* * * * *
In less than an hour, Kirby, Naida, and the others withdrew from the amphitheatre to return to the regular dwelling places of the girls. Deep in his mind, Kirby did not know how sincere the Duca was, and fear lingered, somehow, but he put it aside for the present.
As they came out of the castle, proceeding in a gay procession across the drawbridge above the moat of beautiful aquatic plants, Kirby saw that the light from the glass sky was fading to a glow like that of spring twilight in the upper world. Naida answered his question about the phenomenon by saying that day and night in the cavern corresponded to the same period above. What quality of the glass sky gave out light, she did not know, but it seemed definite that the element was sensitive to the presence of light in the upper world, and when the sun sank there, the glow faded here.
A flower embroidered path led them around the castle to a group of little crystalline houses all overgrown with bougainvillea vines and honeysuckle. In front of the first, Naida paused, and while the others went on to the other houses, she looked at Kirby.
"It is Elana's dwelling," she said simply, "and it will be vacant now. Elana would want you to take it. Will you, please?"
The twilight was deepening swiftly. Kirby nodded reverently, then drew close to Naida.
He took her hand.
"I can stay here, I can consent to become, after a fashion, a King, only if you will reign with me as Queen. Will you, Naida? Will you love me as I have learned to love you during this single day in Paradise?"
She did not answer. But presently Kirby's mind went blank for sheer joy. For then Naida raised her face, and he kissed her lips.
It made no difference then that, despite the day's victory, Kirby could see trouble ahead, and feared, rather than rejoiced at, the Duca's too easy acceptance of terms. The future could take care of itself. This moment in the dusk belonged to him and Naida.
* * * * *
The two weeks which passed for Kirby after that particular twilight sped quickly. During the first morning, all attended the ceremony which was held for Elana's burial in the plot of gardened ground where lay her ancestors. Ensuing mornings were devoted to conferences in the amphitheatre with Duca and caciques.
After the fourth day Kirby, at Naida's insistence, moved into splendid quarters in the castle—a suite of chambers across the amphitheatre from those in which the caciques dwelt. In practically forcing the move on Kirby, Naida won his consent finally by agreeing to have their wedding ceremony performed on the day of his coronation; then she would come to the castle with him.
The afternoons of that first fortnight before the wedding and coronation were spent in hunting and fishing. Also Kirby and Naida visited often the aged people of the race, who dwelt in crystalline, vine covered houses like those of the girls, but removed from them. Naida's relatives were dead, but she had relatives there, and to all these aged ones, who sat living in the past, she did what she could to explain present developments in the affairs of the younger generation.
Last but not least, Kirby set aside certain hours each afternoon which he devoted to the formation of a rifle squad amongst the girls. Six rifles he had, and in turn he trained each of the girls in their use, having set up a range at the foot of the plateau cliffs. The results he gained made him feel that the day would come soon enough when he would dare launch an offensive against the ape-people; and especially pleasing was the sense of power over the Duca which he gained. The Duca showed no sign of treachery. Yet Kirby did not trust him. Never did he quite forget the misgivings which had lingered in his mind after the first conclave.
* * * * *
As for his relationship with Naida, that grew with every moment they could steal to spend with each other. And side by side with their growing knowledge of each other grew, for Kirby, an increasing store of knowledge of the realm.
He learned, amongst other things, what seemed the origin of the worship of the Serpent, Quetzalcoatl, amongst primitive Mexican races. The time had been when the People of the Temple had mingled freely with the races above them; and, that they might have ready means of egress to the world, they had built the tunnel through which Kirby had entered the Valley of the Geyser. Thus, going and coming as they did, they had spread their cult of the worship of Quetzalcoatl; and when, eventually, strife arose between the peoples of upper world and lower, and the People of the Temple withdrew to their realm, they left behind them the Serpent myth which was to live through countless centuries.
The tunnel, Naida said, had been abandoned when her people left the upper world once and for all, and its use for any reason prohibited. This, Naida gave as the reason why none of them went near the tunnel now, and why the cylinder of gold had lain in the canyon undiscovered. It was the explanation she had promised on the day in the tower, when first she saw the cylinder.
So the days passed, until the day set aside for wedding and coronation dawned. On that morning, Kirby, having concluded a long conference with the Duca, was walking with Naida in the gardens outside the castle.
"Tell me," he said to her: "do you yourself believe that this Serpent has the powers of a God?"
Naida looked at him quickly, a sudden fright in her eyes.
"I believe the Serpent exists to-day, somewhere in the distant reaches of the chasm, beyond the Rorroh forest."
"Yes, but do you believe the Serpent is God?"
* * * * *
Actually frightened now, she looked swiftly about. But when she saw that they were alone, confidence returned.
"No!" she exclaimed. "I do not believe Quetzalcoatl is a god. I believe he is the most terrible creature anywhere in our realm, and that men first worshipped him through fear. I believe our race would be better a hundred times if they had never made him their God."
"Then you do not believe that the Ducas of past ages talked with him. You do not believe it was Quetzalcoatl's pleasure over the great diamond which made him cease preying on your people?"
"No! Long habit makes me show respect for these myths, and adhere to the customs of our cult, but I do not believe. I think our race gained immunity for the Serpent's ravages, not through a compact with Quetzalcoatl, but because our builders were intelligent enough to erect the castle up here on the plateau, where Quetzalcoatl could not reach them. To tell the truth, I think the whole cult is false and wrong, and I wish Quetzalcoatl were dead and gone from the world!"
Kirby smiled. In spite of Naida's reverence for certain features of the cult, he had long suspected that her true feelings were those she had just expressed. And he was glad for this new bond of understanding between them. He glanced at her with understanding and perfect trust.
"Naida, since we have talked so frankly, there is one more thing which I must bring out."
She looked up at him.
"What is it?"
* * * * *
She drew closer, her perfumed body brushing his, her great eyes caressing him.
"Naida, I am afraid of the man."
"And so am I!" she confessed suddenly.
"It has all been too easy," Kirby said in a slow voice. "There is no doubt whatever that our possession of the cylinder of gold has had great influence on the Duca, and yet—"
He paused, taking her hand.
"And yet," she went on for him, "you do not believe he would have conceded what he has, unless he intends to make trouble?"
Kirby nodded twice, emphatically.
"Well, you have trained all of us to use the rifles."
He smiled gravely at her understanding.
"Yes, I have. And your skill, and that of the others, with the rifles, will always help us. Yet even so—"
Closer still she drew now, and there was sadness in her eyes.
"I think I see," she said in a voice which choked. "When do you think he will make a move to start trouble?"
Kirby hesitated, then drew a long breath.
"On—on the day of our union?" Naida echoed in dismay. "Can you tell where or how he will strike at us?"
Kirby shook his head.
"There are a hundred things he could do. Naida, I—I—Well, somehow I am afraid of the ceremony this afternoon—the wedding ceremony!"
* * * * *
He felt a little shiver go through her, and would have taken her in his arms, save that a gay cry rang in the garden then.
"Naida, Naida!" It was her cousin, Nini, a bronze-haired youngster as elfin and Pucklike as her name. "I thought we should never find you! Do you realize this is your wedding day, and that you're acting as if there was nothing to be done?"
Nini darted a mocking glance at Kirby, who grinned.
"Do come, Naida!" cried another girl. "Your gown is ready, and we want you to ourselves for awhile."
Other girls joined them, some singing and some carrying an obligato on the sweet, flutelike instruments which Kirby had first heard as he hung in the throat of the geyser. In front of them all, Kirby laughed and kissed Naida on the forehead. But as he took leave of her thus, he whispered:
"We must not let our guard relax for a second this afternoon. And I think there is a more definite precaution which I will take, besides."
Some hours later, Kirby smiled with tight-lipped satisfaction at thought of that precaution which he had taken. What it was only he, Nini, Ivana, and three other girls knew, which secrecy pleased him as much as the precautionary measure itself.
Seated alone in a dimly-lighted, thick-walled cell of the ancient temple in which the dual ceremony of wedding and coronation would take place, he was waiting for the moment when the festivities would begin. Thus far the Duca had done nothing. Yet Kirby's uneasiness would not leave him, and he continued to be thankful that, if trouble should start, the Duca might not find as many trumps in his hand as he expected.
A couple of hours after Kirby had left Naida and the other girls in the garden, all had begun the two-mile journey from the castle to the small plateau on which stood this temple, where the ceremony would be held. Now, while Kirby waited alone, the Duca and his caciques had gone to another wing of the temple. Naida, attended by her bridesmaids, had been assigned to a cell of their own, and the rest of the girls were waiting in the nave of the temple. Unable to attend the walk from their plateau to this, the old people of the race had remained in their crystal houses.
With ten minutes more to wait, Kirby rose from a bench on which he had been seated, and began to pace his cell. It was this archaic pile of stone, he finally decided, which was causing his depression. Unlike the bright and cheerful castle, this place, older than any other building in the realm, was squat, thick-walled, and gloomy. Here, in the dusky cells which lined labyrinthine corridors, the early generations of the race had found protection from outside dangers. All of which was all right, Kirby thought, but just the same he wished he had insisted upon being wedded in the brilliant and cheerful amphitheatre.
