He wondered if Stellara loved Doval, and if Doval loved Stellara, and with the thoughts he halted in his tracks and his eyes went wide as a sudden realization burst for the first time upon his consciousness.
“God!” he exclaimed aloud. “What a fool I have been. I have loved her always and did not know it,” and wheeling about he set off at a brisk trot in the direction of Paraht, all thoughts of his hunt erased from his mind.
Tanar had hunted far, much farther than he had thought, but at last he came to the village of Fedol the chief. As he passed through the hanging barrier of Paraht, the first people that he saw were Letari and Doval. They were walking side by side and very close and the man’s arm was about the slim shoulders of the girl.
Letari looked at Tanar in astonishment as she recognized him. “We all thought the Korsars had taken you with them,” she cried.
“Korsars!” exclaimed Tanar. “What Korsars?”
“They were here,” said Doval. “They raided the village, but we drove them off with just a small loss. There were not many of them. Where were you?”
“After the feast I went into the forest to hunt,” said Tanar. “I did not know that there was a Korsar upon the island of Amiocap.”
“It is just as well that you were not here,” said Letari, “for while you were away I have learned that I love Doval.”
“Where is Stellara?” demanded Tanar.
“She was taken by the Korsars,” said Doval. “Thank God that it was not you, Letari,” and, stooping, he kissed the girl upon the lips.
With a cry of grief and rage Tanar ran swiftly to the house of Fedol the chief. “Where is Stellara?” he demanded, springing unceremoniously into the center of the living room.
An old woman looked up from where she sat with her face buried in her hands. She was the sole occupant of the room. “The Korsars took her,” she said.
“Where is Fedol then?” demanded Tanar.
“He has gone with warriors to try to rescue her,” said the old woman, “but it is useless. They, who are taken by the Korsars, never come back.”
“Which way did they go?” asked Tanar.
Sobbing with grief, the old woman pointed in the direction taken by the Korsars, and again she buried her face in her hands, grieving for the misfortune that had overtaken the house of Fedol the chief.
Almost immediately Tanar picked up the trail of the Korsars, which he could identify by the imprints of their heeled boots, and he saw that Fedol and his warriors had not followed the same trail, evidencing the fact that they must have gone in the wrong direction to succor Stellara successfully.
Sick with anguish, maddened by hate, the Sarian plunged on through the forest. Plain to his eyes lay the spoor of his quarry. In his heart was a rage that gave him the strength of many men.
In a little glade, partially surrounded by limestone cliffs, a small company of ragged, bewhiskered men had halted to rest. Where they had halted a tiny spring broke from the base of the cliff and trickled along its winding channel for a short distance to empty into a natural, circular opening in the surface of the ground. From deep in the bottom of this natural well the water falling from the rim could be heard splashing upon the surface of the water far below. It was dark down there—dark and mysterious, but the bearded ruffians gave no heed either to the beauty or the mystery of the spot.
One huge, fierce-visaged fellow, his countenance disfigured by an ugly scar, confronted a slim girl, who sat upon the turf, her back against a tree, her face buried in her arms.
“You thought me dead, eh?” he exclaimed. “You thought Bohar the Bloody dead? Well he is not dead. Our boat weathered the storm and passing close to Amiocap we saw the wreck of The Cid’s ship lying upon the sand. Knowing that you and the prisoners had been left aboard when we quit the ship, I guessed that perhaps you might be somewhere upon Amiocap; nor was I wrong, Stellara. Bohar the Bloody is seldom wrong.
“We hid close to a village which they call Lar and at the first opportunity we captured one of the villagers—a woman—and from her we learned that you had indeed come ashore, but that you were then in the village of your father and we made the woman guide us there. The rest you know and now be cheerful for at last you are to mate with Bohar the Bloody and return to Korsar.”
“Rather than that I shall die,” cried the girl.
“But how?” laughed Bohar. “You have no weapons. Perhaps, however, you will choke yourself to death,” and he laughed uproariously at his own joke.
“There is a way,” cried the girl, and before he could guess what she intended, or stay her, she dodged quickly around him and ran toward the natural well that lay a few hundred feet away.
“Quick!” shouted Bohar. “Stop her!” and instantly the entire twenty sprang in pursuit. But Stellara was swift and there was likelihood that they would not overtake her in the short distance that lay before her and the edge of the abyss.
Fortune, however, was with Bohar the Bloody that day and almost at her goal Stellara’s foot caught in a tangle of grasses and she stumbled forward upon her face. Before she could recover her feet the nearest Korsar had seized her, and then Bohar the Bloody ran to her side and, taking her from the grasp of the other Korsar, shook her violently.
