The sleek black monoplane came scudding out of the south, flying low over fields of ice and snow that were thawing slowly under the heat of the arctic sun. After a long time it wheeled, circled gradually, and then, as if it had found what it had been looking for, came lightly down and skidded to a graceful halt in a low flat area between some round-topped hillocks. A fur-clad figure emerged from the enclosed cockpit and climbed a low ridge into the wan sunlight above.
For a while the man looked around, getting his bearings. Miles on every side stretched the great rough plains of ice--ice that became a broad path of glittering diamonds where it led toward the low-hung sun, far in the south. Perhaps a quarter mile in that direction lay the white rise of a hill much larger than its fellows, probably, the man thought, a volcano. Towards it he laboriously made his way. His tiny figure was only a speck on the far-flung, deserted landscape--a human mite, puny and futile against the giant, hostile white waste.
The sky was clear and cloudless, the sun unusually warm. So warm, indeed, that long clefts, caused by the unequal expansion of the ice, appeared here and there. The man from the plane had not gone more than fifty yards when he halted sharply. With a crack like thunder, a cleft had opened at his very feet--a rift ten feet deep in places, apparently bottomless in others, and very long. Not wanting to go around it, he slid down one side and, with an ice pick, started to hack a foothold in the opposite bank.
It was then that the man saw the thing--something sticking from the ice just above his head. As he stared at it, amazement appeared on his bronzed face. He looked around bewilderedly, then peered still more closely into the bluish depths of the crystal wall.
The head of a spear was jutting from the ice. And the spear was held by a man entrapped within the wall.
The details of the ice-held figure were but slightly blurred, for it was only a few feet from the surface. It was that of a man, and it was plain that he was not an Eskimo. He was locked in a distorted position, as if caught unawares by a terrific weight of sliding snow. And he had been caught, seemingly, when in the act of hurling his weapon.
For a long time the man from the plane peered at his discovery. Then his blue eyes followed slowly the direction in which the spear was pointing, and he gasped, and took a few quick steps further down the cleft. There, in the opposite wall, were two more bodies.
These, though, were of man and woman. They were even closer to the surface of the ice. Crouched over, the man’s left hand was craned as if to protect his companion from some peril--from the cataclysm that had trapped them, it might have been. Or perhaps from the spear of the other.
The fur-muffled figure stood motionless, gazing at them. His ice pick was held limply, his eyes were wide. Then, suddenly, the pick was grasped firmly, and flakes of ice flew under its level blows as he started to carve his find from their frozen tomb.
The man was trembling with wild excitement when at last the stiff form of the woman was extricated. She was not so much a woman as a girl, really--and she was beautiful. But the man from the plane evidently didn’t care so much about that; nor even her almost miraculous state of preservation. He rubbed away some of the coating of ice from her face, and stared most intently at her forehead. Then he stood upright, and said, simply:
“Well, I’ll be damned!”
If Wesley Craig had been merely what he was listed as on the roster of the Somers Arctic Expedition of 1933--that is, a geologist--he would not have been so astounded. But his life work, really, was archaeology. He had spent years delving in the ruins of ancient temples, especially, those of old Egypt. He knew the ancient language as well as anyone knew it, and was familiar with every known detail of the civilization of the Pharaohs. And, being so, he was now properly confused. For every bit of his knowledge told him that this girl, whom he had found in the wastes of the arctic, was of Egyptian stock.
A certain tiny hieroglyph traced on her smooth forehead--the intricate band around her fine hair--the very cut of the frozen robe she wore--Egyptian--every one of them!
Yet, stubbornly, Wesley Craig wouldn’t admit it. Not until he had cut the two men from the ice and hauled all three laboriously up the side of the cleft and stretched them out on the level ice, did he have to. He couldn’t deny it, then. In some mysterious way, Egypt was connected with the three rigid bodies.
For the two men were garbed as warriors, and their helmets and harness and sword-sheaths were indisputably of Egyptian design.
There, however, the similarity between the two ended. The one with the spear was big-muscled and burly; the other much slighter of build. This latter, Craig guessed, had been fleeing with the girl when icy death had overwhelmed them.
But he did not then try to go into that, the story that some sudden cataclysm had cut short. His fervor, as an Egyptologist, was afire. He was burning with eagerness to get these bodies back to the main base of the Somers Expedition, some three hundred miles south. Into the learned circles of Egyptology, of archaeology, they’d throw a bomb-shell that would make nitroglycerine seem like weak tea.
