unknown, lost race. Yet the cylinder of gold was there, in his hand.
After a long minute Kirby looked around him, then listened.
From up the canyon came the provocative rumble of the geyser. It was closer now, and Kirby, glancing at his watch which had been spared to him in the Wasp's crash, noted that just forty-four minutes had passed since the last eruption. There was nothing to be done about the bleached skeleton. So, tucking the precious cylinder into his tunic, Kirby headed on up the gash of a canyon.
Far away indeed seemed the neat, maple-shaded asphalt street, the rows of parked cars and farm wagons, the telephone office and drug store and bank, of the Kansas town where he had grown up.
Time passed until again he heard the geyser, and again was dizzied by the perfume. As the fragrance—close and powerful now—died away, he flailed with one arm at a two-foot bat which flapped close to his head.
And then he trudged his dogged way around a deeply shadowed bend, and found the chasm not only almost wholly dark, but narrower than it had been at any previous point.
"Holy mackerel," Kirby groaned. "Phew! If this keeps up, I—"
He stopped. His jaw dropped.
The beetling walls narrowed in until the gash was scarcely fifteen feet wide. Further progress was barred by a smooth wall which rose sheer in front of him.
* * * * *
Kirby did not know how many seconds passed before he made out through the gloom that the wall was man-made and carved with the same symbols of Sun, Moon, and Feathered Serpent, which ornamented the cylinder of gold. But when he did realize at last, the shout with which he expressed his feeling was anything but a groan.
It simply meant that the skeleton which once had been a man, had almost surely found the golden cylinder beyond the wall and not in the canyon. And if the dead man had passed that smooth, carved barrier, another man could do it!
Kirby jumped forward, began to search in the darkness for some hidden entrance.
Minute after minute passed. He gave another cry. He saw a long, upright crack in the stone surface, and a quick push of his hands made the stones in front of him give almost an inch.
All at once his shoulder was planted, and behind that square shoulder was straining all the muscle of his two hundred pound body. The result was all that he desired. When he ceased pushing, a slab of rock gaped wide before him, giving entrance to a pitch dark tunnel.
For a moment he held the portal back, then, releasing his pressure, he stepped into the dark passage. By the time a ponderous grating of rocks assured him that the door had swung shut of its own weight, he had produced matches and struck a light.
* * * * *
The puny flame showed him a curving passage hewn smoothly through the heart of bedrock. Before the flare died he walked twenty feet, and as another match burned to his fingers, he found the right hand curve of the passage giving way to a left hand twist. After that he dared use no more of his precious matches. But just when the darkness was beginning to wear badly on his nerves, he uttered a low cry.
As he increased his rapid walk to a run, the faint light he had suddenly seen ahead of him grew until it became a circular flare of daylight which marked the tunnel's end.
Out of the passage Kirby strode with shoulders square and head up, his cool, level, practical blue eyes wide with wonder. Out of the tunnel he strode into the valley of the perfumed geyser.
The words were vibrant with hoarse reverence. He saw the sunlight of a cliff-surrounded diminutive Garden of Eden. He saw a vale of flowering grass, of palms and live oaks, saw patches of lilies so huge as to transcend belief, and dizzying clumps of tree cactus almost as tall as the palms themselves.
What was more, he saw in the center of this upland, cliff-guarded valley, a gaping black orifice which every faculty of judgment told him was the mouth of the geyser of perfume. And beside it, outstretched on a smooth sheet of rock which glistened as though coated with a layer of clear, sparkling glass, he saw—
* * * * *
Kirby blinked his eyes rapidly, hardly believing what he saw.
On the glistening rock lay the perfectly preserved figure of a Spanish Conquistadore in full armor. Morion and breast-plate were in place, and glistened as though they had been burnished this morning. And the Spaniard's dark, handsome, bearded face! Kirby saw instantly that no decay had touched it, that even the hairs of the beard were perfect. The whole armor-clad corpse gleamed softly with a covering of the same glassy substance which covered the rock.
Kirby glanced at his watch, saw that twelve minutes must elapse before the geyser spouted again. Then his eyes narrowed. He remained standing where he was, hard by the mouth of the tunnel, knowing that a wise man would conduct cautiously his exploration of this valley of wonders.
The two words stood out sharply in his thought. In Africa existed plenty of springs whose waters contained enough arsenic to bring death to those who drank. Might not the Spaniard's presence here be explained, then, by assuming that the geyser water was charged with a strong arsenic content, and, in addition, with some sort of silicon solution which, left to dry in the air, hardened to glass?
Lord, what a discovery to take back with him to Kansas! Almost it made the discovery of the golden cylinder pale by comparison. Why, the commercial uses to which this silicon water might be put were almost without limit, and the owner of the concession might confidently expect to make millions!
It was while Kirby stood there, breathless and jubilant, waiting for the geyser to spout, that he began to feel that he was being watched.
Suddenly, with a start, he shot a sweeping glance over the whole grove. But that did no good. He saw nothing save sunlight and waving green leaves.
Eleven days were to pass before he discovered all that was to be involved in that sensation of being gazed at by unseen eyes.
At the beginning of the eleventh morning in the valley, Kirby had again posted himself close to the mouth of the black tunnel, and again felt that hidden eyes were observing him.
But this morning differed from the first morning, because now, for the first time, he was ready to do something about the watcher or watchers. Exploration of the whole valley had not helped. Therefore, there lay at his feet a considerable coil of rope, the manufacture of which from plaited strands of the tough grass in his Eden had taken him whole days. With what patience he could find, he was waiting for the gigantic spout of milky-colored, perfumed water which would mean that the geyser had gone off and would erupt no more for exactly forty-four minutes.
Eleven days in the valley!
While he waited, Kirby considered them. Who had made the beautiful footprints beside him, when he had slept at last after his arrival here? Why had so many of the queer, fuzzy topped shrubs with immense yam-shaped roots, which grew here been taken away during that first sleep, and during all his other periods of sleep? Who had taken them? Early in his stay, he had learned that the tuberlike roots were good to eat and would sustain life, and he supposed that the unseen people of the valley took them for food. But who were these people of the valley?
Who had laid beside him during his first sleep the immense lily with perfume like that which came with the milky geyser spray—that spray of death and delight mingled? Why had someone scratched a line in the earth from him directly to the distant orifice of the geyser? Was this, as he believed, a signal to come not only to the edge of the orifice, but to lower himself down into its depths? And if the line were intended as a signal, did the persons who came to the valley while he slept, always eluding him, wish him well or mean to do him harm?
Last question of all: had the beautiful girl's face he believed he had seen just once, been real or an hallucination? It had been while he was kneeling at the very edge of the geyser cone, staring down its many colored throat, that the vision had appeared. Misty white amidst the green gloom, the face had been turned up to him, smiling, its lips forming a kiss, and its great eyes beckoning. Had the face been real or a dream?
Eleven days in the valley! Now, with his braided rope ready at last, he was going to do something which might help to answer his questions.
* * * * *
Kirby reached out and began to run his grass rope, yard by yard, through his hands, searching carefully for any flaw. A canyon wren made the air sweet above him, while the morning sun began to wink and blink against the shadows which still lay against the face of the guardian cliffs. Kirby glanced at his watch and got up.
Crossing beyond the mouth of the geyser, he grinned good morning at his friend the Conquistadore, and marched on into the shade of the live oak which grew nearest the geyser. Here he made one end of his rope fast to the gnarled trunk, inspected his pistol, patted his tunic to make sure that the cylinder of gold was safe, then stood by to await the geyser.
With the passing of three minutes there came from the still empty orifice a sonorous rumbling. Kirby grinned.
From deep in the earth issued a sound of fizzing and bubbling, and then, to the accompaniment of subterranean thunder, burst loose the milky, upward column which had never ceased to awe the man who watched so eagerly this morning. As the titanic jet leaped skyward now, the slanting rays of the sun caught it, and turned the water, fanning out, into a fire opal, into a sheet of living color.
Kirby, hard headed to the last, drew from the supply in one pocket of his tunic, a strip of one of the tuberlike roots, and munched it.
The thunder ceased. The waters receded.
After that Kirby hesitated not a second. Promptly he moved forward, flung his coil of line down into the geyser tunnel, and swung on to the line. By the time he had swallowed the last bite of his breakfast, the world he knew had been left behind, and he was climbing down to a new.
* * * * *
It became at once apparent that the gorgeously colored, glassy-smooth throat glowed with tints which were unfamiliar to him. He could perceive these new shades of color, yet had no name for them.