“You she tarag!” he cried. “For this I shall fix you so that never again will you run away. When we reach the sea I shall cut off one of your feet and then I shall know that you will not run away from me again,” and he continued to shake her violently.
Breaking suddenly and unexpectedly from the dense jungle into the opening of the glade a warrior came upon the scene being enacted at the edge of the well. At the moment he thought that Stellara was being killed and he went mad with rage; nor was his rage any the less when he recognized Bohar the Bloody as the author of the assault.
With an angry shout he leaped forward, his heavy spear ready in his hand. What mattered it that twenty men with firearms opposed him? He saw only Stellara in the cruel grip of the bestial Bohar.
At the sound of his voice the Korsar looked up and instantly Bohar recognized the Sarian.
“Look, Stellara,” he said, with a sneer. “Your lover has come. It is well for with no lover and only one foot you will have no reason at all for running away.”
A dozen harquebuses had already been raised in readiness and the men stood looking toward Bohar.
Tanar had reached the opposite edge of the well, only a few yards distant, when Bohar nodded and there was a roar of musketry and a flash of flame accompanied by so dense a pall of black smoke that for an instant the figure of the Sarian was entirely obliterated from view.
Stellara, wide-eyed and trembling with pain and horror, tried to penetrate the smoke cloud with her frightened eyes. Quickly it lifted, revealing no sign of Tanar.
“Well done,” cried Bohar to his men. “Either you blew him all to pieces, or his body fell into the hole,” and going to the edge of the opening he looked down, but it was very dark there and he saw nothing. “Wherever he is, at least he is dead,” said Bohar. “I should like to have crushed his life out with my own hands, but at least he is dead by my command and the blow that he struck me is wiped out, as Bohar wipes out the blows of all his enemies.”
As the Korsars resumed the march toward the ocean, Stellara walked among them with bent head and moist, unseeing eyes. Often she stumbled and each time she was jerked roughly to her feet and shaken, at the same time being admonished in hoarse tones to watch her footing.
By the time they reached the seashore Stellara was sick with a high fever and she lay in the camp of the Korsars for what may have been a day or a month, too sick to move, while Bohar and his men felled timbers, hewed planks and constructed a boat to carry them to the distant shores of Korsar.
The fall had not hurt him. It had not even stunned him and when he came to the surface he saw before him a quiet stream moving gently through an opening in the limestone wall about him. Beyond the opening was a luminous cavern and into this Tanar swam, clambering to its rocky floor the moment that he had found a low place in the bank of the stream. Looking about him he found himself in a large cavern, the walls of which shone luminously, so considerable was their content of phosphorus.
There was a great deal of rubbish on the floor of the cave—the bones of animals and men, broken weapons, bits of hide. It might have been the dumping ground of some grewsome charnel house.
The Sarian walked back to the opening through which the little stream had borne him into the grotto, but a careful investigation revealed no avenue of escape in this direction, although he reentered the stream and swam into the bottom of the well where he found the walls worn so smooth by the long continued action of falling water that they gave no slightest indication of handhold or foothold.
Then slowly he made a circuit of the outer walls of the grotto, but only where the stream passed out at its far end was there any opening—a rough archway that rose some six feet above the surface of the underground stream.
Along one side was a narrow ledge and looking through the opening he saw a dim corridor leading away into the distance and obscurity.
There being no other way in which to search for freedom Tanar passed along the narrow ledge beneath the archway to find himself in a tunnel that followed the windings of the stream.
Only here and there small patches of the rock that formed the walls and ceiling of the corridor threw out a luminosity that barely relieved the inky darkness of the place, yet relieve it it did so that at least one might be sure of his footing, though at points where the corridor widened its walls were often lost in darkness.
For what distance he followed the tunnel Tanar did not know, but presently he came to a low and narrow opening through which he could pass only upon his hands and knees. Beyond there seemed to be a much lighter chamber and as Tanar came into this, still upon all fours, a heavy body dropped upon his back from above and then another at each side of him and he felt cold, clammy claws seizing his arms and legs, and arms encircled his neck—arms that felt against his flesh like the arms of a corpse.
He struggled but there were too many for him and in a moment he was disarmed and his ankles and wrists securely bound with tough thongs of rawhide. Then he was rolled over on his side and lay looking up into the horrid faces of Coripies, the Buried People of Amiocap.
The blank faces, the corpse-like skin, the bulging protuberances where the eyes would have been, the hairless bodies, the claw-like hands combined to produce such a hideous aspect in the monsters as to make the stoutest of hearts quail.