Craig couldn’t taxi his plane closer; he would have to carry them to it; and to do this he began to carefully massage all the larger pieces of ice from the girl’s limbs and clothing, to make her lighter. At the Somers base they could all be re-frozen, to maintain their perfect preservation.
It was while he was diligently rubbing that he fully realized the girl’s beauty. Delicate, cleanly cut features; fine, large eyelids; tiny, slender hands. Save for her icy pallor, she might almost have been merely asleep as she lay on the snow.
Wes Craig finished massaging the girl and then went on and did the same for the two warriors. For an hour he carefully and reverently released them from the reluctant fingers of their icy death, and he was a little tired from his exertions and his great excitement when at last he finished and stood erect, resting. But he did not stand quiet for long. A sudden gleam lit his eyes: a mad idea had come to him.
“Won’t hurt to try!” he muttered excitedly, and the next moment his lithe figure was running over the slippery ice bank to his airplane, out of sight behind the nearby hillocks.
Wes Craig worked from a sub-base on his sole expeditions to chart the various mountains and ranges in the islands off north-east King Charles Land, within the Arctic Circle. He had only one partner, a mechanic, who stayed behind on his shorter trips. And therefore all manner of emergency devices were stowed in the cockpit of his plane: a tiny folding tent, an amazingly light sled, a large store of compressed food--and a large vial of Kundrenaline and a hypodermic needle.
Kundrenaline was still somewhat of an unknown quantity in 1933. Kund, the German, had developed it but a year before. The fluid was already standard beside the operating tables of the world’s most modern hospitals, so valuable had its qualities proven to be. It had actually restored life after hours of death. A complex mixture of concentrated adrenaline and highly compressed liquid food, it gave a tremendous stimulation to the heart, at the same time providing the body with energy food to withstand the shock.
It was meant for emergency use on the Somers Expedition. But Wes Craig wasn’t going to use it for that. He was going to use it for an experiment--a crazy experiment, he told himself. Fish--many forms of life--withstand freezing in solid ice without hurt. Human beings--? It wouldn’t hurt to try, anyway, his mind kept repeating.
Fifteen minutes saw him back beside the rigid bodies, and kneeling over the girl. The sun had warmed her body somewhat, and the glistening rheum of frost had melted from all three. Hardly breathing from his suspense, Wes filled the needle’s chamber full and plunged it into the firm white flesh just above the girl’s silent heart.
A short laugh came from him--an ironic laugh. It seemed idiotic to even think of restoring her to life, even if she had been dead only a week or so. It was quite--
And then his thoughts stopped.
“My God!” he said suddenly.
For a tide of faintest color had surged through the girl’s wan cheeks. And her slim figure had stirred perceptibly on the sheet of ice!
“By heaven, she’s coming to!” Craig muttered unbelievingly.
Pressing his ear to her chest, he detected a faint and labored beating of her heart, stirring from its cold sleep as the terrific stimulation jolted it back to life. The girl’s eyelids flickered; a tiny sigh escaped her full lips. Craig took off his heavy parka and laid it over her. Trembling with tremendous excitement, he tore himself away from the miracle of re-created life, and strode to the body of the young man who was apparently her partner.
Again he administered the Kundrenaline. Then he went to his first discovery--the heavily built, powerful warrior whose spear had stuck out of the ice. The hypodermic was once more filled, and the fluid plunged into his body. Even as a faint moan came from the younger man, the warrior’s heart started to beat.
Perspiring, breathing quickly, vial and needle still in his hands, Wes stood off and surveyed the three.
The girl’s hands were moving fitfully; strange, racking gasps came from her throat. The other two were similarly affected. Almost frightened, held motionless by the weirdness of it, the American watched.
The heavily built warrior was tossing in a series of convulsions. His legs kicked out spasmodically, arms jerked and clenched, and the helmeted head rolled from side to side. Then the man lay still for as long as a minute; but, just as Craig was about to go to him, his legs tensed once again, and, staggering drunkenly, he got to his feet.
He looked around wildly, but did not see the dumbfounded Craig, for his eyes fell on the figure of the younger man. He too had risen, swaying on weak legs. And the girl was sitting up and staring at the two of them.
And then, grotesquely, preluded by a cry from the woman, the tragedy which death had once cut short was enacted out, there on the rough sheet of ice and snow.