* * * * *
But presently he stopped pacing and faced the door of his cell. Then he breathed a sigh of relief.
From down the twisting corridors which wound out to the central nave, stole the high sweetness of soprano voices, the whisper of flutes, and the mellow resonance of little gongs of jade and gold. It was the signal for which he had waited.
It had been the Duca's instructions that he should come out into the temple when the music began, and meet Naida there. Both would advance to the altar, and when they were in place, the Duca would come to them. Kirby, therefore, after a glance at the blue trousers and tunic of tanager scarlet which the girls had made for him, opened the door of his cell, and stepped out.
In a moment he traversed the windings of the corridor, and halted under a flat arch at one side of the temple nave.
As he paused so, to await the appearance of Naida and her bridesmaids under a similar arch directly across the temple, he held his breath. Not even nymphs could be as graceful as were the twenty-six girls who were performing the dance of Life Immortal, which tradition decreed should be given before the ceremony by which, in this realm, two souls were wedded. The flash of rainbow gowns was like the swirling of light in a sky at dawning. The music of voices, flutes, and the little gongs of jade, would have stirred the souls of the dead.
If only the confounded sense of approaching disaster would leave him, Kirby thought grimly, this would be a magnificent moment. As it was, he turned his eyes away from the girls, and began to examine the temple.
Just as Naida had told him the case would be, he found both sides of the nave surrounded by arches similar to the one under which he was standing. Everywhere, dim and tortuous corridors led to cells like the one he had just left. Then, in one end of the nave, loomed a closed door from behind which the Duca and caciques would appear when the couple to be wedded were in place, before the altar.
The altar itself, a rectangular mass of some jadelike stone, stood at a distance of perhaps twenty paces in front of the closed door. On top of the greenish stones, resting on a cushion of some crimson material, flashed the crown which would be used at the coronation. Kirby's eyes widened as he beheld a single rose-cut diamond two inches in diameter, mounted in an exquisitely simple bandeau of wrought gold. But, a moment later, even the crown which would be his—if nothing happened—seemed only a bauble compared to the other prize which he had won in this world beneath the world.
* * * * *
He realized that the dance was ended, the music stilled, and that the rainbow garbed girls had formed a double line in the center of the temple. Suddenly his heart beat fast, and for just a moment, as he dared look full and deeply at Naida, and she smiled back at him across the distance, he even forgot to be depressed.
But even as he advanced to meet her, his uneasiness returned.
Now the girls were singing again, their voices raised in a triumphant chorale as beautiful as Naida's face with its warm red lips and smiling eyes, as beautiful as her wedding gown that might have been woven, in its filminess, of mist from the sea. The bridesmaids, silent, their lovely faces alight, paused. But Naida came on.
From her floated to Kirby a fragrance more overwhelming than even the perfume of the geyser. Presently he felt her hand on his arm, and at last they stood side by side. Now again, his premonition of evil left him for a flash; but again it returned.
"I love you," he whispered.
"I love you."
"But I am still afraid."
Naida's smile faded.
"And I too. Oh, I've been terribly afraid! We will keep our guard!"
* * * * *
In front of them, on the altar, the crown diamond winked and shimmered in a dim light. The swelling chorus of triumph, in which the bridesmaids had joined now, made the whole temple ring. Slowly, while Naida moved easily beside him, Kirby began to march to the altar.
Then it was done, and they were halted. After both of them had given a lingering glance at the crown whose diamond shimmered now within their reach, they raised their eyes to the closed door behind the altar.
The thing was swinging open. An inch it moved, two inches.
Kirby waited, never taking his eyes away from the widening crack. With a crashing final volume of sound, the chorus swept magnificently to its climax. Then the door was flung wide.
Still Kirby stood stiffly before the altar, with Naida drawn up splendidly beside him. After two seconds, however, he moved.
Duca and caciques were not standing in the corridor.
In the semi-darkness, the only figures visible there were squatting, grotesque things whose bodies were covered with whitish hair and whose leathery faces were disfigured by gashes of mouths filled with enormous teeth.
A feeling of standing face to face with final disaster, turned Kirby sick. As he jerked back from the altar, sweeping a paralyzed Naida with him, the ape-men let out gibbering howls, half-human. With gigantic, hopping strides, the foremost rank of the creatures swung forward, straight into the temple.
Kirby, already falling back toward the other girls, caught Naida up in his arms, and ran.
"Nini!" he bellowed. "Ivana! Get the rifles!"
While the two whom he had ordered sprang to a corridor, and four others followed, Kirby fell in with the others and dropped Naida on her feet. Sick as he was, there was still a ray of hope, because the hard-headed precaution he had taken against treachery this morning was to have Nini and Ivana bring the rifles here and hide them.
The first of the ape-men, snarling, laughing, had hopped beyond the altar, and the yellow foam of madness was slavering from his jaws. Over his shoulder he howled some jargon which made his hairy legion struggle to catch up with him.
"Have you got any puff balls?" Kirby snapped at Naida.
She shook her head numbly, just as Nini and Ivana swung forward with the Mannlichers.
"No. But you had sense enough to bring the rifles! Oh, what does it mean?"
"The Duca has sold himself out to the ape-man! He was helpless against us, and has brought them to destroy us for him. Here, Ivana, give me a rifle! Everyone for herself!"
The next moment he had a Mannlicher at his shoulder.
* * * * *
As the thing kicked, an ape who would have reached him in two more jumps crashed over with his heart torn out, the temple echoed with sound which threatened to rip its solid walls apart, and bright flashes at Kirby's right and left told him that other rifles were getting under way.
He fired again, twice more, slaughtering an ape with each shot. The five other rifles were creating havoc.
Blocked by a dozen torn and bleeding bodies on the floor, the reenforcements which still poured from the corridor, began to mill around amongst themselves, and the forward charge slowed down. All the panic which had sent the ape-men scuttling from the beach at their first experience of gunfire, seemed ready to break loose again now.
Kirby felt it was good enough for the work of a minute.
"Get into line as I showed you how!" he shouted. "Rifles in the front rank, the others behind them. We're all right now! Keep firing!"
"Keep behind me!" he ordered Naida, still unarmed.
Then he placed a shell in the chest of one brute who was broader and heavier than the others—a leader—and saw that he had increased the demoralization; and from the hastily-formed front rank a volley leaped hot and jagged.
Then the rout which had threatened broke loose. As eight ape-men slumped into blubbering, bleeding heaps, the milling remainder of the horde turned, and in a fighting, scrambling frenzy attempted to get back to the corridor.
Kirby let his triumph take the form of thoughts about what he would do to the Duca when that personage could be rounded up.
"Follow after them!" he ordered. "Don't stop until we have located the Duca. He is the one we must settle—"
* * * * *
But he never finished.
As he himself, holding fire for a second, prepared to follow up the retreat, he found himself confronted by the utterly unexpected.
A voice unquestionably the Duca's began to shout orders at the ape-men from somewhere down the corridor! And, riot or no riot, the tones of that voice seemed to inspire the creatures with more fear than the rifle fire.
So suddenly the change came, that by the time Kirby flung his rifle again to his shoulder, the crazy retreat had been halted, and as he fired again, the ape-men swung in their tracks and began to charge!
There was no time to guess by what power the Duca had turned the tables. There was not even time for orders. Kirby fired twice, knowing that the ape-men had been infused with some spirit which would bring them on in spite of rifle fire.
Naida, unarmed, cried out behind him, and he shoved his gun at her.
He had just inserted a new clip. He handed her others.
"Fire for your lives!" he shouted to the girls.
"But you!" Naida gasped. "You are unarmed!"
"I'll be all right."
On the floor lay a jagged, hand-chipped knife of obsidion which had fallen as some ape died. Kirby grabbed it.
* * * * *
In another second the flood of ape-men had burst in all its fury over him. Crashing, thundering shots were dinning in his ears, animal death screams and the Valkyrie battle cries of the girls filled the temple. He could not tell how many of the apes were fighting him. As a cave-man's club whizzed past his head, he drove his knife once, and yanked it dripping from hairy, yielding flesh to plunge it again. A sudden side-step carried him away from another assailant. He dropped the knife to snatch the gigantic club of one of the creatures he had killed.
Quicker in every movement than the ape-men, he laid on, right and left, with such power that blood spurted in a dozen places, and heads were split open on every side. And because of his speed, the frantic, clumsy blows and knife thrusts which were directed at him proved harmless.
A terrific drive which smashed a snarling face into pulp, left Kirby free for a second, and he emerged from the first round of battle ready to cut in and help the girls. But then he saw that he had gotten separated from the main body.
"Naida!" he called. "Naida!"