And when they spoke! The mumbled mouthing revealing yellow fangs withered the heart in the breast of the Sarian. Here, indeed, was a hideous end, for he knew that it was the end, since never in all the many tales the Amiocapians had told him of the Buried People was there any record of a human being escaping from their clutches.
Now they were addressing him and presently, in their hollow mewing, he discerned words. “How did you get into the land of the Coripies?” demanded one. .
“I fell into a hole in the ground,” replied Tanar. “I did not seek to come here. Take me out and I will reward you.”
“What have you to give the Coripies more than your flesh?” demanded another.
“Do not think to get out for you never shall,” said a third.
Now two of them lifted him lightly and placed him upon the back of one of their companions. So easily the creature carried him that Tanar wondered that he had ever overcome the Coripi that he had met upon the surface of the ground.
Through long corridors, some very dark and others partially lighted by outcroppings of phosphorescent rock, the creature bore him. At times they passed through large grottoes, beautifully wrought in intricate designs by nature, or climbed long stairways carved in the limestone, probably by the Coripies themselves, only presently to descend other stairways and follow winding tunnels that seemed interminable.
But at last the journey ended in a huge cavern, the ceiling of which rose at least two hundred feet above them. This stupendous grotto was more brilliantly lighted than any other section of the subterranean world that Tanar had passed through. Into its limestone walls were cut pathways that zigzagged back and forth upward toward the ceiling, and the entire surface of the surrounding walls was pierced by holes several feet in diameter that appeared to be the mouths of caves.
Squatting about on the floor of the cavern were hundreds of Coripies of all ages and both sexes.
At one end of the grotto, in a large opening, a few feet above the floor, squatted a single, large Coripi. His skin was mottled with a purplish hue that suggested a corpse in which mortification had progressed to a considerable degree. The protuberances that suggested huge eyeballs beneath the skin protruded much further and were much larger than those in any other of the Coripies that Tanar had examined. The creature was, by far, the most repulsive of all the repulsive horde.
On the floor of the grotto, directly before this creature, were gathered a number of male Coripies and toward this congregation Tanar’s captors bore him.
Scarcely had they entered the grotto when it became apparent to Tanar that these creatures could see, a thing that he had commenced to suspect shortly after his capture, for now, at sight of him, they commenced to scream and make strange, whistling sounds, and from the openings of many of the high flung caves within the walls heads protruded and the hideous, eyeless faces seemed to be bending eyes upon him.
One cry seemed to rise above all others as he was borne across the grotto towards the creature sitting in the niche.
It was “Flesh! Flesh!” and it sounded grewsome and horrible in its suggestiveness.
Flesh! Yes, he knew that they ate human flesh and it seemed now that they were but awaiting a signal to leap upon him and devour him alive, tearing pieces from him with their heavy claws. But when one did rush upon him there came a scream from the creature in the niche and the fellow desisted, even as one of his captors had turned to defend him.
The cavern crossed at last, Tanar was deposited upon his feet in front of the creature squatting in the niche. Tanar could see the great eyeballs revolving beneath the pulsing skin of the protuberances and though he could see no eyes, he knew that he was being examined coldly and calculatingly.
“Where did you get it?” finally demanded the creature, addressing Tanar’s captors.
“He tumbled into the Well of Sounding Water,” replied one.
“How do you know?”
“He told us so.”
“Do you believe him?”
“There was no other way in which he could enter the land of the Coripies,” replied one of the captors.
“Perhaps he was leading a party in to slay us,” said the creature in the niche. “Go, many of you, and search the corridors and the tunnels about the Well of Sounding Water.” Then the creature turned to Tanar’s captors. “Take this and put it with the others; we have not yet enough.”
Tanar was now again placed upon the back of a Coripi, who carried him across the grotto and up one of the pathways cut into the face of the limestone wall. Ascending this pathway a short distance the creature turned into one of the cave openings, and Tanar found himself again in a narrow, dark, winding tunnel.
The tunnels and corridors through which he had already been conducted had impressed upon Tanar the great antiquity of this underground labyrinthian world, since there was every evidence that the majority of these tunnels had been hewn from the limestone rock or natural passageways enlarged to accommodate the Coripies, and as these creatures appeared to have no implements other than their heavy, three-toed claws the construction of the tunnels must have represented the labor of countless thousands of individuals over a period of many ages.
Tanar, of course, had only a hazy conception of what we describe as the measurable aspect of duration. His. consideration of the subject concerned itself with the countless millions of times that these creatures must have slept and eaten during the course of their stupendous labors.