The man with the spear fixed his eyes on the girl’s young partner, raised his weapon, leveled it unsteadily, and tossed it weakly forward. The pointed end clipped its target and sent him reeling, with a thin trickle of slow blood running from his right shoulder. The girl staggered to her feet and ran between the two. But the big warrior’s hand swept her aside, and a short sword leaped from its sheath at his waist.
Wes was stupidly staring, unable to move. The combatants were utterly unconscious of him. The younger one, painfully wounded, drew his own sword and swayed forward to meet his enemy.
The fight was grotesque. Both were weak, unsteady. The short swords stabbed slowly, missing by yards in their drunken course. Hatred was on the big man’s dark face, and a fierce lust for blood. It was only when the weapons clashed loudly together that Craig came out of his daze.
“Stop!” he yelled, jumping forward. “Wait! Stop!”
All three turned and looked full at him. And then death, which had been banished for but a few minutes, swooped swiftly once more on the young man. While he stood peering, bewildered, at Craig, the huge warrior steadied his blade and drove it home through his unguarded chest. The man slid over the edge of the ice into the cleft below.
The girl shrieked again and went down to his fallen figure, while the victor waved his bloody sword aloft with a shout of triumph. Then, without hesitation, he leaped at the American.
Wes was taken wholly by surprise. He dropped the vial of Kundrenaline and the hypodermic, and he heard them crash and break at his feet as he fumbled for his automatic, in a holster at his belt. But the warrior was upon him. His crimsoned blade swung high, gleamed downward, and smote Wesley Craig square on the side of the head.
Lucky for him, the flat of the sword had been used--but it was enough. The American reeled under the terrific swipe. He had a last glimpse of two inflamed eyes, of a savage, contorted face; then the universal whiteness went black, and he fell, and the whole incredible scene passed from his consciousness...
Just how long he had remained unconscious, Wesley Craig had no means of determining. His head was hurting devilishly; for a moment he thought that his plane had crashed, and that he was lying in the wreckage. Then he tried to move his hands, and found that he couldn’t. They were bound. His eyes opened.
He discovered that he was lying flat on the ice, hands tied behind his back. Somebody was moaning softly. It was the girl. She too was tied. Wes tried to sit up; and a hand grasped his shoulder tightly and yanked him to his feet.
The big warrior who had felled him, his bloody sword still in hand, stared closely at the American, and fingered his fur jacket curiously. Presently he muttered a few words in some strange tongue. When Craig did not reply, he again spat out the words, his dark brows bunching malevolently. And this time Wes understood part of what he said.
He was speaking ancient Egyptian!
That proved it. These three, who but half an hour before were dead and entombed in the ice, were Egyptians. Trying to cope with his returning bewilderment, Craig racked his brains for remnants of the difficult language. And finally said laboriously:
“Who--who art thou?”
A torrent of words broke from the warrior. Only a few were understandable.
“Shabako--Pharaoh Shabako!” And he repeated Craig’s question: “Who art thou?”
The girl was sitting up now, and peering at the American. Her eyes were still tear-filled, for the dead body of the young man was at her side. She cried out a warning, and Craig caught most of it.
“Be careful, Stranger! He will slay thee as he slew Inaros!”
“Answer me! Who art thou?” repeated the warrior angrily. His patience was short; he played with the hilt of his sword.
“I come,” said Wesley Craig slowly, groping for words, “from a far country. I found the three of you in this ice--dead. I brought thee back to life.”
There was an astounded silence. Then the man who called himself Shabako deliberately cuffed his prisoner on the cheek. “Blasphemer!” he roared. “To claim the powers of the gods! Thou shall die for that! Yea, the ice entrapped me when I was about to slay the guilty Inaros--but our mighty god Aten restored me to life! Enough! The priests shall deal with thee!”
He jerked the trembling girl to Craig’s side, and with a prick of his sword in their backs made them go forward. The American was too bewildered to think evenly. Why, the god Aten was the Sun God!--the divinity Egypt worshipped in five hundred B.C.? How had these warm-blooded people come to the far north? Where did they live? And what fate lay in store for him?
He felt none too optimistic about his position. He knew that it would be two weeks before Somers, at the main base, would become alarmed at his absence. Unless, of course, the mechanic at the sub-base tried to beat his way back on foot, which was only barely possible ... Then he discovered that his automatic was still in its holster; it was slapping against his thighs; and he felt more hopeful.
