THE THRONE ROOM of the temple of Brulor was vacant except for the poor prisoners in their cages. “They have all gone, and taken Helen,” said d’Arnot. “What will they do with her?”
“I don’t know,” replied Brian, dejectedly. “One knows nothing here. One just lives and suffers. If lucky, he may be chosen for sacrifice, and die. Sometimes they choose one of us prisoners, sometimes one of the handmaidens. It is a cruel and bloody spectacle.”
As he ceased speaking, a grotesque figure entered the throne room through a doorway on the opposite side. It appeared to be a man in a skin tight suit with a strange helmet covering his entire head and an odd looking contraption strapped to his back between his shoulders. He carried a trident on the end of which a large fish wriggled. Water dripped from his helmet and his suit.
“Mon Dieu!” exclaimed d’Arnot. “What is that?”
“It is a ptome with our dinner,” replied Brian. “The ptomes are lesser priests and greater fishermen. They go out onto the bottom of Lake Horus through watertight compartments and spear the fish with which we are fed. That affair on his back furnishes oxygen that it extracts from the water, which enters it in small quantities. They say that with one of those helmets, a man could live under water almost indefinitely, as far as his air supply was concerned. You will notice the heavy metal soles of his shoes, that prevent him from turning over and floating to the surface, feet up.”
“The whole thing is quite astonishing,” commented d’Arnot, “and so is that fish, for that matter. I never saw one like it before.”
“You will see plenty of them from now on,” replied Brian, “and I hope you like raw fish. If you don’t, you’d better cultivate a taste for it—it’s about all you’ll get to eat here; but you’ll be able to watch the priests and the handmaidens dine sumptuously. They throw a banquet in here every once in a while just to add to our misery.”
Zytheb led Helen to one of the upper floors of the temple where his apartments were situated. At the end of a corridor, he threw open a door. “This is your new home,” he said; “is it not beautiful?”
The room was a jumble of strange appearing furniture, with odd lamps and heavy vases. A frieze of skulls and bones encircled the walls just below the ceiling. Through a window at the far end of the room, the girl could see fishes swimming in the lake. She entered, like one in a trance, and passed through the room to stand beside a table at the window. A heavy vase of strange workmanship stood on the table, and hazily she thought how interesting it might be were her mind not in such a turmoil of hopelessness and terror. Zytheb had followed her, and now he laid a hand upon her shoulder.
“You are very beautiful,” he said.
She shrank away from him, backing against the table. “Don’t touch me!” she whispered.
“Come!” he said. “Remember what Brulor told you. You are my wife, and you must obey me.”
“I am not your wife. I shall never be. I should rather die. Keep away from me, I tell you. Keep away!”
“You shall learn to obey and be a good wife—and like it,” snapped Zytheb. “Come, now, and kiss me!”
He attempted to take her in his arms; and as he did so, she seized the vase from the table and struck him heavily over the head. Without a sound, he slumped to the floor; and she knew that she had killed him. Her first reaction was solely of relief. She had no regrets, but what was she to do now? What possibility of escape was there from this frightful place beneath the waters of Horus?
For a time she stood looking down at the dead body of the man she had killed, fascinated by the very horror of it; then slowly came the realization that she must do something. At least she could gain time by hiding the body. She looked about the room for some place where she might conceal it, shuddering at the thought of the gruesome ordeal; but she steeled herself, and dragged the body to a closet across the room. The body was heavy; but terror gave her strength, and at last she succeeded in getting it into the closet. Before she closed the door, she took the keys and his dagger. If there was any avenue of escape, she might need the keys; and she was sure that she would need the dagger.
Her first thought now was to find the throne room again and see d’Arnot and her brother. If escape were possible, she could take them with her. At least she might see them once more. Creeping along deserted corridors, she found her way down the winding stairways up which Zytheb had led her, as she searched for the throne room where the cages were. In constant fear of discovery, she came at last to a door she thought she recognized. But was this the room? If it were, would she find priests or guards within? For a moment she hesitated; then she opened the door. Yes, it was the throne room; and, except for the prisoners in their cages, it was vacant. So far fortune had favored her; and she had achieved the impossible, but how much longer might she depend upon the fickle goddess? As she crossed the room to d’Arnot’s cage, she saw that the prisoners were all asleep. This fact and the quietness of the temple gave her new assurance, for if escape were possible it might be best accomplished while the temple slept. That the Asharians were confident that there could be no escape was suggested by the fact that no guards watched the prisoners, an inference that was not encouraging.