As he stopped after fifty feet to breathe, the color phenomenon made him wonder if the tuber roots he had been eating had affected his vision; then decided they had not. In addition to food value, the roots had some power to stimulate courage and a slight mental exhilaration. But the drug had proved non-habit forming, and Kirby knew that his powers of perception were not now, and never had been, affected.
He swung down further.
Just a moment after he begin that progress was when things began to happen to him. First he heard what seemed to be the low titter of a human voice laughing sweetly. Next came a far off, unutterably lovely strumming of music. And then he realized that, at a depth of about a hundred feet, he was hanging level with a hole which marked the mouth of another tunnel.
This new tunnel sloped down into the earth on his right hand. The floor and walls were glassy smooth, and the angle of descent was steep, but by no means as steep as the drop of the vertical geyser shaft in which he now hung.
Laughter, music, the new tunnel suddenly aroused an excitement which made him quiver.
"When I saw her," he gasped, "she was standing here, in the mouth of this tunnel, looking up at me!"
Violently, Freddie Kirby forgot the maple-shaded street of his Kansas town, forgot everything but desire to reach the mouth of the new tunnel, where the girl of the exquisite face and beckoning lips had stood. Tightening his grip on the rope, he began to swing himself back and forth like a pendulum.
It seemed probable that when the geyser water shot up past the horizontal tunnel, its force was so great that no water at all entered. He redoubled his efforts to widen his swing.
* * * * *
Then his feet scraped on the floor, and in a second he had alighted there. He still hung stoutly to his line, however, for the tunnel sloped down sharply enough, and was slippery enough, to prohibit the maintenance of footing unaided.
The music which issued from the depths of that stunningly mysterious passage swelled to a crescendo—and stopped. Kirby clung there to his precarious perch, his feet slipping on the glass under them with every move he made, and feelings stirred in his heart which had never been there before.
Then, as silence reigned where the music had been, something prompted him to look up. The next instant he stifled a cry.
With widening eyes he saw the flash of a white arm and the gleam of a knife hovering over the spot where his taut rope passed out of the geyser opening into the sunshine of the outer world. Again he stifled a cry. For crying out would do no good. While the suppressed sound was still on his lips, the knife flickered.
Then Kirby was shooting downward, the severed line whipping out after him. The first plunge flung him off his feet. A long swoop which he took on his back dizzied him. But as the fall continued, he was able to slow it a little by bracing arms and legs against the tunnel walls.
"Holy Jeehosophat!" he gurgled.
But there seemed to be no particular danger. The slide was as smooth as most of the chutes he had ever encountered at summer swimming pools. If ever the confounded spiral passage came to an end, he might find that he was still all right. As seconds passed and he fell and fell, it seemed that he was bound for the center of the earth. It seemed that—
* * * * *
He swished around a multiple bend, and eyes which had been accustomed to darkness were blinded by light.
It was light which radiated in all colors—blue, yellow, browns, purples, reds, pinks, and then all the new colors for which he had no name. Somehow Kirby knew that he had shot out of the tunnel, which emerged high up in the face of a cliff, and that he was dropping through perfumed, brilliant air resonant with the sound of birds and insects and human cries. The funny thing was that the pull of gravity was not right, somehow, and he was dropping fairly slowly. From far below, a body of what looked like water was sweeping up to meet him. Kirby closed his eyes.
When he opened them again, his whole body was stinging with the slap of his impact, and he found that it was water which he had struck. The proof of it lay in the fact that he was swimming, and was approaching a shore.
But such water! It was milky white and perfumed as the geyser flow had been, and it seemed luminous as with a radium fire. Had he not realized presently that the fluid probably contained enough arsenic to finish a thousand like him, he would have thought of himself as bathing in the waters of Paradise.
But then he began to forget about the poison which might already be at work upon him.
Ahead of him, stretched out in the gorgeous, colored light, ran a beach which was backed by heavy jungle. And on the beach stood the lovely creatures, all clad in shimmering, glistening garments, whose flutelike cries had come to him as he fell.
* * * * *
Kirby looked, and became almost powerless to continue his swim. The beauty of those frail women was like the reputed beauty of bright angels. That paralyzing effect of wonder, however, did not last long.
The girls moved forward to the water's edge, and, laughing amongst themselves, beckoned to him with lovely slender hands whose every motion was a caress.
"Be not afraid," called one in a curious patois dialect, about five-sixths of which seemed made up of Spanish words, distorted but recognizable.
"The water would kill you," called another, "as it killed the Spaniard in armor. But we are here to save you. I will give you a draught to drink which will defeat the poison. Come on to us!"
Kirby's heart was almost literally in his mouth now, because the girl who promised him salvation was she whose lips had formed a kiss at him from the green-gloomy throat of the geyser.
His feet struck a shale bottom. Panting, he stood up and was conscious of the fact that despite his forlornly dripping and dishevelled condition, he was tall and straight and big, and that for some reason all of the girls on the gleaming sand, and one girl in particular, were anxious to receive him here.
The one girl had drawn a small, gleaming flask of gold from the misty bodice of her gown, and was holding it out while she laughed with red lips and great, dazzling dark eyes.
"Pronto!" she called in pure Spanish, and other girls echoed the word. "Oh," went on the bright owner of the flask, "we thought you would never have done with your work on the rope. It took you so long!"
* * * * *
Kirby left the smooth lake behind him and stood dripping on the sand. The moment the air touched his clothes, he felt that they were stiffening slightly. Yet the sensation brought no terror. He could not feel terror as he faced the girls.
"Give him the flask, Naida!" someone exclaimed.
"Ah, but the Gods have been kind to us!" echoed another.
The girl with the flask made a gesture for silence.
"Is it Naida you are called?" Kirby put in quickly, and as he spoke the Spanish words, the roll of them on his tongue did much to make him know that he was sane and awake, and not dreaming, that this was still the Twentieth Century, and that he was Freddie Kirby.
Answering his question, Naida nodded, and gave him the flask.
"A single draught will act as antidote to the poison," she said.
"I drink," said Kirby as he raised the flask, "to the many of you who have been so gracious as to save me!"
A flashing smile, a blush was his answer. And then he had wetted his lips with, and was swallowing, a limpid liquid which tasted of some drug.
"Enough!" Naida ordered in a second.
As she reached for the flask, her companions closed in as though a ceremony of some sort had been completed.
"Is it time to tell him yet, Naida?" piped one of the girls, younger than the rest, whom someone had called Elana.
"Oh, do begin, Naida," chorused two more. "We can't wait much longer to find out if he is going to help us!"
Kirby turned to Naida, while a soothing sensation crept through him from the draught he had taken.
"Pray tell me what it is that I am to be permitted to do for you. I can promise you that the whole of my life and strength, and such intelligence as I possess, is yours to command."
* * * * *
Excited small cries and a clapping of hands answered him. As for Naida, her face lighted with glowing joy.
"Oh, one who could say that, must be the friend and protector of whom we have stood in such bitter need!"
"What," asked Kirby, "is this need which made one of you cut my rope, so that I should come here?"
A momentary silence was broken only by the hum of insects in the perfumed air, and by the golden thrilling of a bird back in the jungle. Then Kirby beheld Naida bowing to him.
"So be it," she said in a voice low and flutelike. "I will speak now since you request it. Already you have seen that you are here in our world because we conspired amongst ourselves to bring you here. Our reason—"
She paused, looked deep into his eyes.
"Amigo," she continued slowly, "we whom you see here are the People of the Temple. For more centuries than even our sages can tell, our progenitors have dwelt here, where you find us, knowing always of your outer world, but remaining always unknown by it. But now the time has come when those of us who are left amongst our race need the help of one from the outer races we have shunned. Dangers of various orders confront us who have waited here for your coming. When we first discovered you in the Valley of the Geyser, the idea came to me that we must make you understand our troubles, and ask of you—"
But then she stopped.
As Kirby stared at her, the gentleness of her expression was replaced by a swift strength which made her majestic.
The next moment bedlam reigned upon the beach.
"They are after us!" gasped one of the girls in terror. "Quick, Naida! Quick! Quick!"
* * * * *
Whatever it was that threatened, Naida did not need to be told that the need for action was pressing. She shouted at her companions some order which Kirby did not understand. From a pouch at her side, she snatched out a greyish, spherical vegetable substance which looked almost like a tennis ball. Then she braced herself as if to withstand an assault.
"Stand back!" she cried to Kirby.
He had long ago ceased to wonder at anything that might happen here. Disappointed that Naida's story had been interrupted, wondering what was wrong, he obeyed Naida's order to keep clear.