A series of shots answered him, and as several apes fell, a gap was opened through which he saw her conducting a well ordered retreat of all the girls toward the dark corridors surrounding the temple. Again Kirby fell to with his club, swinging, hacking, fighting with his whole strength to catch up. He made headway, and hope began to come again. The ape-men would not kill, or even harm, the girls. What they wanted was to carry them off. If he and Naida together could get their party rounded up in the corridors, the chances were good.
"Naida!" he shouted again. "Coming!"
Battering down an ape in front of him, he jumped up on the corpse, and saw that already the vanguard of girls had reached the first sheltering corridor. Naida had been cut off from the others by eight or ten apes. But even so her fire made her mistress of the situation, and she seemed all right.
It was just as Kirby started to jump down from the corpse that he saw something which put another complexion on the matter, and left him frozen where he was.
* * * * *
Behind Naida, directly in the path in which her slavering aggressors were slowly forcing her, a huge stone slab in the temple floor had begun to tilt up as if it were a trapdoor raised by an invisible hand. Within the yawning opening, Kirby caught a glimpse of stone steps winding down into blackness.
In a flash he saw that it was Naida, and her alone, that the ape-men were after. The Duca's determination was to capture her, and it was the presence of this trapdoor, making capture possible, which had brought on the second charge of the apes.
A scream, high and wild, from Naida released Kirby from his trance of horror. He leaped off the corpse, and smashed a suddenly presented skull like an egg shell. Momentarily he saw Naida, too terrified to fire, staring at the open trapdoor. Kirby felled two apes and felt their blood on his arms.
"Ivana!" he yelled. "Help Naida, for God's sake!"
An answering shout, not from Ivana alone but from many girls, encouraged him, and he swung his club with a speed and force which would let nothing stand before him. But then another scream from Naida rang in his ears.
"Naida!" he shouted. "It's all right! We're coming!"
He knew, though, that it wasn't all right. Fighting like a maniac, he opened another lane down which he glimpsed her. Fighting still, in a last terrific effort to force his way down the lane to her side, he saw the black opening gape at her feet; and, as Naida screamed again, a dozen hairy arms reached it at once, twisted the empty rifle out of her hands, and lifted her shining body as if it had been a feather.
Shouts and murderous fire were coming from the other girls, and Kirby swung his club as never before. But even as he fell upon the last two or three apes which kept him away from Naida, those who had snatched her, bolted down the steps.
Kirby was left with the memory of Naida's great eyes fixed upon his, fear-filled, beseeching his protection. In a second, the ponderous trapdoor crashed into place, and she was gone.
Dazed and grief-stricken, Kirby stood in the bloody, corpse-filled nave of the temple, surrounded by thirty-two girls whose faces were blanched and most of whose eyes were tear-bright. The fight was over, and they were assembled to decide what must be done, but for a time no one spoke.
Gaining the trapdoor just as it was pinioned from beneath, Kirby had torn at it with bare hands. But that had been hopeless. Then he had begun to fight again. But that had been hopeless also. With howls and screams they started to retreat, and it had not taken Kirby long to find out that every part of their raid had been carefully planned, even to this retreat under fire. Straight into the damp black tunnel which led away from the corridor behind the altar, the ape-men had leaped. And Kirby, in hot pursuit, had heard the Duca's voice driving them on. Too much the soldier to follow in that darkness where the Duca knew every foot of the way, and he knew nothing, Kirby had seen that he must go back to the girls and take stock.
Now he looked at the strewn ape corpses, smelled the corrosive reek of burned powder, and tried to put aside his grief.
"The Duca," he said at last, "must have been planning this with the apes ever since the first morning in the castle."
Ivana, Naida's sister, nodded.
"The Duca brought the ape-people here, kept them in the tunnel, and then herded them back when their work was done. I suppose it was one of the caciques who opened the door when the time was right."
"Does anyone think we ought to try the tunnels now?" Kirby asked.
* * * * *
Several girls shook their heads. He knew that already they felt he had been wise in giving up the pursuit. Ivana spoke.
"If the Duca and his horde stay underground, we shouldn't have a chance against them. And if they don't, we're better here."
Kirby shot a searching glance at her, somehow sure that her thoughts were running parallel with his.
"You don't think they're going to stay here, do you?"
"No, and you don't either," Ivana answered.
"It seems to me that they will retreat into the Rorroh as fast as they can," Kirby then observed.
"And do you think the Duca and all the caciques will go with the apes?" This time it was Nini who spoke, and with the council so well launched, Kirby began to feel better.
"I think," he answered Nini, "that the Duca has gone over to Xlotli altogether. We fooled him to-day. Instead of killing or capturing us all, he—he only got Naida. But he won't give up. I think he is taking the apes off to some place from which he can launch a new attack. And we've got to stop him before he is ready to deliver another blow."
"What do you mean?" Ivana now asked.
"Do you know where the villages of the ape-people are?"
"Yes. None of us has been very far into the Rorroh, but I could guess where some of the villages may stand."
* * * * *
Silence fell after that, but Kirby knew from the glint in Ivana's eyes, and the quick breaths which other girls drew, that they understood.
"Ivana," he said suddenly, "will you go with me into the Rorroh jungle, and stay with me, facing down every danger it may conceal, until we have found Naida and brought her back?"
A flush of life crept into Ivana's pallid cheeks.
Kirby faced the other girls, all of them keyed up now.
"Nini, will you go?"
Nini, bronze-haired, dainty nymph of a girl, who had yet the stamina of a man, looked at him with brave eyes. Then her hands tightened on her rifle, and she stepped forward.
"When will you have us start?" Ivana asked in a low voice.
"Now!" Kirby answered, and, taking up the rifle which lay beside him—the same with which Naida had fought—he looked at the other girls.
"There is not one of you," he said slowly, "who would not go willingly on this quest. But the pursuit party must be small and mobile. And there is another duty. To all of you I leave the care of the castle and the plateau. Take the three rifles I shall leave behind, do what you can to reassure the old people, and hold the plateau safe until we return."
A murmur of girls' voices sounded in the temple. Kirby motioned to Nini and Ivana, and followed by a low cheer, they moved off together.
* * * * *
The night was on them, where they crouched in a cave above a swiftly flowing river. Kirby, rifle across his knees, sat peering out across the black, invisible stretches of the forest. His nostrils quivered to this mingled smells of fresh growth and fetid decay of the grotesque land. In his ears shrilled the creaking and scraping of insects, the flap of unseen wings, the distant bellowing grunt of some unseen, unknown animal.
"I cannot sleep," Ivana said presently, from back in the cave.
"Hush," he whispered, "you will wake Nini."
"But I am already awake!" came her answer. "I—I cannot forget the white snakes which slid from that tree when you tried to cut firewood."
"Hush," Kirby murmured again. "Presently the moon will rise on the earth above, and light will come here. Even if the jungle is terrible, were you not born with courage? Go to sleep now, both of you, because you must relieve me soon."
As silence fell again, he knew that the real thing behind their nervousness was their ghastly doubt about what the night was bringing to Naida. But none of them spoke of Naida. So sickening were the possibilities that Kirby would not permit conjecture to occupy even his mind when, at length, the sound of even breathing told him that Nini and Ivana slept.
After dreary passing of an hour, a faint light grew over the jungle, silver and clear, and Kirby let his mind run back to the two deserted ape-men communities which they had found and searched before dusk sent them to the cave. From the signs of hasty departure, it looked as though a far-reaching order had taken the brutes away from their dwellings, and sent them—somewhere.
That somewhere seemed likely to be the great central community which Ivana said was rumored to exist in the far reaches of the Rorroh. The problem was how to locate the community through the hideous country. But Kirby presently drove the question from his head. To-morrow's evils could best be faced when morrow dawned.
* * * * *
Enough light had grown now so that the swirling bosom of the river, and a strip of sand directly below the cliff in which their cave was set, were visible. As Kirby let his eyes wander to the lush growth beyond the sand, he heard something which made him stir uneasily. Some creature which suggested power and hugeness immeasurable was moving there.
The brush parted, and he saw plainly an animal with the bulk of a two-story house. On two feet the nightmare thing stood, as lightly as a cat, and then came down on all four feet as it ambled out on the sand and extended into the lapping river a tremendous beak studded with teeth. A smell of crushed weeds and the musty odor like that of a lion house filled the night. The tyranosaur—it was more like a tyranosaur than anything else—breathed heavily and guzzled in great mouthfuls of water.
Kirby sat perfectly still. He hoped the thing would go away. But the tyranosaur did not go away. All at once it hissed loudly and stood up, its eyes glowing green and baleful, and Kirby leaned forward.
From the water was slithering another creature with a gigantic, quivering, jelly body. Kirby saw to his horror that, in addition to four short legs with webbed, claw-tipped feet, there sprouted from the body a number of octopus tentacles. From the scabrous mottle of the head, cruel, unintelligent, bestial eyes glared at the rearing tyranosaur.
