THE TRAIL of Atan Thome’s safari was not difficult to follow, and the Gregory party made good time along it without encountering any obstacles to delay them. The general mistrust of Wolff, the doubts concerning Magra’s position among them, and the moody jealousy of Lavac added to the nervous strain of their dangerous existence; and the hardships they had undergone had told upon their nerves; so that it was not always a happy company that trudged the day’s trails. Only Tarzan remained serene and unruffled.
It was midday, and they had halted for a brief rest, when Tarzan suddenly became alert. “Natives are coming,” he said. “There are a number of them, and they are very close. The wind just changed and brought their scent to me.”
“There they are now,” said Gregory. “Why, it’s another safari. There are porters with packs, but I see no white men.”
“It is your safari, bwana,” said Ogabi. “It is the safari that was to have met you at Bonga.”
“Then is must be the one that Thorne stole,” said d’Ar-not, “but I don’t see Thorne.”
“Another mystery of darkest Africa, perhaps,” suggested Helen.
Mbuli, leading his people back toward Bonga, halted in surprise as he saw the little party of whites, then, seeing that his men greatly outnumbered them, he came forward, swaggering a little.
“Who are you?” demanded Tarzan.
“I am Mbuli,” replied the chief.
“Where are your bwanas? You have deserted them.”
“Who are you, white man, to question Mbuli?” demanded the native, arrogantly, the advantage of numbers giving him courage.
“I am Tarzan,” replied the ape-man.
Mbuli wilted. All the arrogance went out of him. “Forgive, bwana,” he begged. “I did not know you, for I have never seen you before.”
“You know the law of the safari,” said Tarzan. “Those who desert their white masters are punished.”
“But my people would not go on,” explained Mbuli. “When we came to Tuen-Baka, they would go no farther. They were afraid, for Tuen-Baka is taboo.”
“You took all their equipment,” continued the ape-man, glancing over the loads that the porters had thrown to the ground. “Why, you even took their food.”
“Yes, bwana; but they needed no food—they were about to die—Tuen-Baka is taboo. Also, Bwana Thorne lied to us. We had agreed to serve Bwana Gregory, but he told us Bwana Gregory wished us to accompany him instead.”
“Nevertheless, you did wrong to abandon him. To escape punishment, you will accompany us to Tuen-Baka—we need porters and askaris.”
“But my people are afraid,” remonstrated Mbuli.
“Where Tarzan goes, your people may go,” replied the ape-man. “I shall not lead them into danger needlessly.”
“But nothing,” snapped Tarzan; then he turned to the porters. “Up packs! You are going back to Tuen-Baka.”
The porters grumbled; but they picked up their packs and turned back along the trail they had just travelled, for the will of the white man was supreme; and, too, the word had spread among them that this was the fabulous Tarzan who was half man and half demon.
For three days they trekked back along the trail toward Ashair, and at noon on the seventh day the safari broke from the forest beside a quiet river. The terrain ahead was rocky and barren. Above low hills rose the truncated cone of an extinct volcano, a black, forbidding mass.
“So that is Tuen-Baka,” said d’Arnot. “It is just an old volcano, after all.”
“Nevertheless, the boys are afraid,” said Tarzan. “We shall have to watch them at night or they’ll desert again. I’m going on now to see what lies ahead.”
“Be careful,” cautioned d’Arnot. “The place has a bad reputation, you know.”
“I am always careful,” replied Tarzan.
D’Arnot grinned. “Sometimes you are about as careful of yourself as a Paris taxi driver is of pedestrians.”
Tarzan followed a dim trail that roughly paralleled the river, the same trail that Lal Taask and Atan Thome had followed. As was his custom, he moved silently with every sense alert. He saw signs of strange animals and realized that he was in a country that might hold dangers beyond his experience. In a small patch of earth among the boulders and rough lava rocks, he saw the imprint of a great foot and caught faintly the odor of a reptile that had passed that way recently. He knew, from the size of the footprint, that the creature was large; and when he heard ahead of him an ominous hissing and roaring, he guessed that the maker of the footprint was not far off. Increasing his speed, but not lessening his caution, he moved forward in the direction of the sound; and coming to the edge of a gully, looked down to see a strangely garbed white warrior facing such a creature as Tarzan had never seen on earth. Perhaps he did not know it, but he was looking at a small edition of the terrible Tyrannosaurus Rex, that mighty king of carnivorous reptiles which ruled the earth eons ago. Perhaps the one below him was tiny compared with his gigantic progenitor; but he was still a formidable creature, as large as a full grown bull.
Tarzan saw in the warrior either a hostage or a means of securing information concerning this strange country and its inhabitants. If the dinosaur killed the man, he would be quite valueless; so, acting as quickly as he thought, he leaped from the cliff just as the brute charged. Only a man who did not know the meaning of fear would have taken such a risk.