As he fell back and stood motionless, there came from behind a dense screen of shrubs which would have resembled aloe and prickly pear bushes, save that they were as big as oak trees, a ghastly howling. The next second, hopped and hurtled across the beach toward the girls, a group of hair-covered, shaggy creatures which were neither apes nor men. The faces, contorted with lust, were hideously leathery and brown, the foreheads small and beetling, and the mouths enormous, with immense yellow teeth.
Helpless, Kirby realized that Naida and all the others had clapped over their faces curious masks which seemed to be made of some crystalline substance, and that now others had armed themselves with the tennis balls. And that was the last observation he made before the battle opened furiously.
With a cry muffled behind her mask, Naida leaped out in front of her squadron and cut loose her queer vegetable ball with whizzing aim and force.
Full into the snarling face of one of the ape-men the thing smashed, filling the air all about the creature with a yellow, mistlike powder. Kirby was half deafened by the yells of rage and terror which went up from the entire attacking band. The creature who had been hit fell to his knees the while he made agonized tearing movements at his face and uttered shrill, jabbering yelps.
Other balls flashed instantly from Naida's ranks, and each brought about the same ghastly result as the first. But then Kirby saw that the whole jungle seethed with the hairy, awful men.
"Keep back!" Naida shrieked at him through her mask. "We have no mask for you. If the powder from our fungi touches you, it will be the end!"
* * * * *
With gaps in the advancing line filled as soon as each screeching ape went down, the attackers leaped on until Kirby knew they would be upon the girls in a matter of seconds. A sweat broke out on his neck.
But then an idea gripped him, and suddenly, without even a last glance at Naida, he leaped away even as she had commanded.
A great boulder lay on the shore fifty yards away. Toward it Kirby streaked as though he had become coward. But he had not turned coward.
By the time he reached the shelter which would protect him from the fungus mist, a turning point had come in the battle. The ape-men had closed in on the girls, were swarming about them, and the mist balls had almost ceased to fly. But the thing which gave Kirby hope was that the apes were not attempting to harm the girls. They seemed victors, but they were not committing atrocities.
It was the sharp intuition that something like this might happen which had sent Kirby fleeing from the fight. He believed he might yet prove useful.
The thickest group of attackers were jostling about Naida. As the screams and sobs of the girls quivered out, mingled with the guttural roaring of the men, Naida was shut off by a solid wall of aggressors.
Then Kirby saw her again. But now two of the most powerful of the ape-men had caught her up and was carrying her. Her kicking and writhing and biting accomplished nothing. The apes were headed directly back to the jungle.
* * * * *
Now, however, most of the yellow mist had disappeared, and that was all Kirby had been waiting for. With a growling shout, he tore out from behind his boulder, his Luger ready. Naida's captors were in full retreat, and other pairs of men were snatching up other girls and hopping after them. Toward Naida Kirby ran madly but not blindly.
"Naida! Naida!" he bellowed.
He got in two strides for every one the apes made.
"Naida!" he shouted, and at last saw her look at him.
Her face was pallid with loathing and terror. As her glimmering dark eyes met his, they flashed a plea which made his heart thrash against his lungs.
With a final roar of encouragement Kirby closed in on the hair-covered men, and fired instantly a shot which caught one full in the heart. The creature wavered on its legs, looked at the unexpected enemy with dismayed, swinish little red eyes, and relaxing his hold upon Naida, dropped without making a sound.
But suddenly Kirby found himself unable to comprehend fully the other terrific results of his intervention. Before the echoes of his shot died, there came to him the rumble of what seemed to be tons of falling rock. In the bright air a slight mist was precipitated. To all of which was added the effect upon the ape-men of fear of a weapon and a type of fighter utterly new to them.
Kirby had fired believing that he would have to fight other ape-men when the first fell. But not so. Instead of that—
* * * * *
He blinked rapidly as he took in the scene.
Naida had been released. Lying on the sand beside the dead ape-man, she was looking up at him in stupefied wonder. And her other captor, instead of remaining to fight, had clapped shaggy hands over his ears, and was leaping headlong for the protection of the jungle!
Moreover, the soprano cries of the girls and the deep howls of the men were rising everywhere, and everywhere the ape-men were dropping their captives and plunging away after their leader.
"Huh," Kirby muttered aloud, and wondered what the citizens of Kansas would have to say about this.
Naida looked at the dead and bleeding ape-man and shuddered, and then at the score or so of others brought down by the puff balls. Then she looked up at Kirby, raised her arms for his support, and smiled up into his brown face.
Kirby forgot Kansas, lifted her, warm and alive, radiantly beautiful, in his arms.
"Our friends the enemies," she whispered as she remained for a second in his embrace and then drew away, "will attack no more this day—thanks to you."
There was no possible need for another shot, Kirby saw. In terrified silence, the first of the apes had already floundered behind the prickly pear and aloe bushes, and the last stragglers were using all the power in their legs to catch up. On the beach, Naida's followers were picking themselves up, and already a few of them had burst into ringing laughter.
"Come on, all of you," Naida said to them, and, including Kirby in her glance, added, "We may as well go to the caciques now, and have it over with."
It was with Naida at his side and the other girls grouped about them, that they started their journey to the "caciques," whoever they might be, "to have it over with," whatever that might mean. As they strode along in silence, Kirby did what he could to straighten out in his mind the many curious things which had happened since he sat testing his rope in the upper world this morning.
In final analysis, it seemed to him that, extraordinary as his experience had been, there was nothing so much out of the way about it, after all. The only unusual thing was the existence of this inhabited pocket in the earth. For the rest, the strange colors to which he could not put a name, were simply some manifestation of infra-reds and ultra-violets. And then the startling effect of his single shot at the ape-men—that was simply the old story of savage creatures running from a new weapon and a new enemy; naturally the shot had sounded loud in this enclosed cavern. Lastly, the pull of gravity down here seemed upset somehow. But why should it not seem so, at this distance within the earth? The American was no scientist; the conclusions he reached seemed very reasonable to him.
All told, the last thing Kirby found he needed to do was pinch himself to see if he was awake.
A place of indefinite extent, the cavern seemed to be exactly what he had already judged it—a giant pocket within the earth. The ceiling, or the sky, was of some kind of natural glass—no doubt the same kind which was crackling on his clothes now—and from it emanated the brilliant, many colored glow which lighted the cavern. Radium? Perhaps it was that. Perhaps the rays were cast off from some other element even less understood than mysterious radium. As for the plant and animal life with which the cavern teemed, it was amazing.
* * * * *
But Kirby did not give himself up to silent observation any longer.
"Will you finish telling me," he asked of Naida, "about the task I am to perform for you here?"
Naida, walking with lithe strides along a path jungle-hemmed on both sides, smiled at him.
"You are to be our leader."
Now both Naida and the other girls became sober.
"You will lead us in a revolt."
"Ah!" Kirby whistled softly.
"In a revolt against the caciques—the wise men—whose kind have governed the People of the Temple since the beginning."
Her statement was received with acclaim by the whole troop, who crowded close around, the while they smiled at Kirby.
"You mean I am to lead a revolt," he asked, "against these same caciques whom we are going now to face?"
Naida nodded emphatically.
"Yes, if revolt proves necessary. And it probably will."
"Hum." Kirby scratched behind his ear. "You'd better tell me what you can about it."
* * * * *
Then, as they hurried on, Naida spoke rapidly.
The situation before the People of the Temple was that for a long time now, the only children to be born had been girls. Worse still, not even a girl had been born during a period equal to sixteen upper-world years. The only remaining members of a race which had flourished in this underground land for countless thousands of years, consisted of the caciques, a handful of aged people, and the thirty-four girls, including Naida, who accompanied Kirby now.
On one hand was promised extinction through lack of reproduction. On the other, even swifter and more terrible extinction at the hands of the ape-men, whom Naida called the Worshippers of Xlotli, the Rabbit God, the God of all bestiality and drunkenness.
It was the menace of the ape-men, rather than the less appalling one of lack of reproduction, which was making the most trouble now. Ages ago, when the People of the Temple had flourished as a race, they had been untroubled by the Worshippers of Xlotli. But now the ape-men were by far the stronger; and they desired the girls who had been born as the last generation of an ancient race. The battle of this morning had been only one of many.
Dissension between the caciques, who ruled the People of the Temple, and their girl subjects, had arisen on the subject of the best way of dealing with the ape-man menace.
