TARZAN and Herkuf followed the dark passageway and the winding stairs down to the lava slab that closed the secret doorway leading to the corridor they must follow beneath the lake to reach the temple.
“Here we are,” said Herkuf. “If the gods are with us, we shall soon be in Brulor’s room behind the throne. I’ll attend to him, you get the casket. I have waited years for such an opportunity to avenge Chon, the true god, and make Brulor pay for the indignities and torture he imposed upon me. I see now how I have lived through all that I have lived through. It was for this hour. If we fail, it will mean death; but if we fail I shall welcome death.”
Beyond the lava slab a group of Asharian warriors, their short spears ready, awaited them, for the sentinel priest had done his duty well.
“They must be close,” said the leader of the warriors. “Be ready! but do not forget that it is the Queen’s command that we take them alive for torture before death.”
“I should hate to be Herkuf when Brulor gets him back in his cage,” said a warrior.
“And that wild man,” said another. “It was he who killed so many of our warriors that night in the tunnel. I should hate to be the wild man when Atka gets him.”
The lava slab was thick, and it was skillfully fitted in the aperture; so the voices of the whispering warriors did not reach the ears of the two upon the other side of it. Ignorant of the trap into which they were walking, they paused for a moment while Herkuf groped for the knob which would open the door.
And while they paused upon the brink of disaster, another detail of warriors crept up upon the unsuspecting four who were waiting at the entrance to the secret passageway, ignorant of the imminent peril that hovered just above them among the boulders of the hillside.
“At last, darling,” said d’Arnot, “I can see a ray of hope. Herkuf knows the customs of the temple, and before the inmates leave their apartments again he and Tarzan will be back with Brulor and the accursed Father of Diamonds.”
“I have grown to hate the very name of the thing,” said the girl. “There surely must be a curse upon it and everything connected with it. I feel that so strongly that I can’t believe it possible that it is going to be the means of releasing Dad and Magra. Something will happen to turn success into failure.”
“I don’t wonder you’re pessimistic and skeptical, but this time I’m sure you’re wrong.”
“I certainly hope so. I don’t know when I’ve ever so wanted to be wrong.”
Lavac and Brian were sitting on the ground a few paces from Helen and d’Arnot, the former with his back toward them that he might not see the little intimacies that still hurt him so sorely notwithstanding his honest intention to give up all hope of winning the girl. He was facing up the slope of the rocky hillside above which towered the stupendous rampart of Tuen-Baka, and so it was he who first saw the Asharian warriors as they broke cover and started down toward their quarry. As he leaped to his feet with a cry of warning, the others turned; and in the instant their hopes came rumbling about their heads like a house of match wood. The Asharians were yelling triumphantly now, as they charged down the hill, brandishing their short spears. The three men might have put up a battle even against these terrific odds, futile as it would have been, had they not feared for the safety of the girl should they invite the Asharians to hurl their spears; so they stood in silence while the warriors surrounded them, and a moment later they were being herded down toward the nearest city gate.
“You were right, after all,” said d’Arnot.
“Yes,” she replied, dejectedly; “the curse of the diamond is still on us. Oh, Paul, I’d rather die than go back to that awful place! This time there will be no hope for us, and what I dread most is that they will not kill me.”
As the four prisoners were being marched down to the city, Herkuf pulled the lava slab toward him; and the two men stepped into the trap that had been laid for them. They hadn’t a chance, not even the mighty ape-man, for the Asharians had planned well. As they stepped from the mouth of the passageway, two warriors, crouching low, seized them around their ankles and tripped them; and, as they fell, a dozen others swarmed upon them, slipping nooses about their ankles and wrists.
“You knew we were coming?” Herkuf asked one of the warriors, as they were being led along the corridor toward the temple.
“Certainly,” replied the man. “A sentry has been watching above the city, for Atka thought that you might come back to Ashair to steal a galley. It was the only way that the strangers could escape from Tuen-Baka. It would have been better had you stayed in your cage, Herkuf, for now Brulor will have you tortured; and you know what that means.”
The throne room of the temple was silent and vacant, except for the three prisoners in the cages, as Tarzan and Herkuf were led in, for it was still the period of meditation, during which the inmates of the temple were compelled to remain in their quarters; and so there was a delay while a warrior sought permission from Brulor to summon the Keeper of the Keys that the cages might be unlocked to receive the new prisoners.