* * * * *
One of the serpentine tentacles whipped out, slapped against the tyranosaur's fore-shoulder to call forth a hiss and a short bellow. Then other tentacles waved in the moonlight, and in a flash the tyranosaur was enmeshed as by a score of slimy cables. He was not altogether helpless. Suddenly the steam shovel of a beak buried itself in the jelly body of the water animal, and there spurted out a flood of inky liquid. The water animal emitted a sickening gurgle. But the tyranosaur's advantage was only temporary. Closer and closer drew the ugly, scabrous tentacles. The tyranosaur never had a chance. Its green eyes flared, the shovel beak plunged and slashed, but never for a second did the tentacles relax. As Kirby stared, he saw the water animal begin to back up, dragging its gigantic enemy with it. For a second the whole night was hideous with the sound of hisses, gurgles, dashing water. Then the river boiled once and for all, and both animals sank in its depths.
Kirby chafed cold hands together and shivered a little, then turned to see if Nini and Ivana had heard the struggle.
Fortunately, however, they still slept. And as if this peace which was upon them were an omen of good, the jungle continued quiet for the next hour. Kirby wakened them at last, and after a snatched nap, was in turn awakened.
The three of them started again when the first glimmerings of dawn came to the forest. Of food there was plenty—fruits which grew in profusion, and some roots which Nini grubbed out of the earth. Having started along the first trail which they encountered beside the river bank, they ate as they walked.
* * * * *
Kirby judged they had kept their steady gait for more than two hours before a slight widening of the trail roused him from the preoccupation into which he had fallen.
"See there," he exclaimed to both girls, and pointed at a grove of trees with fanlike leaves which towered up to the right of the trail. "What are those big bundles fastened to the lower limbs?"
Ivana glanced at Nini, who nodded as if in answer to a question.
"This must be one of the places where the ape-people leave their dead," Nini answered. "The bundles—But come over to them."
Kirby forced his way ahead until he stood beneath a huge, unsavory bundle wrapped in roughly woven brown fibre, and wedged in a fork between two limbs. Judging from the ugly odor which overhung the grove, there could be no question about what the bundle contained. Nini and Ivana, glancing at the scores of similar bundles which burdened the trees of the whole grove, made wry faces. Kirby slung his rifle in the crook of his arm, and nodded toward the trail.
"There must be a village somewhere near," he said.
A mile farther on they found what they were seeking, a colony of seventy or eighty conical dwellings of mud and thatch, which were ranged in a double circle about a central common of bare, well-trodden earth. It took no long reconnaissance to discover that the town was deserted completely of all inhabitants.
Ivana beckoned and darted to one of the nearest huts, and Kirby, following her, found lying on the uneven earth floor within, a half-skinned animal which resembled a small antelope. An obsidion knife beside the carcass, the disordered condition of a couch of grass, the sour odor of recent animal occupancy, all told their story.
"The owner left in a hurry," Kirby observed aloud.
Nini, who had gone beyond, to a larger hut which might have belonged to a king ape, called out excitedly to them.
"A great number of apes have eaten a hurried meal here!"
* * * * *
Kirby entered the shadowed, foul-smelling interior of the central hut to find her statement true. Broken meats, some raw, some cooked, lay on the dirt floor, and scattered bits of fruit were mingled with them. The ashes of a burned out fire at the hut entrance were cold, but had not been for long.
"Do you think—" Ivana began.
"I think the whole of the Duca's horde came this way, fed, and went on, taking everyone with them," Kirby finished.
"But which direction did they take?" asked Nini, who was standing at the door of the big hut and had already begun to examine the crowding, green, inscrutable walls of jungle which foamed up to the clearing on all sides.
No less than seven trails wound away into the dark country beyond, and Kirby saw that the question would not be an easy one.
Having hastily circled the clearing and peered down one trail after another without finding a clue, he knew that it was the Duca's intelligence which had made the ape-people depart without leaving even tracks behind them. He did not like the situation.
"Well," he rumbled to his companions, "we may as well take our choice. One chance in seven of coming out right!"
But the words were hardly out of his mouth before he pulled himself up with a jerk, and cursed himself for having given in.
"Ivana! Nini!" Sharpness, a sudden ring of hope edged his voice. "Am I seeing things, or is that—"
* * * * *
As he pointed to a huge aloe bush down one of the trails to their left, they started to run. Then Kirby knew that he was not seeing things. What his first inspection of the trails had failed to show, he saw plainly now.
Tied loosely to one branch of the aloe bush, almost concealed amidst the deep green of foliage, was a bit of white cloth! In a second Kirby was holding out to his companions a tiny strip of Naida's wedding gown.
"She knew we would come!" He stared down the trail with narrowed, keen eyes.
How Naida had contrived to leave her signal was more than they knew. The fact that she had done so, sent all three of them down the trail at driving speed.
An hour passed, then another, and the morning which had been barely born when they first took the trail, wore on to the sultriness and vast, colored light of a tropical noon. Twice the main trail forked, and twice they found an unobtrusive bit of cloth to guide them beyond the works. When the hands of Kirby's still useful watch pointed to twelve, they paused to eat and rest. Then they pushed on.
Meanwhile, the country through which they passed left Kirby with a clear understanding of why Naida and her people had shunned the Rorroh forest down the centuries of time.
Just one thing which stuck in his head was the sight of a small creature like a marmoset, sticking an inquisitive nose into the heart of a sickly-sweet plant which resembled a terrestrial nepenthe. No sooner had the little pink snout touched the green and maroon splotched petals, than the plant writhed, closed its leaves, and swallowed the monkey whole. Little squeaks of agony and terror sounded for a moment, and ceased.
* * * * *
At midafternoon they paused in a spot where a forest of trees with whorled tops were slowly being strangled to death by immense orchids of every conceivable shape and color, and by a kind of creeping mistletoe which grew almost as they watched. Here also, the ground was covered with fluffy, grey-green moss which seethed constantly as if it were a carpet of maggots. Both Ivana and Nini warned Kirby on his life not to touch or go near the moss, and a moment later he knew why.
From the forest came the flash of a small, five-toed horse being pursued by some animal with a hyena head that barked. At the edge of the mossy glade the hyena swerved aside, but the terrified horse plunged straight out on the carpet of moss. Instantly the air was filled with the sound of animal screams, and a series of tiny, muffled explosions. A cloud of greenish-red mist swirled about the horse. Quivering, still screaming, the animal went down on its knees, and as the reddish green smoke fell on him and settled, it became a mass of growing moss spores.
Before Kirby's eyes, the pitiful animal was covered by a shroud of green that spread over him and cloaked him, licking over all with tiny sounds like far off muffled drums as fresh spore cases developed and burst. The screams died. Even as Kirby drew the girls to him and they passed on, the horse's nostrils, eyes, mouth were filled with choking green moss; and he lay still.
* * * * *
On and on, deeper into the jungle Kirby pushed, and never for a moment did his companions falter. But the way was not so easy now, for nerves were jaded, muscles sore, and no human will could have been powerful enough to cast aside the growing fear for Naida.
Fear came finally to a head when, toward dusk, Kirby sighted a fork ahead of them, approached it confidently to look for Naida's sign, and found nothing.
"Oh Lord!" he muttered, and realized that it was the first time any of them had spoken for long.
"There must be something to guide us!" Ivana exclaimed as she searched with questing eyes through the swiftly deepening gloom of evening.
Nini, making an effort to keep up hope in spite of the paleness which came to her lovely face, darted down both paths, glancing as she went at every bush and shrub. But she returned in a moment, and as she shook her head, her great eyes were somber.
Kirby grunted, scratched behind his ear. Then, however, he stifled an exclamation, and clutched at the hands of both girls.
On one of the two trails appeared suddenly in the dusk an ape-creature. Kirby saw at once that the thing was small—a female undoubtedly—and that it had spied them and was moving toward them with all speed. And borne in upon him most certainly was the fact that the ape-woman was making signals of peace. In her outstretched hand flickered through the gloom a strip of cloth that was gauzy and white.
Again—a strip of Naida's gown.
"If you know any words of her tongue, call to her," Kirby said sharply.
* * * * *
Ivana obeyed. All three of them started forward. The ape-woman, after returning the hail in creaking gutturals, came up to them, and with an unexpected look of pathos and entreaty in her face, began to address the girls with a flood of talk.
Word after creaking word she poured out while Nini and Ivana listened in silence. Finally Kirby could stand the suspense no longer.
"What is it, Ivana? What does she say? Your eyes are lighting up with hope! Tell me—"
Ivana smiled and turned toward him, while the ape-woman still looked her entreaty.
"She says," Ivana announced bluntly, "that she and the other women amongst their people, do not want any of the girls of our race to be taken by their males. Already the men are quarreling about Naida. They will not look at their own women. Naida told this woman that we would be following, and sent her to lead us to the place where the ape-people are assembling!"
Kirby felt his lips tightening in a grim smile at the thought that jealousy was not unknown even to the semi-human creatures of this neither world. He looked at Nini and Ivana during a stretched out second. Then he moved.