* * * * *
Some time ago, Naida, heading a council of all the girls, had proposed to the caciques that support be sought amongst the people of the upper world. This would be done judiciously, by bringing to the lower realm a few men who were wise and strong, men who would make good husbands, and who could fight the ape-men.
This proposal the priests had promptly quashed. They would never receive, they said, any members of the teeming outer races from whom the People of the Temple had so long been hidden. Those few who had blundered into the Valley of the Geyser during the centuries, and who had never escaped, were enough. Better, said the caciques, that a compromise be arranged with the subjects of the Rabbit God.
Flatly then, the priests had proposed that some of the girls, the number to be specified later, should be given to the ape-men, and peace won. During the time of reprieve which would thus be afforded, prayers and sacrifices could be offered the Lords of the Sun and Moon, and to Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent. In answer to these prayers, the Gods would surely send the aged people who alone were left as prospective parents, a generation of sons.
Once the priests' program of giving up some of the girls to the ape-men had been made definite, it had not taken Naida and the others long to decide that they would never submit. And then, while matters were at an acute stage, a tall, blond white man had come to the Valley of the Geyser—Kirby.
* * * * *
As Naida had finished her story, Kirby mustered a smile despite the soberness which had come upon him.
"So the white man came," he repeated after her, "and all of you decided forthwith to stage your revolt."
"Why not?" Naida answered. "We observed you until we were sure you possessed the qualities of leadership we wanted. After that, we did what we could to coax you to come here."
Kirby grinned at that.
"Now," Naida ended simply, "we will go to the caciques. If they accept you, and grant our requests to them, there will be peace. If they rage, it will be war."
Suddenly she drew closer to Kirby as they swung along, and slipped her hand into his, looking up at him in silent entreaty.
"How much farther," he asked in a voice which became sharp, "until we reach the headquarters of these caciques?"
"They live in a castle which our ancestors built ages ago on a protected plateau," Naida answered tensely. "It is a good distance still, but we will cover it soon enough."
They crossed now one edge of a shadow-filled forest composed principally of immense, pallid palmlike trees. Farther on, the path wound through a belt of swampy land covered by gigantic reeds which rustled above their heads with a glassy sound, and by things which looked like the cat-tails of the upper world, but were a hundred times larger. Everywhere hovered odd little creatures like birds, but with teeth in their long snouts and small frondlike growths on each side of their tails. About some swamp plants with very large blooms resembling passion flowers, flitted dragon flies of jeweled hues and enormous size, and under the flowers hopped strange toadlike creatures equipped with two pair of gauzy wings.
* * * * *
Finally, through a tunnel composed of ferns a hundred feet high, they emerged to a still densely overgrown but higher country which Naida said was a part of the Rorroh forest.
In the forest, Kirby gained a hazy impression of bronzy, immense cycads and what appeared to be tree chrysophilums with gorgeous blossoms. Then he received a much clearer impression of other trees with blossoms of bright orange yellow and very thick petals, each tipped with a glassy sharp point. The disconcerting thing about the tree was that, as they approached, the scaly limbs began to tremble and wave, and suddenly lashed out as though making a human effort to snatch at the bright travelers.
Naida and all the others hurried along without offering comment, and Kirby asked no questions.
Once he thought he saw a group of gorilla creatures parallelling their course back amongst the forest growth, but if Naida observed the animals, she paid no attention. The one thing which had any effect upon the company was the appearance, presently, of two vast, birdlike creatures. As these things approached, Naida signaled to all to crouch beneath the shelter of a tall rock beside the path.
Enormous, the birds had bat wings, and carried with them, as they approached, the stink of putrid flesh. The long beaks were overfull of sharp teeth. The heads, set upon bodies of glistening white-grey, were black. Reddish grey eyes searched the jungle as the creatures flapped along. But, the Pterodactyls—if they were that—passed above Naida's band without offering attack, and presently Naida gave the command to advance again.
* * * * *
In time, they came to a chasmlike gorge across which was suspended a slender long thread of a bridge. Not far above the bridge, a considerable river emptied itself into the gorge in a mirrorlike ribbon. Kirby could not hear the torrent fall—or rather could not hear it strike any solid bottom. But from somewhere in the unlighted, unfathomed depths of the abyss rose strange bubbling and whistling sounds.
At the bridge, Naida paused and pointed to the land across the river. And as Kirby looked in the direction indicated, he beheld a rocky eminence rising for several hundred feet straight up from the expanse of a level, tree and grass covered plain. Atop of the plateau, glimmered the complex towers and turrets, the crenellated walls of a castle which, in its grey antiquity, seemed as old as the race of men.
"It is behind those walls that the caciques dwell," Naida said quickly. "It is behind the castle, in a series of separate houses, that the older members of the race dwell. We shall go and look upon them presently. But first we will force an interview with the caciques."
In silence Kirby took her hand, and, with the others following, they moved out upon the swaying, perilous causeway which hung above the chasm. After that, the trip across the plain to the foot of the plateau cliffs was quickly accomplished.
Here, however, Kirby thought they must face trouble, for he found that the great walls, of a sparkling, almost glassy smoothness, shot up to a height of at least three hundred feet, and that no path of any sort was visible.
"We're here," he said, "but how can we get up?"
* * * * *
But understanding began to dawn as Naida laughed, and produced from the pouch at the side of her gauzy dress four pliable discs of a substance which resembled rubber.
"You are very strong, are you not?" she asked.
"Then you will have no trouble in following us up the cliff. Our Serpent God, Quetzalcoatl, taught us how to climb long ago."
With that she handed Kirby the set of vacuum discs, and producing another for herself, moistened them in a pool of water close at hand. Then, as all of the girls followed her action, she strapped them to her hands and feet, and in a moment they had begun the ascent.
"Why," Kirby said presently, "with these things you could hang by your feet and walk on a smooth ceiling!"
Naida laughed, and they worked their way upward.
When the climb was accomplished and the discs were put away, Kirby found himself standing on the outer edge of a mediaeval paradise, of a magnificent plateau partly fortified by nature, partly by the hand of man.
"Ah!" he cried in deep admiration, then followed Naida.
The building—the castle—in the near distance, resembled a castle of Spain, save that there was greater beauty and subtlety of architecture. Turreted on all four corners, constructed of material which looked like blocks of natural glass, the fairylike structure was crowned by a gigantic tower of something which resembled obsidian. Up and up this tower soared until its gleaming black tip seemed almost to touch the glassy-radiant sky of the cavern.
No people showed themselves, and Kirby saw that the bronze-studded portals set in the front of the castle were closed.
Admiringly, he glanced at the surrounding land laid out in checkerboard patches of gardens and orchards where grew a bewildering variety of unknown fruits and blooms. Butterflies drifted past, and the air was freighted with the scent of flowers. Inside a walled enclosure, Kirby saw a good-sized plot heavily grown with the plant on which he had been subsisting. As they passed this ground, each of the girls, Naida leading, made a strange little bowing, gliding genuflection, and Kirby wondered.
* * * * *
Now, however, new sights distracted him as they crossed a port drawbridge above a deep moat which was a fairyland of aquatic plants. Although not a sound had come from the castle, the great entrance doors were swinging back.
"Be ready," Naida whispered, "for almost anything. The doors are being opened by some of the palace guard. I have little doubt that word was long ago rushed to the caciques that we are come to them with an upper-world man!"
Kirby answered with a nod. Then they passed the outer doors, passed inside, and Kirby blinked at what he saw.
In a long hall decorated bewilderingly with a carven frieze in which appeared all of the symbols common to early Mexican religions, and many new ones, stood a row of bright suits of armor of the Sixteenth Century. From each suit peered the glassy face and shovel beard of a dead Conquistadore.
So this was what happened to intruders from the upper world! The Conquistadore who kept his long watch beside the geyser was not the only one! Kirby felt an involuntary chill prickle up his back. But he was not given long to think before Naida, ignoring the gruesome array, clasped his arm.
And Kirby saw that with almost magical silence the whole wall at the end of the corridor was sliding back to reveal an enormous amphitheatre in the center of which stood a vast circular table. Ranged in a semicircle about that table, stood fifteen incredibly ancient men clad in long, glistening grey robes. Blanched beards trailed down the front of the garments until they all but touched the floor.
Kirby, on the threshold of the amphitheatre, squared his shoulders and held his head high. Then with Naida on his right, his own eyes boring unyieldingly into the smouldering, narrowed eyes which stared at him, he advanced.
But in front of him the priests moved suddenly. From Naida burst a shriek. In the radiant glare of the council room flashed the long, thin, cruel blade of a sacrificial knife.