But the mind of the captive was also occupied with other matters as the Coripi bore him through the long tunnel. He thought of the statement of the creature in the niche, as he had ordered Tanar taken into confinement, to the effect that there were not yet enough. What did he mean? Enough of what? Enough prisoners? And when there were enough to what purpose would they be devoted?
But perhaps, to a far greater extent, his mind was occupied with thoughts of Stellara; with fears for her safety and with vain regret that he had been unable to accomplish her rescue.
From the moment that he had been so unexpectedly propitiated into the underground world of the Buried People, his dominant thought, of course, had been that of escape; but the further into the bowels of the earth he was carried the more hopeless appeared the outcome of any venture in this direction, yet he never for once abandoned it though he realized that he must wait until they had reached the place of his final confinement before he could intelligently consider any plan at all.
How far the tireless Coripi bore Tanar the Sarian could not guess, but presently they emerged into a dimly lighted grotto, before the narrow entrance to which squatted a dozen Coripies. Within the chamber were a score more and one human being—a man with sandy hair, close-set eyes and a certain mean, crafty expression of countenance that repelled the Sarian immediately.
“Here is another,” said the Coripi who had carried Tanar to the cavern, and with that he dumped the Sarian unceremoniously upon the stone floor at the feet of the dozen Coripies who stood guard at the entrance.
With teeth and claws they severed the bonds that secured his wrists and ankles.
“They come slowly,” grumbled one of the guards. “How much longer must we wait?”
“Old Xax wishes to have the greatest number that has ever been collected.” remarked another of the Coripies.
“But we grow impatient,” said the first speaker. “If he makes us wait much longer he may be one of the number here himself.”
“Be careful,” cautioned one of his fellows. “If Xax heard that you had said such a thing as that the number of our prisoners would be increased by one.”
As Tanar arose to his feet, after his bonds were severed, he was pushed roughly toward the other inmates of the room, who he soon was to discover were prisoners, like himself, and quite naturally the first to approach him was the other human captive.
“Another,” said the stranger. “Our numbers increase but slowly, yet each one brings us closer to our inevitable doom and so I do not know whether I am sorry to see you here or glad because of the human company that I shall now have. I have eaten and slept many times since I was thrown into this accursed place and always nothing but these hideous, mumbling things for company. God, how I hate and loathe them, yet they are in the same predicament as we for they, too, are doomed to the same fate.”
“And what may that be?” asked Tanar.
“You do not know?”
“I may only guess,” replied the Sarian.
“These creatures seldom get flesh with warm blood in it. They subsist mostly upon the fish in their underground rivers and upon the toads and lizards that inhabit their caves. Their expeditions to the surface ordinarily yield nothing more than the carcasses of dead beasts, yet they crave flesh and warm blood. Heretofore they had killed their condemned prisoners one by one as they were available, but this plan gave only a mouthful of flesh to a very few Coripies. Recently Xax hit upon the plan of preserving his own condemned and the prisoners from the outer world until he had accumulated a sufficient number to feast the entire population of the cavern of which he is chief. I do not know how many that will be, but steadily the numbers grow and perhaps it will not be long now before there are enough of us to fill the bellies of Xax’s tribe.”
“Xax!” repeated Tanar. “Was he the creature sitting in the niche in the great cavern to which I was first taken?”
“That was Xax. He is ruler of that cavern. In the underground world of the Buried People there are many tribes, each of which occupies a large cavern similar to that in which you saw Xax. These tribes are not always friendly and the most of the prisoners that you see in this cavern are members of other tribes, though there are a few from the tribe of Xax who have been condemned to death for one reason or another.”
“And there is no escape?” asked Tanar.
“None,” replied the other. “Absolutely none; but tell me who are you and from what country? I cannot believe that you are a native of Amiocap, for what Amiocapian is there who would need ask questions about the Buried People?”
“I am not of Amiocap,” replied Tanar. “I am from Sari, upon the far distant mainland.”
“Sari! I never heard of such a country,” said the other. “What is your name?”
“Tanar, and yours?”
“I am Jude of Hime,” replied the man. “Hime is an island not far from Amiocap. Perhaps you have heard of it.”
“No,” said Tanar.
“I was fishing in my canoe, off the coast of Hime,” continued Jude, “when a great storm arose which blew me across the waters and hurled me upon the coast of Amiocap. I had gone into the forest to hunt for food when three of these creatures fell upon me and dragged me into their underworld.”
“And you think that there is no escape?” demanded Tanar.
“None—absolutely none,” replied Jude.