"Good," he snapped. "We go on at once."
That was his only recognition of what was surely one of the important happenings of a lifetime. But for all that, his tired brain, which so lately had felt the chill of black depression, was suddenly set on fire with triumph and thanksgiving.
As they marched rapidly, the ape-woman, who called herself Gori, succeeded in making them understand that most of the ape-tribes, commanded by the Duca and his caciques, were assembled in the central community toward which they were heading, that grave danger of some sort threatened Naida, and that the need for haste was great. But what the danger was, the two girls could not understand.
"We can't make out what is going to happen—what they plan to do to-night," Ivana whispered at last to Kirby. "All Gori says is that we must rescue Naida and take her away, and must take the Duca away so that he cannot influence the men any more. And she keeps repeating that we must hurry."
"And you can't find out what we must rescue Naida from?"
Ivana shook her head.
"I'm afraid we're facing something of an appalling nature, as dangerous to ourselves as to Naida. But I know nothing more."
By the time the silver glow which corresponded to moonlight flooded the jungle, Gori had left the open trail, and was leading them across country which humans could not have negotiated without the guidance she offered. Advancing cautiously always, she stopped for long seconds at a time to reconnoitre, shifting her huge ears about and changing their shape, twitching her nostrils, and glancing hither and thither with bright little eyes. Sometimes they passed immense spike-tipped flowers ten feet in diameter, with fleshy yellow leaves which gave out a nauseating stench. Vines with long, recurved thorns and blossoms of deep scarlet, laced the undergrowth together and made passing dangerous. Fire-flies drifted past, and all above and about them flapped moths as big as bats.
Kirby, his clothes almost torn from his body, sweat pouring from every pore, heard the labored breathing of the girls, and wondered how they could hang on. But they did, and after a long time, Gori, halting in the midst of a slight clearing, held up a warning hand.
* * * * *
A queer sensation came over Kirby. As he stared and listened, he realized that the twinkles he saw far ahead were not fire-flies, as he had thought, but lights. In the frosted moon glow, Nini and Ivana drew close, and Kirby clasped their hands and pressed them for a second. Too tired to exult further he was, even though they seemed close to their goal of goals.
Gori swung her hairy arm in a signal, and with rifles clasped carefully, they began to advance. When, five minutes later, they stood in the heart of a rank glade beyond which they could see nothing, Gori spoke to the two girls in her creaking whisper, and Nini laid a restraining hand on Kirby's.
"We have gone as far as Gori dares! She says we must climb a tree here, and watch what will go on in a clearing just beyond this thicket."
"And we still don't know what we're getting into," Kirby muttered.
But at any rate they had reached the end of their march.
Exultation did come to Kirby now, but still he was too completely fagged, as were both girls, to give much sign. Gori pointed to a tree some fifty feet away, which shot up to a great, foliage-crowned height. They moved toward it, and in a moment were climbing, Gori first, the girls after her, and Kirby last.
"Here we are," Ivana presently whispered, at the same time drawing herself out on a limb just beneath one on which Gori and Nini had crawled.
Kirby found himself hedged in by tasselated leaves through which he could not see. The foliage thinned, however, and soon Ivana halted, perched herself in a comfortable position. Kirby, making himself at ease beside her, and seeing that Nini and Gori were in place, turned his eyes slowly, expectantly downward.
* * * * *
At first, all that he saw from his bird's-eye perch, was a circular clearing two hundred yards across, which was surrounded on all sides by lowering jungle. In the exact center of the circle, like a splotch of ink on gray paper, there gaped a deep hole which might have measured six feet in diameter. Around this hole, eight poles as tall and stout as telephone poles stood up in bristling array. The moonlight showed that the whitish earth of the clearing was tamped smooth as though thousands of creatures had danced or walked about there for centuries. But not a living form was visible.
A grunt of disappointment escaped Kirby after that one look. When he looked beyond the clearing, however, a change came to his feelings.
A quarter of a mile away, lights were twinkling—the same ones which had been visible on the last stretch of the journey. And the moonlight touched the little conical roofs of fully two hundred huts of the ape-people. No sound was audible save the soughing of night wind in the trees, the shrilling of insects. Nevertheless, there stole over Kirby all at once a feeling that the great ape-village was crowded to overflowing. What was more, he felt himself touched by an eery sensation—familiar these days—of evil to come.
Ivana, seated with her rifle across her knees, stirred on the limb beside him.
"Oh," she whispered suddenly, "I am afraid of this place!"
Kirby took her hand.
"I know. Maybe it is the sensation of all the legions of the apes herded together so silently in their village. I wish we knew what to expect from them. I wish—"
* * * * *
But he broke off, and called softly to Nini on the limb above. She looked down with a drawn expression about her mouth.
"Are you all right?" Kirby whispered.
"Yes. But—Well, are both of you all right? Gori says we have reached here in time, but I—" A gasp of uneasiness escaped her, and Kirby heard Ivana echo it. "There is something about that black, silent hole out there in the clearing, and about those poles sticking up like fangs, that makes me terribly, terribly afraid. Oh, what are they planning? Where is Naida? What are they going to do to her?"
Kirby whistled in a low key. He had not thought about the black hole in the clearing.
"Hum," he muttered, "that's interesting. Ivana, Nini, what do you suppose—"
But he got no answer. Gori's twitching lips grimaced them to silence.
The next instant, the stillness of the night was hurled aside by a howling, gurgling shout from a hundred, a thousand hysterically distended ape throats. With the sickening sound came from the village the sullen roaring of drums.
* * * * *
Ten minutes later, a Kirby who was cold with apprehension and wonder looked down from his leaf-crowned height at such a spectacle as he knew human eyes had never before seen. The shouting had died away, the drums were silenced. Crammed into the clearing, their foul, hairy bodies packed close together, the silver light glinting against rolling red eyes and grinning white teeth, stood fully a thousand apes!
Once the first tumult of shouting in the village had died, they had come on in silence, and in orderly procession. Those who bore the drums—huge gourds with heads of stretched skin—had formed a line entirely around the outer diameter of the circular clearing. Then others, lugging vats of a dark, heady-smelling liquor, had deposited their burden beside the drums, and formed a second circle. The balance of the thousand had crowded itself together as best it might, leaving bare the center of the clearing with its black hole and fangs of poles. Kirby, looking down at these legions, did not wonder that cold sweat wetted his back.
Capable of thinking about only one thing—Naida—he was trying with all his strength not to think. Ivana, her face blanched in the light which filtered their camouflage of leaves, sat rigid, her hands locked about her cold rifle. On the branch above, Nini and Gori were as still as mummies. No one had spoken since the vanguard of apes had appeared.
But at last Nini leaned close to Kirby.
"Have you any idea of what all this means?"
A draught of hot night air carried up a stench of drunkenness, and the goaty odor of massed animal bodies.
"No," Kirby whispered. "I suppose, from Gori's having brought us here, that Naida is going to appear somehow. We've simply got to trust that Gori knows what she is about."
"But listen—" Ivana suppressed a shudder. "Suppose they should bring Naida here presently to force her to take part in some ceremony at which we can only guess. Gori, who thinks we can work miracles, supposes we can rescue Naida. But I—I'm not so certain. Is there anything we can do?"
* * * * *
It was exactly that question which had made Kirby fight to keep himself from thinking. His face turned gray before he answered. But answer he did, finally.
"Yes, there is one thing we can do, Ivana. We've got to be frank with each other, and so far, this is the only thing I've been able to figure out. If Naida is brought here, and they make any move to harm her or torture her, we can, and we will, shoot her quickly, before harm or pain comes."
A grim silence settled once more. During the last miles of march in the jungle, there had persisted in Kirby's heart the hope that there would be at least something favorable in whatever situation they might encounter. His spirits were so low now that he dared not speak again.
Amongst the noiseless sea of ape-men below them came, every now and again, a little ripple of motion as some anthropoid shadow fell out of his place, approached the liquor vats, and swilled down the black brew, a quart at a gulp. But mostly there was little commotion. Ivana drew a sibilant breath and said that she wished something would happen.
"I wish," Kirby answered tensely, "that we knew what is going to happen."
But the nightmare waiting was not to go on forever. Kirby leaned forward and pointed.
It was only instinct that had made him know action must come. For a second, no change in the expression of the ape-men, no movement in their crammed ranks, was visible. Then, however, a queer, subdued grunting rumbled deep down in many throats, and those who had faced the hundred-foot space in the center of the clearing squatted down on their hams.
In the back of the crowd necks were craned. The stronger shoved the weaker in an effort to get a better view of the cleared stage, and a few ape-men who had been drinking hurried on unsteady legs to their places.
"The drums!" Kirby whispered then.
* * * * *
With almost military precision, the scores of leather-faced creatures who had led the procession into the clearing, clasped the skin-headed gourds to their shaggy bellies, and stood with free arm raised as though awaiting a signal. Nini moved in her position, and Kirby felt Ivana shiver and edge close to him.