The girl trudged tiredly at his side. Shabako was a few feet behind, grumbling and urging his captives along.
“Where does he drive us?” Craig asked softly. “What is thy name--and why did he slay thy companion?”
Her frightened eyes slanted towards his face. “To the Temple of the Sun God, Stranger,” she whispered. “And there--” She broke off, to get control of the emotion she was feeling.
“The God’s awful hands! ... Taia is my name. I do not know how I am once again alive, when a short while ago I was dead--but it matters not. I am a priestess of Aten, a virgin of the Temple. Inaros, he--he who lies behind--dared to love me. But a few hours gone he committed sacrilege, hiding in the Temple, so he could watch me. Pharaoh Shabako chanced on him, threatened death to us and pursued us out here. And then of a sudden, when Shabako was hurling his spear, we were entrapped ... and died...”
It was a strange story of forbidden love, one that might have been enacted in age-old times beneath the shadows of the pyramids. Craig began, “How did--” but a harsh voice cut his question short.
“Silence, infidel! Stir thy feet! This ice cools my blood!”
The American’s plane, hidden from view behind the hillock, was left farther and farther in the rear, and Wes was surprised to find that he was being driven up the very slopes of the ice-covered hill he had come to investigate.
At the top, he saw that the hill was a volcano, as he had guessed. There, in the center, was a wide gaping hole from which, in past ages, fiery streams of lava and ashes had belched forth. He was amazed to see that rude steps had been hacked in one side of the great cleft, and that they led sharply downwards. A faint warmth reached him, and he observed that there was but little ice in the crater cup, and none on the rocky walls where the hewn steps led down. It was here that these warm-blooded people lived!
As soon as Taia reached the steps she began to descend them, but Craig wasn’t so docile. He told himself that this was his last chance; once below, surrounded by numbers, there might be no opportunity to strike for freedom. His eyes narrowed as he groped for a plan. If he could butt his brawny captor, strike him fairly in the solar plexus, and, while he lay helpless, cut his bonds with the sword...
He whirled around. Reverting to football tactics, he tensed his lean, hard body and plunged squarely at Shabako.
The Pharaoh was taken completely by surprise, and went sprawling; but the sword did not pitch from his hand. He had received a stiff, shrewd blow, but only a glancing one, for he had twisted his body at the last second. Now, sputtering with wrath, he scrambled to his feet and whipped back his blade for a killing slice at the American.
It was Taia who saved him, then. In a flash she threw herself against the sword arm and deflected the sweep.
“Wait, O Pharaoh!” she cried breathlessly. “The priests will claim this stranger; ‘tis they who must decide his fate! Do not kill him here!”
Shabako’s face was livid with wrath; rage choked him; but he paused. The girl’s aptly timed words had told. He was obviously not decided as to what to do. There was a pause, while the sword pointed straight at Craig’s chest; then, grumbling, the Egyptian let down his weapon.
“But try no more of thy tricks, dog!” he said harshly. “Else thy death come before its time!”
Taia glanced appealingly at Wes. Her eyes were half-frightened. Craig smiled wryly. “Lead on!” he said.
Years of time fell away with each of their descending steps. Egypt stirred under the dust of the centuries; Egypt lived again, though in a sad mockery of her former glory. It was like a descent into a new world, yet a world that was, at the same time, as old as man’s civilization...
Fifty or more steps they trudged down, then came suddenly to two dark corridors, both of which slanted steeply into the bowels of the earth. The one they took was mystic with deep shadows thrown by flaring oil lamps, cunningly imbedded in the walls of rock; and immediately into Wes’s mind came the memory of a corridor he had once walked through in old Egypt, a corridor that pierced to the heart of a pyramid and the somber vault of a mummy who had once been revered as the Pharaoh Aknahton. In his nostrils now there seemed to be that same, musty, age-old smell; the same hushed gloom was about him; his eyes saw dimly on the walls the same rows of hieroglyphs telling of long-past deeds of warriors and priests.
But there the similarity ended. In Egypt it had been a dead Pharaoh; here, though even yet he could hardly believe it, a living one--living by grace of modern science--walked warily behind him, and a living virgin of the temple at his side. The sword of the Pharaoh was pricking his back.