The cacique who had whipped it from his robe flew at Kirby with a condor swoop, talon-hands outstretched, his wrinkled, bearded face contorted with fury.
Before Kirby was more than half set to fight, the priest was clawing at his throat, and a gnarled old fist was poised to drive the knife in a death stroke.
Kirby did the only thing he could do quickly—sprang to one side. The move saved him. The knife whipped past his shoulder, and the cacique nearly fell. But it had been a close enough squeak for all that.
Nor was it over. After Kirby the priest sprang with unexpected agility, and before Kirby could snatch at his pistol the talon-hands were lunging at his throat once more.
With the gasps of the girls ringing in his ears, Kirby bunched himself for another side leap only to find the cacique all over him like an octopus. Momentarily the knife hung above his chest, and Kirby, dismayed at the powers of his opponent, almost felt that the thing must plunge before he could break the octopus hold.
But he had no intention of being defeated, and now he was getting used to the fight. The priest's left arm swiftly clenched about his neck and shoulders, and the right arm, with the knife, attempted a drive through to the heart. Suddenly, however, Kirby lurched sideways and backward, and as the octopus grip slackened for a flash, he himself got a wrestler's grip that left him ready to do business. As the priest broke free, he slid around in an attempt to fasten himself on Kirby's back. Quickly, tensely Kirby doubled, and knew that he had done enough. The cacique shot over his shoulders, described a somersault in midair, and landed with a sharp crack of head and shoulders against unyielding stone.
* * * * *
From the semicircle of other priests went up a gasp. From Naida came a strangled cry of joy. Kirby made one leap for the knife which had fallen from the cacique's hand as he slumped into unconsciousness, and then he straightened up with the weapon safe in his possession.
"There, you old billygoat," he croaked in English, "maybe you won't try any more fast ones for awhile."
A second later he stepped over the sprawled body to stand beside Naida.
Upon the wrinkled countenances of the remaining caciques was stamped a look of dismay and hatred which boded no good. It was plain to Kirby that in battering up the man detailed to kill him, he had committed a desecration of first order.
"Is there anyone else who cares to fight?" he flung at them in Spanish, showing a contempt as great as their rage.
The response he got was instant. From one old gullet, then from others, came choking, snarling sounds which presently became words. By those words Kirby heard himself cursed with a vituperation which made him, even in his temporary triumph, feel grave.
But he did not let that soberness trouble him long. For the main point now was that no one made a move to fight further, which was what he had expected. He had flung them the challenge, knowing that he was possessed of their knife, and suspecting that it was their only weapon. The belief that no one would care to try a barehanded conflict, no matter what insult was waiting to be avenged, seemed justified as none of the caciques advanced, and as even the cursing presently ceased.
"No?" Kirby asked. "There is to be no more fighting?"
* * * * *
One of the caciques now came forward a few steps.
"No," he answered with a lameness which was not to be denied. "But you, a criminal interloper in our realm, have been marked as a victim for sacrifice, and from this there is no power in the universe which can save you."
Kirby, after a reassuring glance at Naida, looked at the floored priest who was sitting up now, looking stupidly about, and feeling himself all over, and Kirby suppressed a grin.
"Ah, I am to be sacrificed, eh? But what happens until that time comes? Listen my Wise Ones—"
He stabbed a finger at them, and his eyes flashed.
"Listen! What you mean to say is that I have defeated you, and you must lay off me until you can launch another attack. But I have a few things to say to that. One is that I am not going to permit myself to be sacrificed. Another is that I demand, right here and now, that you begin to discuss with me certain agreements which are going to regulate the future conduct of affairs in this world to which I have come."
A low exclamation answered that, but it came from no priest. They remained sullen and staggered. It was Naida who murmured, and there was excitement and pleasure in her voice. Suddenly she placed her lips against Kirby's ear.
"You must not treat with them," she said. "Tell them you want to see the Duca, and will destroy them all unless he comes!"
Understanding burst over Kirby. The Duca! Then these men were only the representatives of a High Priest, the Duca!
"Yes," he repeated resolutely to the assembled greybeards, "a meeting is going to be held in this chamber of council at once. But I will not deal with you! Do you understand me? I must see the Duca. I leave it to you to decide whether you will summon him, or force me to fight my way through to wherever he is staying."
* * * * *
The words burst in dismay from the gimlet-eyed cacique who had said there would be no more fighting. He looked at Naida, well aware of the fact that it was her interference which had made Kirby extend his demand. And his look was black.
Kirby slid between Naida and the cacique.
"Yes," he spat out, "the Duca! Will you summon him, or—"
He did not repeat what he would do as an alternative. A second passed in silence. It seemed as if the cacique who had been speaking was ready to burst.
"Answer me!" Kirby thundered.
And then the priest obeyed.
"Very well," he growled in a voice which quaked with rage. "I obey. But you will wish you had never made the demand!"
The next second he swung on his heel, and leaving his company behind as a guard, headed toward a stair which led upward from one side of the amphitheatre, and which was protected by a door of heavy, grilled metal work. The stairway seemed to be spiral, and was all enclosed. Kirby realized that it must lead into the tall and beautiful tower of obsidion which he had seen outside.
"Oh," Naida whispered as looks and smiles of approval came from all of the girls, "you have been magnificent! Mark now, what we must do. You must be the one to state our terms, because you have already won a victory for us. Tell the Duca that we will not submit to any compromise with the ape-men, and least of all will we let any of our number go to the ape-men."
A deep flush crept into Kirby's cheeks at thought of what he would like to do to the man who had proposed that sacrifice.
"Then tell him," Naida continued, "that we want men brought to our world from the world above. And finally tell him we will live under his dictatorship no longer, and hereafter demand a voice in all councils affecting temporal affairs."
"All right," Kirby spoke grimly. "I'll tell him. Naida, is this high priest we're waiting for, the one who proposed sacrifice of some of you to the apes?"
* * * * *
Next moment, she, Kirby, and all the others, including the row of glowering caciques, became silent. At sounds from above, all looked toward the grilled doorway to the tower. Then Kirby realized that all of the girls, as well as the caciques, were dropping to their knees.
"No!" he commanded quickly. "Get up! You must not abase—"
He had not finished, and Naida had scarcely risen, when the heavy door swung on noiseless hinges.
The light in the amphitheatre seemed to become more intense. Then, against the great glow, Kirby beheld majesty, beheld one who represented the apotheosis of priestly rank and power.
Clad in robes of filmy material which glimmered white beside the gray robes of his underlings, the Duca wore about his waist the living flame of a girdle composed of alternate cut diamonds and blood red rubies each larger than a golf ball. And Kirby, searching for comparisons, realized that the Duca's face, upheld to others, would be as remarkable as his jewels must be when compared to ordinary gems. It was a chiseled face, seamed by a thousand wrinkles, which a god might have carved from ivory before endowing it with the flush and glow of life. A mane of snow white hair cascaded back from a tremendous forehead to fall about thin but square shoulders and mingle with the downward sweep of pure white beard. The eyes, black as polished jet, flamed now with the glare of baleful fires.
As Naida, stealing close to Kirby, trembled, and even the abased caciques trembled, Kirby himself felt as if icy water was trickling over him.
He fought the sensation off. For suddenly he knew that in spite of first impressions which made the man seem a living god, the old Duca was human. And what was more, he was in the wrong. All of which being true, the thing to do was keep a level head and fight.
* * * * *
All at once Kirby spoke across the silence in the great room.
"I have sent for you," he said, weighing words carefully.
"And I,"—the Duca's voice was mellow and deep—"have come. But I am not here because you summoned me."
"Oh!" Kirby let sarcasm edge his words. "Well, I won't quibble about your motives for coming. Did my messenger tell you why we are here and demand your presence?"
"Your messenger," the old man said calmly, "told me."
"Very well. Do you consent to listen to Naida's and my terms? If you will listen—"
"But wait a moment," the Duca interrupted, still calmly, but with a look in his eyes which Kirby did not like. "Are you asking me, to my face, whether I will listen to terms which you offer as self-styled victor of a battle with my caciques?"
Kirby nodded. His apprehension increased.
"Ah," said the Duca softly. And then, amazingly, a smile deepened every wrinkle of his parchment face. "But do you not remember that I said I had not come here because you summoned me?"
"Yes," Kirby said solidly. "I remember very well."
"The thing which brought me here was the failure of my followers to accomplish an assignment which I had given them—namely, that of ending your life."