From the front rank of the crowd, there sprang up a great male creature with the face of a gargoyle and the body of a jungle giant. Just once he reeled on his feet, as though black alcohol had befuddled him, then he steadied himself, flung both arms above his head, and rolled out a command which burst upon Kirby's ears like thunder.
It was as if the whole cavern of the lower world, and the whole of the round earth itself, had been rocked uneasily, dreadfully by the bellowing, crashing explosion of the drums. Maddened by the turmoil he had let loose, the gargoyle-faced giant ape-man leered about him with blood-shot, drunken eyes, and beat on his cicatrized chest with massive fists. Suddenly he let out a bellow. Straight up into the air he sprang in a wild leap. When he came down, he was dancing, and the portentious, the sickeningly mysterious ceremony for which such solemn preparation had been made, was begun.
Kirby drew a rasping breath. Knowing that there must be some definite reason for the dance having begun just when and as it had, he looked beyond the solitary dancing giant, on beyond the crowded legions of the apes, toward the village. There, where the main trail from the community approached the clearing, he saw precisely the thing which he had both hoped desperately and dreaded terribly to find.
* * * * *
Headed directly toward the clearing, moving down the trail with slow, majestic pace, came a procession headed by a bodyguard of ape-men and augmented by other men whose nakedness was covered by unmistakable, unforgetable priestly robes of gray.
All at once the ape-people in the clearing began to scuffle apart, opening a lane down which the procession might pass to the central stage with its dancer, its ink spot orifice, and its fangs of tall poles. Kirby, watching the congregation, watching the majestic approach of gray robes through the night, wiped away from his forehead a sweat of fear.
"I think," Nini called in a voice pitched high to outsound the drums, "that the—the Duca is with them!"
"Yes." Kirby pointed jerkily. "In the middle of the procession, there, surrounded by his caciques!"
Yet his approach did not hold Kirby. Directly behind the priests were emerging now from the jungle a new company of ape-men. Squinting his eyes, Kirby saw that two of them were lugging on a pole across their shoulders a curious burden—a sort of monstrous bird cage of barked withes. Crouched on the floor of the cage in a little motionless, white heap—
But Kirby closed his eyes. Ivana, cowering against him, gulped as though she were going to be sick. Nini leaned down from above and looked at them with dilated eyes. Although none of them spoke, all knew that they had found Naida at last.
Kirby was the first to pull himself up. Opening his eyes, he stared long at the white gowned, motionless shape within the cage. Next summing up the whole situation—the cage surrounded by an armed band, the clearing crammed with a thousand ape-men—he shook his head. Afterward, he made a quick movement with his hands.
Ivana, seeing that movement, seeing the expression on his face, started out of her daze.
"No! No! Oh, there must be some other way out for her! There must—"
* * * * *
Her cry, half a shriek, did not change Kirby's look. What he had done with his hands was to throw a shell into the chamber of his rifle. Now he held the rifle grimly, ready to carry it to his shoulder.
The procession with the bodyguard of ape-men at its head, the renegade Duca and his caciques following next, and the cage bringing up the rear, advanced relentlessly down the lane to the central stage. The gargoyle-faced ape-man who held the stage alone danced with increasing wildness, writhing, twisting, with weird suppleness. Upon the dancing giant the procession bore down, and before him it finally halted.
The halt left the Duca and the king ape facing each other, and the ape ended his dance. After each had given a salute made by raising their arms, both Duca and the king ape turned to face the creatures who were standing with the cage slung across their shoulders. Whereupon the bearers of the cage advanced with it until they stood between two of the tall poles. There, facing the ominous hole in the center of the clearing, with a pole on either side of them, the ape-men lowered the cage to the ground.
Kirby felt his last hope and courage ebbing. Now he noticed that each pole was equipped with a rope which passed through a hole near its top, like a thread through the eye of a needle. And while he stared at the dangling ropes, the ape-men made one end of each fast to a ring in the top of the cage. The next instant they leaped back, and began to heave at the other end of the lines.
From the drums came a quicker pounding, a more head-splitting volume of thunder. Over all the ape-people who watched the show, passed a shiver of what seemed to be whole-souled, ecstatic satisfaction. Slowly, as the two ape-men heaved hard, the cage swung off the ground, and slowly rose higher and higher into the moonlit air.
* * * * *
When finally the thing hung high above the heads of the multitude, swaying midway between its tall supports, the ape-men who had done the hoisting fastened their lines to cleats on the poles. Then they turned to the Duca and the giant king who stood behind them, executed a queer, lumbering bow, and fell back to the rear.
The next moment it seemed as though every creature in the clearing—men and those who were only half men—had gone crazy. The king flung himself into the air as if he were a mass of bounding rubber. Following his lead, the whole assembly let out howls that drowned even the drums, and then began to sway, to squirm, to leap, even as their king was doing before them.
The caciques and the Duca joined in the madness of foul dancing as heartily as any there. Their eyes were flaming, their long robes flapping, their beards streaming.
On his perch in the tree Kirby muttered an oath which was lost, swept away like a breath, in the shrieking turmoil of sound. Then he turned to Ivana.
"They've brought Naida here to sacrifice her."
"But why?" Ivana's sweet face was frozen in lines of horror. "I've been able to guess what was going to happen to her. But—sacrifice. Why will it be that?"
"Don't you see?" Looking up to include Nini, Kirby found his hands quivering against his rifle. "It is easy to understand. In the temple yesterday, what the Duca hoped to do was to kidnap most, or all, of the girls for the ape-people. But he was able to get only Naida. The first result was that the ape-men started to quarrel over the one girl. From what Gori says, trouble started on all sides at once. It became inadvisable to let Naida live. So the Duca, in his shrewdness, planned a sacrifice. By sacrificing Naida, he rids himself of a source of contention amongst the ape-men. He also hopes his act will win favor from his Gods, and make them help him when he is ready to launch a new attempt to capture all the girls."
* * * * *
Ivana and Nini looked at each other, then at Kirby, and horror was etched deeper into their faces.
"I think," gulped Ivana, "that you—are right. I—begin to understand."
Nini leaned close to them.
"Tell us, then, how this sacrifice is to be made."
Silent at that, Kirby presently made a heavy gesture toward the maelstrom of howling, leaping animals below them.
"I couldn't guess at first. Now I think I can. They have placed her in that cage and swung it high above the black hole you were afraid of. What can that mean except that she is to be offered to—to—"
It was a monstrous theory which had stunned his hope and courage, and to voice the thing in words was too gruesome.
His bare suggestion, however, made Ivana pass a hand limply over her forehead and look at him with blank, stricken eyes. Nini tottered so uncertainly that Gori, who had remained motionless and silent throughout, had to steady her with muscular arms. If it was impossible for Kirby to utter his fears aloud, he had no need to speak to make them understood.
"And—and we can do nothing?" Nini choked at last.
"You can see for yourself how she is surrounded. If we had been able to get here sooner, we might have done something. Now—"
Kirby's voice trailed off, and he gave an agonized look at his rifle.
* * * * *
The terrific dance in the clearing was going forward with madness which increased second by second. It had been a general debauch at first, with the whole thousand of the apes bellowing and squirming. Now a change was becoming apparent. Red eyes which had caught the glare of ultimate madness, focused upon the caciques, the Duca, and the great king, all of whom were swaying together on the central stage. As they looked, the horde of ape-men broke loose with a heightened frenzy of noise and movement too overwhelming for Kirby to follow. He leaned forward, making an effort to see what actions of Duca and king could be so influencing the congregation. And then he saw.
Both of those central figures, the one with hair-covered giant's body and evilly grimacing face, the other with white robes and whipping silver hair, were definitely emulating the motions of a serpent!
It was as if the angles and joints had disappeared from their bodies. They were become gliding lengths of muscle as swift, as loathsome in their supple dartings and coilings as any snake lashing across the expanses of primeval jungle. Lost in what they did, unconscious of the nightmare, demoniac legion before which they danced, they had eyes only for the empty, ominous hole beneath Naida's cage. As they circled the hole, drawing ever and ever closer to it, they opened and closed their arms with the motion of great serpent jaws biting and striking.
"God in Heaven!" Kirby cried in a voice which shrilled with horror and then broke.
It was not alone the Duca's dance which had wrung the shout from him. As Nina and Ivana shrieked and cowered, as Gori twitched, gasped, buried her head in trembling arms, Kirby knew that Naida was fully aware of what was going on—had been, perhaps, from the beginning.
Slowly, numbly she raised herself from her huddled position, rose to her knees, and clutching with despairing hands at the sides of her cage, looked out from between the bars.
* * * * *
The king and Duca edged closer to the hole until they were dancing upon its very brink. From that position, they stared down into the depths, their faces tense and strained. And then their look became radiant, exalted, joyous. Suddenly the Duca leaped back. He shrieked something at the gargoyle ape, and they flung their arms high in a commanding, mighty signal which was directed across the nightmare legion of ape-men, to the drums.