The passageway they trudged down became one of many. Others angled from it frequently, all dark, all hushed, all seemingly devoid of people. The volcano--extinct, almost surely, for the warmth was only that of the earth--was honey-combed with corridors. The marvelous ingenuity of the Egyptian race had come into play in fashioning this warm home in the barren arctic wastes. But Craig’s ever-alert eyes warned him of what was to come. The characters, the hieroglyphs, the rude forms of Egyptian gods on the jagged walls were of degenerate character--and always, when degeneration sets in, the cruellest form of worship has been chosen. The worship of Aten, the Sun God, Wes recalled, was one that demanded human sacrifice...
Still they went down. Savage crevices, split in the days when the volcano roared with fire and gushing lava, were skirted; crude ladders reached down ever-recurring pits, beneath which there was always another corridor, and always leading down. Craig could not reckon the depth they must be at; he knew that the heat was growing, though, and that his skin was wet with perspiration beneath his furs. He started to ask Taia the question that ceaselessly tormented him--how her race had come to the arctic; but a prick from Shabako’s sword silenced him.
Then the passageway they were in widened. There was a bend just ahead. Through the gloom came the sonorous chant of many voices.
“The Temple!” whispered Taia.
They turned the bend, and saw, ahead, lit by a thick cluster of oil lamps which threw a broad swathe of yellowish light, two tall columns of corrupt Egyptian design. They framed the entrance to the Sun God’s Temple. The full volume of a chant of worship from inside poured through them.
Shabako’s sword brooked no pause. He drove his prisoners straight through.
A host of impressions thronged Wes’s bewildered eyes: a huge, misty-dark room, columns lining it--the vague form of a great idol squatting at the far end, massed people bowed before it--a weird chant rising into murmuring echoes along the high, dim ceiling. There were priests standing rigidly in front of the idol, their hands stretched high; and every eye was upon them. None saw the three in the doorway until a roar split the drone of worship.
“Way! Way for thy Pharaoh, Shabako the Fourth!”
Shabako had stepped for the moment in front of his prisoners. His sword blade was waved aloft; his bawl rudely interrupted the ceremony. The chant stopped, and silence fell as the priests whirled around. The worshippers, too, turned and stared at the man who had broken the service with his imperious command.
“Way!” the vibrant voice cried again. “Aside for thy Pharaoh, who returns to the shrine of Aten, Father of Life!”
Some sixty bewildered faces peered at the man. The silence of the buried Temple was solid, awesome. Through the mist of wreathing incense-smoke and heavy shadows the giant head of the idol stared down, cruel in the coldness of the rock it had been chiselled from.
But a pathway cleared in the thick of the crowd, and, without a glance to either side, Shabako’s proud figure strode down it, driving his prisoners before him.
Craig heard low gasps of astonishment, glimpsed the people fall back as he walked forward, saw the amazement in their eyes. The statue of the god seemed to grow as he neared the altar; it was in squatting posture, with hands outstretched, one above the other. The American was to learn the reason for that position later. Now he had only a fleeting impression of it, for a man stepped from his ceremonial position beside the god’s feet and met Shabako halfway.
His face was thin and cunning, with slanted rat’s eyes. Ornate head-dress and stiffly inlaid robes denoted him to be the High Priest. He held a claw-like hand high.
“Hold!” he bade shrilly. “Who art thou to come thus into the Temple, calling thyself Shabako--Shabako, who has been dead these twenty years?”
The words were a thunderbolt of surprise, both to the Pharaoh and Taia, and to Wes Craig. He could not see Shabako’s face, but he saw his tall form pause, and his tensed muscles relax.
“Dead ... these twenty years?” the Egyptian at last repeated slowly, struggling to overcome the shock. “Why, ‘twas but a few hours ago that I left this Temple, in pursuit of--” He peered at the priest’s sly face. “Who art thou?” he demanded suddenly.
“Hrihor, High Priest of Aten.”
Craig heard the girl whisper something, inaudible because of her surprise, but Shabako’s bewildered voice cut in:
“Hrihor! It cannot be! Thou art not Hrihor! When last I saw Hrihor, he was an under-priest of twenty. Ay was High Priest of the Temple! Call him! Where is Ay?”
“Dust,” said the priest. “Dust these ten years and more.”
Wes’s senses were reeling. The bodies in the ice--he had taken it for granted they had only lain there for days; a week at most. That they had been entrapped for twenty years was incredible. Had he known that, he would not even have thought of using the Kundrenaline. Twenty years ago he had been a boy of eight; it meant--Lord!--it meant the youthful girl beside him was twice her age; and Shabako an old man! Old--yet young! Fantastic, unimaginable--yet true!