"Hum." Kirby scratched behind his ear. "You are not interested in arranging terms of peace, then."
"I am here,"—suddenly the Duca's voice filled the room—"to do that which my priests were unable to do. And the moment has come when the Gods will no longer trifle with you. You dog! You thieving intruder! You—"
Swiftly the Duca plunged one withered but still powerful hand into the folds of his robe above the flaming girdle. Then his hand flashed out, and in it he held—
* * * * *
But Kirby did not get to see.
A strangled cry of terror smote his ears. Naida leaped toward him from one side, while Elana, the lovely youngest girl, sprang from another direction, hurled Naida aside, and stopped in front of Kirby.
Through the glaring room flickered a tiny red serpentine creature which the Duca hurled from a crystalline tube in his hand. As the minute snake struck Elana's breast, she gave a choked cough, and then, as she half turned to smile at both Naida and Kirby over her shoulder, her eyes went blank, and she collapsed gently to the polished stones of the floor—dead.
A second later came squirming out from under her the ghastly, glimmering little snake which had struck.
Slowly, while every mortal in the room stood paralyzed, Kirby stepped forward and set his heel upon the writhing thing. When he raised his boot, the snake was only a blotch on the floor.
The Duca was standing as still as girls and caciques. The laughter with which he had started to greet what he had thought would be Kirby's extermination had faded to a look of wonder—and fear. He was an easy mark.
Up to him Kirby rolled, and with all the force of soul and muscular body, drove his fist into the Duca's face.
"By God," he roared, "you want war, and you shall have it!"
The Duca was simply out—not dead. Since Kirby did not want him dead, he did not strike again, but swung back from the sprawled body, faced Naida, and pointed to the tower door.
"Up there!" he snapped. "Seize the tower. I have a reason!"
At the Duca's crashing downfall, had come to the caciques a tension which made Kirby know they would not be dummy figures much longer. His eyes never left them.
"Quick, Naida!" he snapped again. "We must hold the tower!"
Naida, all of the girls, were staring dazedly at Elana, dead.
"The tower!" she choked. "But we cannot go there. It is the Duca's!"
"Because it is the Duca's," Kirby said firmly, "is exactly why we must hold it. Come, Naida, please—"
* * * * *
And then he saw comprehension begin to dawn at last.
He also saw two of the caciques glide from the wooden line, and slink toward him past the unconscious Duca, stealthily.
As Naida suddenly cried out to her companions, pushed at two of them, and then darted like rainbow nymph toward the silent and forbidding upward spiral of steps, Kirby faced the gliding caciques.
One he clutched with viselike hands, and lifted him. As the other shrieked and sprang, he was mowed down by the hurtling body of his fellow priest which Kirby flung forward mightily.
The rest of the caciques were howling. While Naida waited beside the tower door, the other girls flashed up the steps. The Duca still lay where he had fallen, a thread of blood oozing from his mouth. Kirby, after his last look over all, solemnly stooped and gathered in his arms the limp, radiant little body of the girl who had given her life that her friends might be left with a leader.
A moment later, he was standing on the steps. Naida, unopposed by the still stupefied caciques, swung shut the tower door and shot a double bolt.
"Naida—" Kirby whispered as he held Elana closer to him, "oh, I am so sorry that we could have won only at such a price."
As Naida stooped to kiss the pale little forehead with its halo of golden hair, sobs came. But then she raised her eyes, and they were, for Kirby, alight with the message that she could and would accept Elana's sacrifice, because she would gladly have made it herself.
"We will not forget," she whispered. "Carry her tenderly, and come."
For better, for worse, the Duca's tower was theirs.
At the end of an hour, Kirby was taking a turn of guard duty at the foot of the steps, while the others remained with Elana in a chamber above. To Kirby, with things thus far along, it seemed that the seizure of the tower had proved a shrewd stroke.
It seemed that the tower was to the Duca what hair was to Sampson. From Naida had come the information that the Duca lived hidden within the great shaft of obsidion, and appeared but seldom even before his caciques. Apparently a large part of his hold upon his subjects was maintained by the mystery with which he kept himself surrounded. And now his retreat was lost to him! Such had been the moral effect of the loss upon both Duca and caciques, that his whole first hour had gone by without their doing anything.
Kirby, standing just around the first turn of the winding stairway, presently cocked his ears to listen to the conclave being held in the amphitheatre.
"Why not starve them out, O Holy One?" he heard one of the caciques ask of the Duca, only to be answered by a growl of negation.
The Duca, Kirby had gathered before this, wanted to fight.
"But there is no food in the tower, is there?" the cacique still pressed on, and this time he was supported by other voices.
"No," the Duca rumbled back. "But am I to be deprived of my retreat, left here like a common dog amongst other dogs, while these accursed fiends starve slowly to death? No! I tell you, you must fight for me!"
* * * * *
But he had told them so several times before and nothing had happened. Kirby grinned at the thought of the caste the Duca was losing by being driven to this belittling parley.
"Holy One," exclaimed a new priest in answer to the urge to fight, "what can we do against the golden haired fiend? The stairs are so narrow that he could defend them alone. And then there are the gates of bronze. If we could shatter the first, at the foot of the steps, we should only encounter others. The Duca must remember that his tower was built to withstand attack."
"Even so," the Duca snapped back, "it must be attacked! I—"
But then he fell silent, having been made so by the sounds of dissension which arose amongst his caciques. Kirby, laughing to himself, turned away from his listening post, and tip-toed up the steps.
After he had closed and bolted behind him three of the bronze portals so feared by the caciques, he turned to the entrance of the chamber in which he had left Naida and the others. Here all was silent, and he found his friends grouped about a couch on which lay Elana. Feeling the solemnity of the moment, he would have taken his place quietly amongst the mourners.
Naida, however, came to him at once, and in a low voice asked for news from the amphitheatre, and when Kirby answered that the caciques were unanimously in favor of leaving them alone until they starved, she exclaimed:
"Oh, then it is good news!"
After that, however, a shadow of doubt flickered in her great eyes.
"And yet, is it? It means temporary immunity, of coarse. But—starvation!"
Kirby assured her with a grin.
"If we had to starve we might worry. But there is more food here than the Duca thinks. Look!"
* * * * *
From a bulging pocket of his tunic he fished a strip of the roots on which he had subsisted so comfortably. Naida's eyes widened, and several of the girls gave low cries.
"Yes," Naida exclaimed, "but such food! Why—why, do you know what you are offering us? Why, this is the sacred Peyote! Only the Duca eats it, and, at rare intervals, his priests."
Kirby was really startled now.
"But surely you and the others have taken quantities of the stuff away from the Valley of the Geyser. Do you mean—"
"Because we gathered the Peyote does not mean that we have ever tasted it. We gather it for the Duca. To taste would be complete, utter sacrilege. Have you been eating it?"
Inwardly Kirby was chuckling at this added proof of the buncumbe with which the Duca—and other Ducas—had fooled all.
"Of course I've been eating the Peyote."
"And—and nothing has happened to you?" Naida asked.
"Hardly. I certainly haven't been blasted by the Lords of the Sun and Moon, or the Serpent either!"
Naida and all the others were silent. The conflict between their reverence for the food and their clear desire to eat it, now that it was become the food of their leader, was pathetic.
Kirby put one of the strips in Naida's hand.
"Why not?" he asked. "We have bested the Duca in fair fight. We have seized his tower. Why not eat his food?"
As he had hoped it would, the suggestion at last settled the matter. A moment later, as Naida nibbled her first bite, she smiled.
"Why, it—it's good!"
With the question of provisions settled at least for a time, Kirby's next thought was of the tower. The present lull of peace seemed made for exploration.
"Come along," he said to Naida, "we've plenty to do," and then, when he explained, they set out, accompanied by Nini, a cousin of Naida's, and Ivana, a younger sister.
All of the others remained with little Elana.
* * * * *
While they climbed spiral stairs, Naida explained that the chamber they had just left was used by the Duca as a place in which he prayed before and after contacts with caciques or subjects. A sort of halfway station between earth and heaven, as it were, where the Duca might be purged of any sullying influence gained from human relationships.
At thought of the rank, egotistical hypocrisy implied by the story, Kirby smiled grimly. Then they came to a new door, heavier than that which barricaded the prayer chamber. Unlocked, the thing swung ponderously at Kirby's push, and with the three girls pressing close beside him, he entered—and stopped.
"Naida!" he gasped.