As Kirby winced in expectancy, the drums ceased to roar. Over the night smashed a hideous concussion of silence, deafening, absolute. And the ape-men—all of them—and the Duca, his caciques, and the king, ceased to dance. As if a whirlwind had hurled them, the caciques scattered in all directions. The Duca, having already leaped back from the gaping orifice, suddenly turned and ran with blurred speed over to the slobbering, deadly still front rank of the congregation. An instant later the king crouched down beside him, and the whole stage was left bare and deserted.
Kirby gave one look at Naida, found her staring down, deeper and deeper down, into the hole which yawned beneath her so blackly. Then Kirby lowered his eyes until he, too, stared at the opening.
Amidst the pressing silence there stole from the earth an uneasy sound as of some immense thing waking and stirring. Came a hissing note as of escaping steam. The tribes of the ape-men waited in silent rapture. Kirby saw Naida still looking down, and felt Ivana crouch against him, fainting. He held his rifle tighter, and continued to stare.
Something red, like two small flames, licked up above the edge of the pit. Then Kirby gasped and all but went limp. Up and out into the moonlight slid a glistening white lump that moved from side to side and licked at the night with flickering black and red tipped forked tongue.
The glistening white lump was the head of Quetzalcoatl, buried God of the People of the Temple. It was wider and bigger than an elephant's, and the round snake body could not have been encircled by a man's two arms. Kirby guessed at the probable length of the Serpent in terms of hundreds of feet.
* * * * *
Sick, numb, he glanced at Naida, who was still staring silently, and hitched his rifle half up to his shoulder. But he did not look down the sights yet. Although it was time, and more than time, that he fired, he would not do it until the last possible second, when nothing else remained.
Slowly from the hole slid a fifteen or twenty-foot column of the body, and Quetzalcoatl, thus reared, looked about him with a pair of eyes immense and not like snake's eyes, but heavily lidded and lashed; eyes that stared in a wise, evil way; eyes glittering and round and black as ink. After a time the mouth opened in a silent snarl, showing great white fangs and recurved simitars of teeth. The head was snow white, leperous in its scabby, scaly roughness, with here and there a patch of what looked like greenish fungus. From the rounded body trailed a short, unnatural, sickening growth of—feathers. Old and evil and very wise the Feathered Serpent seemed as his forked tongue flickered in and out and he stared at the ape horde, who stared back silently.
He seemed in no hurry to devote his attention to the cage set forth for his delectation. The black eyes rolled beneath their lashes, staring now at the Duca in his robes, and again at the huddled ape-people. But after ghastly seconds, Quetzalcoatl at last had seen enough.
Again the moonlight glinted against simitar teeth as the great, white, puffy mouth yawned in its silent snarl. Quetzalcoatl reared his head a little higher, slid further from his hole, and then looked up at the dangling cage of barked withes.
In Kirby's mind stirred cloudily a remembrance of moments in the past: the feel of Naida's first kiss, her look as they advanced to the altar in the temple. Then he saw things as they were now, with Naida surrounded by all the tribes of the apes, and with Quetzalcoatl staring from beneath heavily lidded lashes at the whiteness of her.
Suddenly Kirby stirred to free his shoulder of Ivana's supine weight against it, and he made himself look down his rifle. He let the breath half out of his lungs, and nursed the trigger.
* * * * *
But he did not fire.
All at once he started so violently that he almost hurtled from the tree. Suddenly, trembling, he lowered his rifle.
"Oh, thank God!" he yelped in the silence of the night.
The idea which had transformed him was perhaps the conception of a lunatic. But it was still an idea, and offered a chance.
Again Kirby peered down his rifle. But he no longer aimed at Naida. As Quetzalcoatl lifted white fangs, Kirby aimed deliberately at him, and turned loose his fire.
With the first shot, the Serpent lurched back from the cage, snapped his jaws, and closed evil, black eyes. From one lidded socket squirted dark blood. As a second and third shot crashed into the cavernous fanged mouth, and others ripped into the flat skull, Quetzalcoatl seemed dazed. His head wavered back and forth and his hiss filled the night, but he did nothing.
But all at once Kirby felt that he was going to do something in a second, and a great calm came upon him. He quickly jammed home a fresh clip of shells.
"Nini! Ivana! Fire at the Serpent. Give him everything you've got! Do you understand? Fire! He thinks that the ape-people have hurt him, and he will be after them in a second. If we have any luck, he will do to them what we never could have done, and maybe destroy himself at the same time! Me, I'm going down there and get Naida now!"
No sooner did Kirby see comprehension in the girls' faces than he swung around and let go of his perch. As he crashed, caught the next limb below him, and let go to crash to another, he had all he could do to suppress a yelp of joy. For all at once every voice in the ape congregation was raised in howls and screams of devastated terror.
He did not care how he got down from the tree. Seconds and half seconds were what counted. From the last limb above the ground he swung into space, and a split second later staggered to his feet, clutched his rifle, and started for the clearing. His lungs seemed collapsed and both ankles shattered. He did not care. Not when the ape screams were growing louder with every step he took. Not when he heard Nini and Ivana pouring down from their tree a continuation of the scorching fire he had started.
Panting, his breath only half regained, but steeled to make the fight of his life, he tore from the jungle into the clearing just in time to see a twisting, pain-convulsed seventy-foot coil of white muscle lash up and strike Naida's cage a blow which knocked it like a ball in the air. Naida screamed and hung to the bars.
But she was all right. It was not against her that Quetzalcoatl was venting his wrath: the blow had been blind accident. As Kirby stood at the clearing's edge, he knew to a certainty that Quetzalcoatl's reaction to sudden pain had been all he had dared hope.
In front of him forty or fifty ape-bodies lay in a crushed heap. While yard after yard of the Serpent's bleached length streamed out of the hole, the hundreds of feet of coils already in the clearing suddenly whipped about a whole squadron of ape-men, and with a few constrictions annihilated them as if they had been ants. Across the clearing, the leperous head reared up as high as the trees and swooped down, fangs gleaming. The howls of the ape-men trying to flee, the screams of those who had been caught, rose until they became all one scream.
* * * * *
But Kirby had not left the safety of the tree merely to get a ringside view of carnage. He faced his next, his final task unhesitatingly. Straight out he leaped from the shadows of the jungle into the clearing, out into the presence of the beleagured, screaming ape-men. Well enough he knew that those creatures, despite their frenzy, might sight him and fall upon him at any second; well enough he knew that a single flick of the white coils all over the clearing could crush him instantly. But the time to worry about those hazards would be when they beset him. With a yell as piercing as any in the whole bedlam, Kirby rushed forward.
High up in the moonlit vault of the night, swaying between the two poles which supported it, hung the white cage which was Naida's prison. By the time Kirby had sprinted fifty yards, he knew that his yells had reached Naida. For she staggered to her knees and looked straight at him. A second later, though, he realized that the almost inevitable recognition of him by ape-men had come to pass.
Eight or ten of the creatures, left unmolested for a second by the Serpent, halted in the mad run they were making for the sheltering jungle, and while one pointed with hairy arm, the others let out shrieks. Kirby gritted his teeth in something like despair. Then he realized that the worst danger—Quetzalcoatl's blurred coils—was not threatening him so far. And he went on, straight toward the ape-men.
He did not look where, how, or at whom he struck. All he knew was that his rifle blazed, and as he clubbed at soft flesh with the butt, blood spurted, and new screams filled the night. He felt and half saw big, stinking bodies going down, and clawed his way forward, around them, over them. Then he felt no more bodies, and knew that he was through. A little farther he ran over the trampled earth, and stopped and looked up.
The howls of the living, the shrieks of the dying deafened him. Renewed shots from the rifles in the tree, made the Serpent lash about in a dazzling white blur, smashing trees, apes, everything in its path. But Kirby, finding himself still safe, scarcely heard or saw. His eyes, turned upward, saw one thing only.
* * * * *
She had snapped two of the withes of the cage and was leaning forward through the opening. Her face was livid with horror and exhaustion, but she was able to look at him with eyes that glowed.
"You—you came!" she gasped. "You came to me!"
In a flash Kirby jumped over to the poles and began to cast off one of the lines which held the cage aloft.
"Get ready for a bump!" he shouted, as he lowered away, arms straining.
Paying out the one line left the cage suspended from the second, but let it sweep from its position between the poles, down toward one pole. As the thing struck the tall support, Kirby bounded over to stand beneath it, only too sharply aware of the death waiting for him on every side, but ignoring it. Naida still hung suspended a good twenty feet above him, but there was no time to let go the other line. He braced himself and held up his arms.
"Jump!" he yelled.
Then he saw the white gown sweeping down toward him, felt the crash of a soft body against his, and staggered back. Recovered in a tenth of a second, he drew a deep breath, and looked at Naida beside him, tall and brave, unhurt.
"Are you able to run?" he snapped, and then, the moment she nodded, motioned toward the jungle.