The warrior facing the great reptile with his puny spear was stunned to momentary inaction when he saw an almost naked bronzed giant drop, apparently from the blue, onto the back of the monster he had been facing without hope. He saw the stranger’s knife striking futilely at the armored back, as the man clung with one arm about the creature’s neck. He could have escaped; but he did not, and as Tarzan found a vulnerable spot in the dinosaur’s throat and drove his knife home again and again, he rushed in to the ape-man’s aid.
The huge reptile, seriously hurt, screamed and hissed as it threw itself about in vain effort to dislodge the man-thing from its back; but, hurt though it was, like all the reptilia it was tenacious of life and far from overcome.
As Tarzan’s knife found and severed the creature’s jugular vein, the warrior drove his spear through the savage heart, and with a last convulsive shudder it crashed to the ground, dead; then the two men faced one another across the great carcass.
Neither knew the temper or intentions of the other; and both were on guard as they sought to find a medium of communication more satisfactory than an improvised sign language. At last the warrior hit upon a tongue that both could speak and understand, a language he and his people had learned from the Negroes they had captured and forced into slavery—Swahili.
“I am Thetan of Thobos,” he said. “I owe you my life, but why did you come to my aid? Are we to be friends or foes?”
“I am Tarzan,” said the ape-man. “Let us be friends.”
“Let us be friends,” agreed Thetan. “Now tell me how I may repay you for what you have done for me.”
“I wish to go to Ashair,” said Tarzan.
The warrior shook his head. “You have asked me one thing that I cannot do for you,” he said. “The Asharians are our enemies. If I took you there, we’d both be imprisoned and destroyed; but perhaps I can persuade my king to let you come to Thobos; then, when the day comes that we conquer Ashair, you may enter the city with us. But why do you wish to go to Ashair?”
“I am not alone,” said Tarzan, “and in my party are the father and sister of a man we believe to be a prisoner in Ashair. It is to obtain his release that we are here.”
“Perhaps my King will let you all come to Thobos,” said Thetan, rather dubiously. “Such a thing would be without precedent; but because you have saved the life of his nephew and because you are enemies of Ashair, he may grant permission. At least it will do no harm to ask him.”
“How may I know his answer?” asked Tarzan.
“I can bring it to you, but it will be some time before I can do so,” replied Thetan. “I am down here on a mission for the King. I came by way of the only land trail out of Tuen-Baka, a trail known only to my people. I shall sleep tonight in a cave I know of, and tomorrow start back for Thobos. In three days I shall return if Herat will permit you to enter Thobos. If I do not come back, you will know that he has refused. Wait then no more than one day; then leave the country as quickly as you can. It is death for strangers to remain in the vicinity of Tuen-Baka.”
“Come back to my camp,” said Tarzan, “and spend the night there. We can discuss the matter with my companions.”
Thetan hesitated. “They are all strangers to me,” he said, “and all strangers are enemies.”
“My friends will not be,” the ape-man assured him. “I give you my word that they will have no desire to harm you. In the world from which they come no strangers are considered enemies until they prove themselves to be such.”
“What a strange world that must be,” remarked Thetan. “But I’ll accept your word and go with you.”
As the two men started back toward the Gregory camp, a party of warriors embarked in a galley at the quay of Ashair, dispatched by Queen Atka to intercept and harass the Gregory expedition, against which Atan Thome had warned her in order that he might win the favor of the Queen and prevent Tarzan and Gregory from reaching Ashair. The wily Eurasian had hopes of so ingratiating himself with the Queen that he might remain in Ashair until he could formulate a plan for stealing The Father of Diamonds and making his escape. So obsessed was he by his desire to possess the diamond, that he was totally unable to appreciate the futility of his scheme.
The members of the Gregory party were astonished to see Tarzan walk into camp with this strangely appareled warrior. Thetan wore the black plumes of Thobos, and upon the breast and back of his tunic there was embroidered the figure of a bull. Their friendly greetings put him at his ease, and though the Swahili of Gregory, Helen and Lavac was a little lame, they all managed fairly well in the conversation that ensued. He told them much of Tuen-Baka, of Thobos and Ashair; but when the subject of The Father of Diamonds was broached, he was evasive; and, out of courtesy, they did not press him. But his reticence only served to whet their curiosity, as they sensed the mystery that surrounded the fabulous stone.
Late that night the silence of the sleeping camp was broken by sepulchral voices keening out of the mystery of the surrounding darkness. Instantly the camp was awake and in confusion, as the terrified natives milled in panic. So terrified were they that they might have bolted for the forest had it not been that glowing death’s-heads suddenly appeared floating in the air around the camp, as the voices warned, “Turn back! Turn back! Death awaits you in forbidden Ashair.”
“The Asharians!” cried Thetan.
Tarzan, seeking to solve the mystery of the weird apparitions, sprang into the night in the direction of the nearest death’s-head. D’Arnot sought to rally the askaris; but they were as terrified as the porters, many of whom crouched with their foreheads pressed to the ground, while others covered their ears or their eyes with trembling hands.