"Oh, oh!" she cried, and while Nini and Ivana gasped, she clapped her hands in an instinctive, feminine reaction of joy. "But there are things here which I believe none but the Ducas of our race have ever seen! Oh! Why, the sacred girdle is as nothing compared to this display!"
By "display" she meant a treasure which took Kirby's breath away, which made his heart act queerly.
The walls of the chamber were fashioned of polished blocks of obsidion on which stood out in heavy bas-relief a maze of decorative figures fashioned of pure, beaten gold—the same kind of gold which had gone into the making of the cylinder of gold. With his first glance at the gorgeously wrought motifs of Feathered Serpent and Sun and Moon symbols, Kirby knew to a certainty whence the golden cylinder had come originally.
But even the gold—literally tons of it there must have been—was nothing compared to the gems.
* * * * *
They were spread out in blinding array upon a great table in the center of the room. There were pearls as big as turkey eggs and whiter, softer than the light of a June morning growing in the East. There were rubies. One amongst the many was the size of a baseball and glowed like the heart of a red star. The least of the two or three hundred gems would have outclassed the greatest treasures of the Crown jewels of England and Russia combined.
Most overwhelming of all, however, was the jewel which rested against a square of black cloth all its own in the center of the table. While his heart still acted queerly, while Naida, Nini, and Ivana hung back, delighted, but still too bewildered to move, Kirby advanced and took gingerly in his hands a single white diamond about eighteen inches long, and almost as wide and deep as it was long.
The thing was carved with exquisite cunning to a likeness of the living head of Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent.
Kirby dared not guess how many pounds the carven hunk of flashing, blue-white carbon weighed. He knew only that like it there was no other diamond in the world, and that the thing was real. Naida and the two girls were silent now, and suddenly Kirby realized that to their awe of the gem was added awe of deepest religious nature. Slowly he put the diamond head of the Serpent back upon its square of cloth.
"We—we had heard that this thing existed," Naida said presently, voice hushed, "but no one except the holy men of our race has ever beheld it."
"But, what is it?" Kirby asked. "Whence came it?"
However, when Naida would have answered, he interrupted.
"But wait! Tell me as we go. We could stay here for the rest of our lives without much trouble, but we've got to cover the rest of the tower and get back to the others."
* * * * *
It was after they had closed the door to the treasure room that Naida told him the story.
"There is not so much to tell," she began. "The diamond itself is so gorgeous that it is hard to talk about. But here is the story. A great many ages ago one of the Ducas of our race found the diamond, decided to carve it into a perfect likeness of the head of the Serpent God. All of the craftsmen of the race helped him and when they were done, they took their image to Quetzalcoatl himself, and showed him what they had done.
"Quetzalcoatl was pleased. So pleased, that he promised all of the wise men that he would cease to prey upon them as he had in the past, and henceforward would take his toll of sacrifice from the ape-men alone. Them he hated and would continue to hate because they worshipped not him but Xlotli.
"And so it came about," Naida went on slowly, looking up at Kirby as they still mounted wide steps to the upper reaches of the tower, "that our people gained immunity from a God which had always before harmed and destroyed them. Our race presently began to build this castle here on the high plateau, and Quetzalcoatl kept his compact with them. He still comes out of his chasm at intervals and preys upon the ape-men, but no one of our race has seen him for thousands of years, and he has always let us alone. And there is the whole myth and explanation of why the great diamond is revered among us as a holy of holies."
* * * * *
They had mounted to a new door which Kirby guessed might give entrance to the Duca's living quarters. But he was in no mood to open it at once.
"Wait a minute," he said as they all paused. "You say that, although none of your race has seen Quetzalcoatl since the diamond head was carved, he still comes out of his chasm and makes trouble for the ape-men. Just what does that mean?"
"Why—" Naida looked at him wonderingly. "I mean what I have said. The Serpent comes out of his chasm and—"
"What chasm?" Kirby asked sharply.
"Why, the one we crossed this morning. It extends to the far reaches of our country, beyond the Rorroh forest, where the ape-men dwell but which our people never visit. It is in that distant part of the chasm that the Serpent dwells."
"But—but—Oh, good Lord!" Kirby whistled softly. "Naida, do you mean to tell me that Quetzalcoatl was not simply a mythical monster, but an actual, living serpent which is alive now?"
Naida and the others shrugged.
"Why not?" she answered. "Sometimes we have captured a few ape-men, and they tell us stories of how Quetzalcoatl kills them. They say he is very much alive."
"But," Kirby mumbled in increasing wonder, "is this living creature the same which your ancestors worshipped first as long ago, perhaps, as a million years?"
"That," Naida answered unhesitatingly, "I'm not sure of. Our caciques believe that the Serpent, although it lives longer than any other sentient thing, finally dies and is succeeded by a new Serpent which is reproduced by itself, within its own body."
So overwhelming did Kirby find this unexpected sequel to their discovery of the great diamond head, so staggered was he by the fact that Quetzalcoatl, of Aztecan myth, might exist as a sentient creature here in this cavern world, that he had little heart left for exploring other wonders.
* * * * *
Nevertheless, he presently pushed open the new door before which they had paused, and behind it found, as he had expected, the Duca's living quarters.
These were as severe as the jewel chamber had been gorgeous. A thin pallet spread upon a frame of wood formed the bed, and beside it stood a single stiff chair. That was all. The walls of glistening obsidion were bare.
There was, however, a door in one circular wall, and as Kirby flung this open, his previous disappointment changed to delight. For shelves along the walls of the small chamber held roll after roll of parchment covered with script. And in one corner lay six undamaged, almost new Mannlichers and several hundred rounds of ammunition!
"Naida," he exclaimed, "do you know what those are?"
"I suppose that they are weapons of the sort you used against the ape-men this morning?"
"They are the same kind I used, and then some. With these weapons we can do what we never could with the smaller one. How did they get here?"
"They came when I was much younger," Naida answered with a shade of sadness in her voice. "The men who had them penetrated the Valley of the Geyser, coming by a different route from the one you followed. When the Duca learned they were there, he sent such men of the race as were still able to fight to kill them. That order of the Duca's was one of the first things to turn me against him. The men were not harming us, and they should have been permitted to go away. But the Duca insisted that they be killed, and in the fight were lost eight of our youngest and strongest men."
* * * * *
Kirby stooped to inspect the rifles.
"Has no one learned to use these weapons?"
"No," Naida answered. "The Duca kept them for himself."
"We think," put in Ivana, "that he hoped to learn to use them, and was afraid for us to have the knowledge."
Kirby filled one of the magazines, and felt the heft of the gun with pleasure.
"Very well," he said. "It looks to me as though your time to learn the art of shooting has come at last. Come, I think we had better be getting back downstairs."
Kirby took three guns himself, and with the others lugging the rest, they started back. The parchment rolls, he decided, must be left for examination later on.
They were all elated when they rejoined the girls in the prayer chamber, and high spirits were still further increased by the report, promptly given, that all had remained quiet in the amphitheatre. Save only for the presence of Elana, radiant and calm in death, the give and take of questions would have been accompanied by actual gaiety.
But the time of peace did not last much longer. While Naida was in the midst of answering incessant questions about the wonders of the jewel chamber, Kirby heard a sound from below, and suddenly went over to the downward-winding steps.
"Listen," he called sharply back to the others.
He had not been mistaken. Many footsteps echoed from the amphitheatre, and he made out that the caciques were coming toward the bolted gate at the foot of the steps. While he listened, and Naida came eagerly to his side, silence fell.
But then clear words came up to them.
"Let the upper-world man come to the foot of the steps," called the Duca. "I have an offer to make him!"
To himself Kirby chuckled. Such real entreaty filled the Duca's voice that there seemed no danger of further treachery from him at the moment.
With a grin, Kirby took Naida's hand and led her down the steps, unbolting each bronze gate but the last.
"What do you want?" he asked in a cool voice a moment later, when he stopped on the final step and faced the Duca from behind the protection of the final gate.
Clearly the parley was going to be a blunt one.
"I want you to leave our world," the Duca rumbled promptly.
He was drawn up in a posture intended to display dignity. But his left cheek, where Kirby had hammered him, was pulpy and discolored, and somehow he seemed to Kirby more than ever merely human.
"Under what conditions am I to leave?"
"If you will vacate my tower at once," the Duca said with a flush of eagerness which he could not conceal, "I will permit Naida and one of my caciques to escort you back to the Valley of the Geyser. I will also give you directions by which you may travel in safety from there to the outer world."
Kirby, wanting more details, made himself seem thoughtful.
"And what will happen to me, and to the girls, if I decline?"