He saw Shabako pass a hand over his face, as if his body were suddenly tired; but the next moment it tautened again and he swung around. His face was unreadable. A multitude of conflicting emotions struggled there. He strode to a group of several of the older men.
“Look at me!” he cried, facing them squarely. “Look well at my features! Am I not he who twenty years ago--as the High Priest says--pursued the priestess and her lover into the land of ice? Am I not the man who ruled thee? Am I not Shabako? Is this not the priestess, Taia?”
They stared at him. Remembrance suddenly gleamed on their faces. A thin, cracked voice shrilled:
“Yea! Thou art Shabako! Thou art Shabako as he was twenty years ago--old, yet without the lines of age on thy brow! And the priestess--well do I remember her. That is she!”
A hand pointed at the trembling girl; all eyes centered on her. The High Priest’s mouth dropped open, and he believed.
Then Shabako breathed deeply, drew himself up and with kingly dignity faced the ranks of his people, sword again held imperiously aloft.
“Thou hast seen!” he cried. “Thou hast heard! Here is the guilty Taia--and here am I, returned to thee, still with the strength of my prime! As I was about to slay the rash Inaros, the ice entrapped us, and for twenty years we lay thus, while my spirit pursued those two guilty ones across the River of Death. Then Aten aided me, filled my veins with His holy fire and melted the ice from our bodies. We lived and breathed again. With His divine help I slew Inaros and brought the transgressing virgin back to the Temple. Twenty years have passed--but of years Aten thinks nothing. Give praise to our God!”
A breathless silence swallowed his shout. Then a mighty roar burst out, an exultant roar that soared up past the impassive image of the god and rolled in thunderous echoes along the roof. “Praise to Aten! Praise to Aten!”
Wesley Craig smiled wryly. He could hardly credit the Kundrenaline’s power in wiping twenty years away; but it was evidently true. Shabako, he saw, really believed the superstition-conceived story he had just spun, so--now what?
The High Priest was staring at him malevolently, his slanted eyes fastened on his garb of furs. His weedy voice pierced through the echoes.
“O divine Shabako,” he questioned shrilly, “who is this stranger?”
The Pharaoh’s glance was contemptuous. “A blasphemer,” he said harshly. “One who dares claim--”
But Wes had understood the question. He stepped forward. Frankly and simply, he told his story.
“I found thy ruler and the maid and her lover in the ice, entrapped,” he concluded. “I cut them out and, with a fluid which is of common knowledge in my country, restored them to life. I told this to Shabako, but he overpowered me and--”
“Hear thou!” bawled the Pharaoh, furiously breaking in. “Blasphemy! He claims the might of the God! Back, dog, lest I kill thee here myself!”
Wes saw how hopeless it was; he shrugged and stepped back. He read all too plainly the hatred in Shabako’s eyes; his frank story had also apparently inflamed the High Priest against him. There was not a friend in the whole Temple, save the girl--and the next moment Hrihor walked to her.
His slanted eyes ran over her figure. A sneering smile appeared. “So!” he observed mockingly. “Taia is returned to the Temple! Yes, well do I remember thee now--the scornful cast of thy mouth, the proud bearing of thy head. Even Aten thou were scornful of, I remember. Aten remembers too!” He turned slightly. “Listen, O Shabako. Three days ago thy elected successor, Siptah, died. We had met to choose a new ruler. But, by the will of the God, thou art returned and art again Pharaoh. Thy people are grateful to Aten. In twelve hours a sacrifice shall proclaim our gratitude.” His crafty eyes again swung to the girl. “There!” he shrilled, “--she pays for her sin. She is the sacrifice!”
There was a great shout from the crowd, but the words that Shabako then cried savagely were plainly audible to Wes Craig.
“Aye. Taia. O High Priest--and the blasphemous stranger, too! Both shall die in the hands of Aten!”
The priest nodded, smiling cruelly. “‘Tis well, Shabako. Both shall die!”
Taia’s frightened eyes met Craig’s, then lifted to the form of the idol. He too peered up at it, and for the first time its hideousness and the cold-blooded cruelty of its design struck him.