Presently, Herkuf touched Tarzan on the arm. “Look!” he said. “The others have been taken, also.”
Tarzan turned to see Helen, d’Arnot, Brian, and Lavac being herded into the chamber; and greeted them with one of his rare smiles. Even in the face of death he could see the humor of the situation, that they who had come so confidently to conquer should have been so ignominiously conquered themselves without the striking of a blow. D’Arnot saw the smile and returned it.
“We meet again, mon ami,” he said; “but not where we expected to meet.”
“And for the last time,” added Lavac. “There will be no more meetings after this one for any of us, at least not in this life. As for me, I shall be glad. I have nothing to live for.” He did not look at Helen, but they all knew what he meant.
“And you all die because of me,” said Brian, “because of my stupid avarice; and I shall die without being able to atone.”
“Let’s not talk abut it,” urged Helen. “It’s bad enough as it is without constantly reminding ourselves of it.”
“When one is about to die by slow torture, one does not have to be reminded of it,” said Herkuf. “It occupies one’s mind to the exclusion of all else. Sometimes it is a relief to talk of it.”
Atan Thome looked out between the bars of his cage at the six prisoners. “So we are reunited at last!” he cackled, “we who sought The Father of Diamonds. There it is, in that casket there; but do not touch it—it is mine. It is for me alone;” then he broke into loud, maniacal laughter.
“Silence! you crazy pig,” growled Lal Taask.
It was then that the Keeper of the Keys came and opened the cages. “Into their dens with them,” snapped an officer, “all but this fellow here.” He nodded at Tarzan. “The Queen wants to see him.”
Atka sat upon her lava throne surrounded by her white plumed nobles, as the Lord of the Jungle, his hands still bound behind him, was brought before her. For a long time she sat studying him with half-closed, appraising eyes; and with neither deference nor boldness Tarzan returned her scrutiny, much as a captive lion might regard a spectator outside his cage.
“So you are the man who killed so many of my warriors,” she said at last, “and captured one of my galleys.”
Tarzan stood silent before her. Finally she tapped her toe upon the floor of the dais, “Why do you not reply?” she demanded.
“You asked me nothing,” he said. “You simply told me something I already knew.”
“When Atka speaks, the person who is thus honored makes some reply.”
Tarzan shrugged. “I do not like useless talk,” he said; “but if you like to hear it, I admit that I killed some of your warriors. I should have killed more that night on the river had there been more in the galley. Yesterday, I killed six in the forest.”
“So that is why they did not return!” exclaimed Atka.
“I think that must be the reason,” Tarzan admitted.
“Why did you come to Ashair?” the Queen demanded.
“To free my friends who were prisoners here.”
“Why are you my enemy?” asked Atka.
“I am not your enemy. I wish only the freedom of my friends,” the ape-man assured her.
“And The Father of Diamonds,” added Atka.
“I care nothing for that,” replied Tarzan.
“But you are an accomplice of Atan Thome,” she accused, “and he came to steal The Father of Diamonds.”
“He is my enemy,” said Tarzan.
She looked at him again for some time in silence, apparently playing with a new idea. At last she spoke.
“I think,” she said, “that you are not the type that lies. I believe what you have told me, and so I would befriend you. They have told me how you fought with your ape allies at the camp below the tunnel and also of the fight in the galley, for all of the warriors did not drown: two of them swam out of the tunnel to safety. Such a man as you would be valuable to me, if loyal. Swear loyalty to me, and you shall be free.”
“And my friends?” asked Tarzan. “They will be freed too?”
“Of course not. They are no good to me. Why should I free them? The man, Brian Gregory, came here solely for the purpose of stealing The Father of Diamonds. I think the others came to help him. No, they shall die in good time.”
“I told you that I came here to free them,” said Tarzan. “The granting of their freedom is the only condition under which I will remain.”
“Slaves do not impose conditions upon Atka,” snapped the Queen, imperiously. She turned to a noble. “Take him away!”
They returned Tarzan to the throne room of the temple then, but they did not free his hands until they had him locked safely in a cage. It was evident that the fighting men of Ashair held him in deep respect.