Encouraged, the Duca made an impressive gesture.
"You will be left in the tower to die of starvation. Mine is not a complicated offer. It should require no complicated decision. What is your answer?"
Kirby dropped his carefully assumed mask of thought.
"My answer is this," he lashed out. "I will not leave! The tower is ours, and we will hold it until you have accepted Naida's peace terms on your priestly oath!"
"But if you stay in the tower you will starve!" thundered the Duca.
"No, we won't starve! We won't starve because we eat the food of Ducas!"
* * * * *
In silence, Kirby took from his pocket a strip of the sacred Peyote and bit off one end of it. Suddenly the hush in the amphitheatre became complete. As he watched Kirby chewing, the Duca gasped and choked.
"Moreover," Kirby announced with slow emphasis, "I have taken possession of the weapons which you took from men of the upper world, and which have already sent men of your race to their death. I have no wish to kill either you or your caciques, but if you do not presently discuss peace with me, you will certainly find yourself embroiled in a struggle more bitter than the mild one of this morning."
With that said, he swung on his heel, and taking Naida's hand again, started with her up the steps.
"I have nothing more to say," he called over his shoulder to a Duca whose white haired majesty had been stripped from him.
"We're getting on," he whispered to Naida a moment later. "The best thing for us is just to sit still now, and wait."
With the questions he wanted to ask Naida about her world becoming insistent, he found himself, as a matter of fact, glad for the prospect of further respite. As both of them rejoined the girls in the Duca's prayer chamber, the first thing he did was to take from his tunic the cylinder of gold which he had found in the canyon.
"What is this, Naida?" he asked, hoping to start talk that would make all of them forget the Duca and politics, and at the same time help him to learn much that he wished to know.
But a queer thing happened. Naida's reaction to the carven gold was as unexpected as it was marked.
"Oh!" she cried in a voice which suddenly trembled with surprise, with blank dismay. Somehow, the cylinder of gold brought to her face things which not even the Serpent's head of the diamond had evoked.
* * * * *
The prospect of a long session of talk began to fade out in Kirby's mind.
"But Naida, whatever is there about this fragment of gold to startle you as it does?"
By this time all of the thirty-odd other girls had come flocking about them, and all were staring at the cylinder as fascinatedly as Naida.
"Do you see what he has there?" Naida finally asked, ignoring Kirby in her continued excitement.
"Do we see?" answered the girl she had addressed. "Naida, surely it is the carving which was lost!"
Naida was quivering with feeling now.
"Do you realize what it means to our cause that it should have been returned to us in this way?"
The girl to whom she had spoken, and the others, simply looked at her, but in one face after another presently dawned awe and joy.
Kirby stood still, puzzled and interested, until at last Naida was recovered enough to speak to him.
"Where did you get this thing which you call 'a fragment of gold'?" she asked in a hushed voice.
"I found it," Kirby answered, "lying beside the skeleton of an upper-world man, while I was ascending the canyon which brought me to the Valley of the Geyser."
"And you do not know what the cylinder is? But no, of course you could not."
"What is it, Naida?"
* * * * *
Naida glanced at her friends, then laid her hand on Kirby's.
"Next to the great diamond, it is the most cherished possession of our race. In some respects it is even more holy than the Serpent's head. The cylinder happens to be the first work in gold which was ever produced by our people. It was made when the race was new. It was because our first wise men had found they could create things of beauty like this cylinder, that they decided to attempt the creation of the Serpent's head, which is supposed to have brought all of our blessings upon us."
Kirby thought he was beginning to understand the excitement which his introduction of the cylinder had created. He also thought he could see what Naida had meant by implying that the cylinder could be made to aid their cause.
"Tell me," he asked in a mood approaching reverence, "how the cylinder came to be lying beside a dead man's bones."
"It was stolen," Naida answered in the breathless silence which the others were keeping. "When I was very young, an upper-world man found his way here, and the Duca captured and meant to sacrifice him. But while they were leading him to the temple where such special ceremonies are held—the building stands on another plateau, beyond this—the man broke away. Some of the priests in the procession were carrying the cylinder, for it was an occasion of great importance. The prisoner knocked them down, got the cylinder away from them, and finally escaped by the same route over which you came."
"And he escaped," said Kirby wonderingly, "only to be killed by a rattlesnake before he ever reached the civilized world. But do you mean that you never knew your sacred cylinder was so close to you all these years?"
Naida shook her head.
"We never got to the canyon of which you speak, for a special reason which I shall explain some day. And besides that, I think the Duca was afraid of this man who fought so bravely. So he counted the cylinder as lost. And that is one of the reasons why he killed the men with the rifles, who appeared in the Valley a few years later."
* * * * *
Kirby looked at her thoughtfully. The mood for discussing all the wonders of this lower world, which had made him bring out the cylinder originally, had quite vanished.
"I suppose," he said, "that anyone who was responsible for the return of the cylinder to its rightful owners, would be held in some respect?"
Naida nodded vigorously, while little lightnings of excitement flickered in her eyes.
"He might be held in more than respect."
"What, then, do you suggest that we do next?"
Again the small lightnings darted, and Naida reached for the cylinder.
"Do you mind if I take it for a moment?"
"Of course not."
Promptly then she faced around.
"Wait here, everyone," she ordered.
And with that she waved the cylinder in a flashing little arc before their eyes, and darted to the door.
It was all so unexpected that she was gone before Kirby could speak. Slowly, with all of the suddenly gay company of girls following after him, he went to the doorway, and stood on the steps leading to the amphitheatre.
* * * * *
A minute passed. He heard voices downstairs. He heard Naida's voice ringing clearly, though he could not distinguish her words. He heard a great cry from a score of male throats. More minutes passed. Words that were low and tense poured out in a rumbling volume. Above the rumble, Naida's voice presently sounded again, clear and sweet, but incisive. Then, when no more than five or six minutes had gone, Kirby heard the clang of the bronze gate at the foot of the steps, heard light, swift footsteps ascending.
"Naida!" he called softly.
She flashed upward toward him around the last curve in the stairway. Straight to his outstretched arms she went.
"It is done! It is done!" she whispered.
"Tell us!" cried first one girl and then others.
Naida drew away from Kirby at last.
"I told the Duca," she said to all of them, "that our leader would keep the cylinder for a period of time equal to one upper-world year. If the Duca grants all the terms of peace which we will ask of him, and if he accepts the upper-world man as our temporal ruler, and all goes well for a year, then we will consider replacing the cylinder where it belongs."
"And what," Kirby asked exultantly, "does the Duca say?"
Suddenly, without warning, Naida dropped before him on one knee, and from that position gazed up at him laughing.
"He says he will make you our King, to govern all temporal affairs within our realm! He is waiting for you to come and hold a conclave now."
Still kneeling half in fun, half in sincere reverence, Naida held out the precious, potent cylinder of gold.
"Guard it carefully!" she exclaimed. "So long as you keep it away from the Duca, making him hope to win it back, he will consent to almost anything. Yes, he is waiting with the caciques in the amphitheatre now; waiting to draw up terms of peace."
To be King amongst these people! A queer sensation tugged at Kirby's heart as he descended the steps with Naida at his right, and all of her—and his—dainty and gracious friends following after. Yet, intense as his emotion was, never for a second was he able to doubt the evidence of his senses which told him that all of this was real. As they descended the black steps of the tower, Naida's sweetness, her grace, the warm humanity of her, made him humble with gratitude for the extraordinary fortune which had come to him, an unromantic aviator born in Kansas.
Then they were standing in the brilliant light of the amphitheatre, and the Duca, surrounded by his caciques, was advancing to meet them.
It was not a long conference which followed. Kirby saw from the start that the Duca was indeed ready to come to terms. So treasured an object, it seemed, was the cylinder of gold, that the mere fact that Kirby possessed it made the Duca respect the possessor, whether he would or no. With this initial advantage, it did not take long to make demands and win acceptance.
It was agreed that some systematic campaign of extermination should be planned and carried out against the ape-men. Further, the project for eventually bringing other upper-world men to the realm was accepted. Most notable of all, it was agreed that while the Duca should retain a voice in the regulation of temporal affairs, Kirby should possess an absolute veto over his word.
Naida said there must be some formal ceremony to celebrate Kirby's ascendency to power. To this the Duca consented, and established the date as a fortnight hence, and the place as the temple on the plateau beyond the plateau of the castle, where the Ducas had been invested with their robes of state from time immemorial. At the end, it was decided that little Elana should be left in the prayer chamber until a burial ceremony could be held on the morrow.