Behind them, in front, on all sides, rose screams so horrible that he wondered even then if he would ever forget. As he started to run, he realized that when Naida had finally landed in his arms, the nearest squirming loop of the Serpent had been no more than four yards away, and that, right now, if their luck failed, a single unfortunate twist of the incredible hundreds of feet of white muscle could still end things for them.
* * * * *
But luck was not going to fail. Somehow Kirby knew it as they sprinted side by side, and the sheltering jungle loomed closer every second. And a moment later, something beside his own inner faith made him know it, too.
"Look, Naida! Look!" he screeched all at once.
At the upper end of the clearing, where an unthinkable slaughter was going on, there leaped out from amongst a surging mass of apes, leaped out from almost directly beneath a downward smashing blur of white snake folds, a figure which Kirby had not seen or thought about for many seconds.
The Duca's robe hung in tatters from his body. Blood had smeared his white hair. His eyes were those of a man gone mad from fear. And as he escaped the tons of muscle which so nearly had engulfed him, he began to run even as Kirby felt himself running.
Straight toward him and Naida, Kirby saw the man spurt, but whether the mad eyes recognized them or not, he could not tell, nor did he care. All at once his feeling that they would escape the clearing, became conviction.
For suddenly the same single twitch of Quetzalcoatl's vast folds which might have finished them, if luck had not held, put an end to the Duca's retreat. At one moment the man's path was clear. The next—
Kirby, running for dear life, gasped, and heard Naida cry out beside him.
The great loops flashed, twisted, and where had been an open way for the Duca, loomed a wall of scaly white flesh. The living wall twitched, closed in; and as the Duca dodged and leaped to no avail, a cry shrilled across the night—a cry that cut like a knife.
* * * * *
Kirby saw no more. But it was likely that most, if not all, of the caciques had gone with the Duca.
Somehow, anyhow, in but a few seconds more, Kirby dove into the spot from which he had left the jungle to enter the clearing. As Naida pressed against him, winded but still strong, he found his best hopes for immediate retreat realized, for Gori, Nini, and Ivana, down from their tree, ran toward them.
"She is all right," he said with a gesture which cut short the outbursts ready to come. "But we've got to keep going. Ivana, tell Gori that her people are gone, wiped out, but that if she will cast her lot with us, we will not forget what she has done. Come on!"
With Gori leading them they ran, stumbling, recovering themselves, stumbling again. To breathe became an agony. But not until many minutes later, when they plowed into the cover of a fern belt whose blackness not even the moonlight had pierced, did Kirby call a halt.
Here he swept a final glance behind him, listened long for sounds of pursuit, and relaxed a little only when none came to disturb the night stillness. However, that relaxation, now that he permitted it at last, meant something.
The complete silence gave him final conviction that what he had said about the whole ape-people being destroyed was true. As for the Serpent—well, perhaps he was destroyed even as they were. Perhaps not. In any case the grip which Quetzalcoatl held upon the imagination of the People of the Temple had been destroyed by this night's work, and that was what counted most. The Serpent would be worshipped no longer.
* * * * *
Kirby reached out in the darkness and found Naida's hand.
"Come along," he said to all of the party. "I think the past is—the past. And with Gori to guide us out of the jungle, and our own brains to guide us through the jungle of self-government after that, I think the future ought to be bright enough."
Ivana and Nini both chuckled as they moved again, and Gori, hearing her name spoken in a kindly voice, twitched her ears appreciatively. Naida drew very close to Kirby.
"What are you thinking about?" she asked presently.
"The—temple," he answered.
"About the crown which probably is still lying on the altar there?"
Kirby looked up in surprise.
"Why, I had forgotten about that!"
"What was it, then?"
"But what could I have been thinking about except how you looked when we came together in that gloomy place, and walked forward, side by side? Now have I told you enough?"
"There is so much to be done!" Kirby exclaimed then. "As soon as possible, we must climb to the Valley of the Geyser, go on into the outer world, and there seek carefully for men who are willing, and fit, to come here. And that is only one task. Others come crowding to me every second. But first—"
"What?" Naida asked softly.
"The temple. Naida, we will reach the plateau sometime to-morrow. All of the girls who kept watch there will be waiting for us, and it will be a time of happiness. May we not, then, go to the temple? There will be no priests. But we will make our pledges without them. Tell me, may I hope that it will be so—to-morrow?"
Naida did not answer at once. She did not even nod. But presently her shoulder, still fragrant with faint perfume, brushed his. She clasped his hand then, and as they walked on in silence, Kirby knew.
The Reader's Corner
After comparison with various other magazines which specialize in the publication of Science Fiction, we—The Scientific Fiction Library Ass'n, of 1457 First Ave., New York City—have found that your magazine, Amazing Stories, publishes stories to which the term "literature" may be applied in its real sense. A fine example of this is the story "Murder Madness," by Murray Leinster. Others of the finer novels are: "The Beetle Horde," by Victor Rousseau, and, up to the present installment, "Earth, the Marauder," by Arthur J. Burks. "Brigands of the Moon," by Ray Cummings, was interesting and well-written, but it was not literature (not a story which you will remember and read over again). Of the shorter stories, the novelettes, the best are: "Spawn of the Stars," by Charles W. Diffin, "Monsters of Moyen," by Arthur J. Burks, and "The Atom Smasher," by Victor Rousseau.
Since the magazine started, there are only three stories that did not belong in the magazine, and were not even interesting. These are: "The Corpse on the Grating," by Hugh B. Cave; "The Stolen Mind," by M. Staley, and the last (I wonder that the editors who used such good sense in picking the other finer stories, let it pass), "Vampires of Venus," by Anthony Pelcher. May you keep up the high standard of fiction you are publishing at present.—Nathan Greenfeld, 873 Whitlock Ave., New York City.
You See—It Didn't!
Firstly, let me say that I am sending a year's subscription to Astounding Stories, which will tell you that they are good.
On the average, the stories are of good literary merit and plot. However, there is one thing that seems to be getting rather pushed into the background and that is the second part of your title, "Super-Science." If this is to be a Science Fiction magazine let us have it so. I am kicking against stories like "Murder Madness" and the like. They are really excellent in every way but just need that tincture of a little scientific background to make them super-excellent. "Brigands of the Moon" and "The Moon Master" seem to me more the type of story "our mag" should publish, from its name.
No doubt this criticism will leave you cold and this effusion find its way into the nearest waste paper basket, but I find that a number of your readers in Australia think somewhat the same as I do.
More brickbats—I hope not! and more bouquets—I hope so! the next time I write.—N.W. Alcock, 5 Gaza Rd., Naremburn, N.S.W., Australia.
Not in de Head!!
I shall be glad to take advantage of your cordial invitation to come over to "The Readers' Corner." In the first place, I find your magazine the best of its kind on the market, and you are to be congratulated on having such excellent authors as Ray Cummings, Murray Leinster and Captain S. P. Meek. Nevertheless, there are so many things to be criticized that I hardly know where to begin.
Let's start of with stories of future warfare. Although this class is potentially one of the most interesting, it is at the same time one of the most abused. Ray Cummings can write classics in this field, but the efforts of most the others are atrocities. I'll wager that their favorite childhood sport was mowing down whole regiments of lead soldiers with oxy-acetylene torches. It shows in their writings. Why can't they think of something original? Why can't they make their stories logical? The merits of a story are not dependent on the number of people wiped out by one blast of a death ray! But they all stick to the same old plot. A merciless but well-meaning scientist, or hordes from a foreign planet, wipe out thousands of American citizens at one blow. Hundreds of airplanes are disintegrated before they discover that the enemy is invulnerable. An ultimatum in domineering tones gives the terror-stricken populace forty-eight hours in which to surrender. But, all unknown to the dastardly villains, an obscure young scientist labors to save his country and the girl he loves. Fifteen minutes before the time set in the ultimatum he perfects a new weapon that soon sends the invaders to their well merited fate.
Surely you realize how ridiculous the whole affair is. It is only slightly less nauseating than the plot used in the stories of advanced civilizations where the hero is conducted on a sight-seeing tour by the individual in whose path he popped upon entering this new world. I can't believe that more than a handful of my fellow beings are of such low intelligence that they can find enjoyment in such trash. You will notice that although every reader has a different list of favorite authors, Ray Cummings has his name in practically every list. He is easily your favorite author. Ray Cummings does not wipe out whole cities at one time. His heroes do not save the world by inventing a new weapon at a moment's notice. His wars are not of forty-eight hours' duration. His conquerors do not attempt to win the war by one great attack on New York City. Do try to have your authors write logical stories.
I would now like to criticize the love element in your stories. I do not claim that there should be none whatever from cover to cover of your magazine, but I do claim that there should be none unless it really helps the plot. Most of your authors seem to think that a girl is necessary in every plot and so they bring her in, disregarding the fact that they do not know how to handle such material. The way it stands now, the heroine is introduced in a lame, routine fashion; is rescued once or twice; and accepts the hero as a husband in an altogether lame fashion.