Helen leaned against the bars of d’Arnot’s cage and whispered his name. The few seconds it took to awaken him seemed an eternity to the frightened girl, but at last he opened his eyes.
“Helen!” he exclaimed in astonishment. “What has happened? How did you get here?”
“Quiet!” she cautioned. “Let me get you and Brian out of those cages; then we can plan.” She was trying different keys in the lock of the cage door as she talked to him, and at last she found the one that fitted.
As the door swung open he sprang out and took her in his arms. “Darling!” he whispered. “You have risked your life for this; but you shouldn’t have, for what good will it do? There is no escape from this place.”
“Perhaps not,” she agreed, “but at least we can have these few minutes together—they can never take those away from us—and as far as risking my life is concerned will make no difference. I have already forfeited it.”
“What do you mean?”
“I have killed Zytheb,” she replied, “and when they find his body, I imagine they’ll make short work of me;” then she told him what had happened in the apartment above.
“How brave you are,” he said. “You deserve life and freedom for what you have undergone.”
D’Arnot took the keys from her and unlocked Brian’s cage, and as the latter opened his eyes and saw Helen and d’Arnot standing outside he thought that he was dreaming. He had to come out and touch them before he could believe his eyes. Briefly they explained what had happened.
“And now that we are out, what?” demanded d’Arnot. “There can be no escape from this place.”
“I’m not so sure of that,” replied Brian. “The priests have a secret passage that can be used if the windlass fails or if the temple should be in danger of flooding.”
“Little good that will do us,” said d’Arnot, “unless you know where the entrance to this secret passage is.”
“I don’t know, but there is one here who does. One of these prisoners, the one in the cage next to mine, is a former priest. If we liberate him, he might lead us out. I know he is anxious to escape. I’ll wake him.”
“Let’s liberate all the poor creatures,” suggested Helen. “We certainly shall,” said Brian; then he awoke Herkuf, the former priest, and explained what he had in mind, while d’Arnot released the other prisoners, cautioning them to silence, as they gathered around Brian and Herkuf.
“It will mean death by torture if we are caught,” explained the latter, “and a life of danger if we escape, for we shall have no place to go in Tuen-Baka and must live in caves and hide for the remainder of our lives.”
“I shall have a place to go,” said a Thobotian. “I can go back to Thobos, and I can show the rest of you a secret foot trail out of Tuen-Baka, that only we of Thobos know.”
“Anything, even death,” said Brian, “would be better than these filthy cages and the treatment we receive here.”
“Well,” exlaimed the man from Thobos, “why do we stand here talking? Will you lead us out, Herkuf?”
“Yes,” said the former priest; “come with me.”
He led them along the corridor that ran beneath the lake to the bottom of the elevator shaft. For a moment he fumbled at a great slab of lava that formed a part of one of the walls of the corridor beside the shaft. Presently it swung toward him, revealing the mouth of an opening as dark as Erebus.
“You’ll have to feel your way along this corridor,” he said. “There are many stairways, some of them winding; but there are no pitfalls and no side corridors. I shall go slowly.”
After all were inside the mouth of the corridor, Herkuf pulled the slab back in place; then he took the lead; and the long, slow climb commenced.
“It commences to look as though the impossible were about to be achieved,” said d’Arnot.
“And a few minutes ago it appeared so very impossible,” replied Helen.
“And we owe it all to you, darling.”
“We owe it to Zytheb,” she corrected, “or to Brulor for selecting the Keeper of the Keys as my husband.”
“Well, whatever it was, we sure got a break at last,” said Brian, “and the Lord knows we had one coming to us.”
It was still dark when the nine fugitives emerged into the open air at the end of the secret passage.
“Where are we?” asked Brian.
“We are on the hillside above Ashair,” replied Herkuf, “and we shall breathe pure air and know freedom for a few hours at least.”
“And which way do we go now?”
“We should head toward the upper end of the lake,” said the Thobotian. “It is there that the trail begins that leads out of Tuen-Baka.”
“Very well,” said Herkuf, “come on! I know a canyon we can hide in if we don’t want to travel by day. We can just about reach it by sunrise. As soon as they find we have escaped, they will search for us; so the farther away we can get and the more secluded the hiding place, the better off we shall be.”