Into the midst of this confusion burst half a dozen Asharnn warriors. The whites met them with drawn pistols. Wolff fired and missed; then the intruders were gone as suddenly as they had come. Above the turmoil of the camp rose a woman’s terrified scream.
Pursuing the grinning skull into the darkness, the ape-man seized a flesh and blood man, as he had expected. The fellow put up a fight; but he was no match for the steel thewed man of the jungles, who quickly disarmed him and dragged him back into camp.
“Look!” said Tarzan to the natives, pointing to the phosphorescent mask of his prisoner. “It is only a trick; you need be afraid no more. He is a man, even as you and I.” Then he turned to his prisoner. “You may go,” he said. “Tell your people that we do not come as enemies, and that if they will send Brian Gregory out to us, we will go away.”
“I will tell them,” said the warrior; but when he was safely out of the camp, he called back, “You will never see Brian Gregory, for no stranger who enters The Forbidden City ever comes out alive.”
“We are well out of that,” said Gregory, with a sigh. “I don’t take much stock in what that fellow just said. He was just trying to frighten us. That was what the voices and the death’s-heads and the raid were for, but for a while I thought that we were in for a lot of trouble.”
“Who screamed?” asked Tarzan.
“It sounded like one of the girls,” said Lavac, “but it may have been a porter. They were scared nearly to death.”
It was then that Magra came running toward them. “Helen is gone!” she cried. “I think they got her,” and at that very moment Asharian warriors were dragging Helen into a galley at the edge of the river only a short distance from the camp. During the confusion they had deliberately caused in the Gregory camp, a warrior had seized Helen; and then they had all made off for the river where the galley lay. A palm over her mouth had silenced the girl; and she was helpless against their strength, as they hurried her aboard the craft.
“Come!” cried Thetan. “Their galley must be close by in the river. We may be able to overtake them before they can put off,” and, followed by the others, he ran from the camp; but when they reached the river, they saw the galley already out of their reach and moving steadily up stream beneath the steady strokes of its long oars.
“Mon Dieu!” exclaimed d’Arnot. “We must do something. We cannot let them take her away without doing something.”
“What can we do?” asked Gregory in a broken voice.
“I am afraid you will never see her again,” said Thetan. “She is beautiful; so they will probably take her to the temple of The Father of Diamonds to be hand-maiden to the priests. No alien who enters there ever comes out alive. Tomorrow, she will be as dead to the outer world as though she had never existed.”
“Is there no way to overtake them?” asked Tarzan.
“Wait!” exclaimed Thetan. “There is a bare possibility. If they camp tonight this side of the tunnel that leads into Lake Horus we might be able to do so; but it is a hard trail, and only strong men could travel it.”
“Will you guide me?” asked Tarzan.
“Yes,” replied Thetan, “but what can we two alone expect against a galley load of Asharian warriors?”
For answer, Tarzan raised his face toward the heavens and voiced a weird cry; then he turned to d’Arnot. “Come,” he said, “you will go with us.”
“I’ll go, too,” said Lavac. “You’ll need all the men you can get.”
“You’ll stay here,” said Tarzan. “We must have protection for the camp.”
Lavac grumbled; but he knew that when Tarzan gave an order it was to be obeyed; and, scowling at d’Arnot, he watched the three men disappear into the darkness.
As Thetan led them by the way he knew, his mind was occupied by thoughts of this strange, white giant who had come into his life. His great strength and his fearlessness impressed the Thobotian, but the man seemed eccentric. That strange cry he had given just as they were leaving camp! Now, what could have been his reason for that? He was still pondering this, when he heard grumblings and growlings coming out of the night behind them and growing louder. Something was following them. He glanced back and saw a blur of great black forms on the trail behind the two men who followed them.
“Something is behind you!” he warned them.
“Yes,” replied Tarzan. “My apes are coming with us. I called them before we left camp.”
“Your apes!” exclaimed Thetan.
“Yes; they will make good allies, and they can go where even strong men cannot. The Asharians will be surprised to see them.”
“Yes,” agreed Thetan, who was very much surprised himself; and his awe increased, not for the apes, but for the man who could control them.
The way grew steeper, as Thetan led them up into the hills to reach the head of the ravine where the Asharians would camp if they camped at all.
“How much farther is it?” asked Tarzan.
“We should get there just about dawn,” replied Thetan.
“If they are camped there, we should take them by surprise, for they could not imagine that any one could reach them; and consequently they may not have any one on watch.”
“Poor Helen!” said d’Arnot. “What will become of her if they went on to Ashair without stopping?”
“You will never see her again,” replied Thetan. “For generations my people have been trying to conquer Ashair and reach the temple and The Father of Diamonds, yet we have never succeeded. How can you hope to accomplish what we have never been able to?”
“She must be there,” said d’Arnot. “She must!”
“There is a possibility,” explained Thetan, “but it is only a possibility.”