“What luck?” asked d’Arnot.
“I am here in a cage,” replied Tarzan. “That is answer enough. The Queen wishes us all dead.”
“I imagine her wish will come true,” said d’Arnot ruefully.
“Queens have but to wish.”
It was a dejected and disheartened company that awaited the next eventuality of their disastrous adventure. There were only two of them who appeared to be not entirely without hope—the ape-man, whose countenance seldom revealed his inward feelings, and Atan Thome, who continually cackled and prated of The Father of Diamonds.
When life began to stir in the throne room with the ending of the period of meditation, priests and handmaidens appeared; and finally Brulor entered and took his place upon the throne, while all knelt and beat their heads upon the floor. After a brief religious ceremony, some of the handmaidens commenced to dance before Brulor, a suggestive, lascivious dance in which some of the priests soon joined, in the midst of which a plumed warrior entered from the long corridor and announced the coming of the Queen. Instantly the music and the dancing stopped, and the dancers took their places in sanctimonious attitudes about the throne of Brulor. A loud fanfare of trumpets billowed from the mouth of the corridor, and a moment later the head of a procession appeared and marched down the center of the room toward the dais where Brulor sat. Surrounded by warriors, the Queen moved majestically to the dais, where she took her place in a second throne chair that stood beside Bailor’s.
A long and tedious ceremony ensued, after which the Queen pronounced sentence upon the new prisoners, a privilege she occasionally usurped to the chagrin of Brulor, who was a god only on sufferance of the Queen.
“Let all but the woman,” ordered Atka, “be offered in sacrifice, each in his turn, and with slow torture, that their spirits may go out into the world of barbarians to warn others never to seek entry to The Forbidden City of Ashair.”
She spoke in a loud voice that could be heard throughout the chamber; and her words brought a ray of hope to d’Arnot, for Helen had not been sentenced to torture and death, but his hopes were dashed by the Queen’s next words.
“The woman shall be taken to the little chamber to die slowly as a sacrifice to Holy Horus. This shall be her punishment for the killing of Zytheb, the priest. Let her be taken away at once. The sentences of the others shall be carried out at the discretion of Brulor.”
A priest scurried from the throne room to return presently with three ptomes, one of which carried an extra water suit and helmet. The Keeper of the Keys led them to Helen’s cage, which he unlocked, after which the ptomes entered, removed the girl’s outer clothing and dressed her in the water suit. Before they placed the helmet over her head she turned toward d’Arnot, who stood with ashen face pressed against the partition bars that separated their cages.
“Once more, good-by,” she said. “It will not be for long now.”
Emotion stifled the man’s reply; and tears blinded him, as the ptomes fitted the helmet over Helen’s head; then they led her away. He watched until she passed from sight through a doorway on the opposite side of the temple; then he sank to the floor of his cage and buried his head in his arms. Brian Gregory cursed aloud. He cursed Atka and Brulor and The Father of Diamonds, but most of all he cursed himself.
The Queen and her entourage left the temple, and presently Brulor and the priests and the handmaidens were gone, leaving the doomed men to their own unhappy company. Atan Thome jabbered incessantly about The Father of Diamonds, while Lal Taask and Akamen threatened and reviled him. Lavac sat on his haunches staring at the doorway through which Helen had disappeared to pass out of his life forever, but he knew that she was no more lost to him than she had been before. Brian paced the length of his cage, mumbling to himself. Tarzan and Herkuf spoke together in low tones. D’Arnot was almost ill from desperation and hopelessness. He heard Tarzan asking many questions of Herkuf, but they made no impression on him. Helen was gone now forever. What difference did anything else make? Why did Tarzan ask so many questions? It was not like him; and anyway he, too, would soon be dead.
Silhouetted against the blue African sky, Ungo and his fellow apes stood at the rim of the crater of Tuen-Baka and looked down into the valley. They saw the green of the plains and the forests; and they looked good to them after the barren outer slopes of the mountain.
“We go down,” grunted Ungo.
“Perhaps Tarzan there,” suggested another.
“Food there,” said Ungo. “Tarzan not there, we go back old hunting grounds. This bad country for mangani.”