The rudely carved figure was a full forty feet high. The impassive face, horrible in the lifelessness of rock, stared unseeingly down on its worshippers. One gross black hand was held some ten feet above the palm of the other, and, inserted in its palm, was a long, keen-pointed blade. The living sacrifice would be tied to the lower palm; the upper, by some trickery, would be made to slowly descend...
A surge of panic swept over Craig. In his mind he saw the slight, helpless form of the girl strapped to that grim paw, saw the knife inch down, saw it touch and prick and finally drive through her heart. And it would be the same for him! A flame of blind fury burst in him, making him reckless; mad.
“The hell we die!” he yelled, in English, and with a great bound he was at Taia’s side. A priest leaped for him, but Craig shot a foot out and sent him sprawling. Then, with eyes flaming and legs outthrust, he stood in front of the girl, facing the worshippers.
“Fools!” he roared. “Listen to me! My words are truthful! I do not lie, as does thy Pharaoh! I can prove that which I say! I can--”
“Take him!” the High Priest shrieked. “Forward! Take him!”
Craig could handle one or two, but not a dozen. A mass of men, women, soldiers, priests, swept at him. There was a brief moment of struggle, of oaths and shouts and excited yells from the crowd in the Temple, till something thudded into the American’s head and he went down. Feet trampled him; men surged over him; then blessed unconsciousness en-wrapped him, and he knew no more.
He did not hear, as did Taia, Shabako’s command:
“To a chamber with them! Guard them well, till the time of sacrifice!”
A small party, led by the stocky figure of the captain of the Pharaoh’s guard, wound its way through a network of corridors, past jagged walls down which water slowly dripped, across a swaying bridge of hides that spanned an awful chasm in the volcano’s very heart, and came at last to a large dark hole in the rock.
The captain turned. “In there!” he commanded harshly. The two figures, man and girl, were dumped like sacks of flour into the gloomy chamber. The men who had carried them turned and tramped away; the captain faced one who had stayed.
“Guard them with thy life, Sitah. Thou knowest the payment for carelessness.”
Sitah nodded grimly. He was fully armed, with spear and sword. He sat down outside the dark hole, and the captain retraced his steps. The pad of his feet on the floor died away, and then, for a long time, there was silence.
Perhaps every five minutes Sitah turned and stared down into the hole behind, ears craned for the slightest sound. But none came. The two inside, no doubt, were asleep.
It was very hot, down in the deep-buried corridor, and though Sitah was accustomed to the heat, he soon found his eyelids drooping and his whole body crying out for sleep. But he did not go to sleep. He knew too well what would befall him in Aten’s hands if he did. He had seen many old men and women die in those hands, on ceremony days--old people who croaked in helpless agony as the keen knife blade dropped slowly down toward them, paused a second, inches from their hearts, and then plunged in with a rush. Old men and women, useless, their years of service gone. Yes, and many unwanted girl children...
That was what the Sun God demanded. His hands reached ever for human bodies. It was cruel, but he was a god; and who was to question the will of a god?
Sitah was very glad when, after six hours of lonely vigil, another guard relieved him and took his place outside the dark hole. Sitah spoke humorously to him, a grim kind of humor, as befitting one who has seen much death.
“They sleep, Hapu,” he said, nodding into the prison. “But soon a longer sleep will come for them--the sleep of the knife!” He chuckled as he made his way far below, to his bed. A few hours of rest and he would be in fine fettle for the ceremony.
The relieving guard grunted and peered into the cell. He saw two dark figures outstretched, mere blobs of black, a little blacker than the shadows. Yes, they slept...
He sat down on the bench Sitah had just vacated. He had four hours to wait. Then the priests, led by Hrihor, would come, and the ceremony would begin, and the god’s hands would move together. It would be a fine show! He looked forward to it keenly. It would be delicious to see that girl Taia bared to the knife. It would please the god: seldom did his hands hold such a beautiful sacrifice. And the queer stranger, too--he would probably die very noisily. When he saw the knife sliding down, he would regret his blasphemy and shriek for forgiveness!
For along time Hapu sat quite motionless. He was a good watchdog. Hours passed; his vigil was nearing its end; the priests would soon come. Soon--
A slight noise came from the cell behind him.
He whirled around. The noise came again, louder. A voice cried out.
“Water! Water! I am dying!”
Hapu grunted. It was the stranger’s voice. The stranger must not die; it would spoil the ceremony; Aten would be wroth. He stared into the hole.
One of the figures was tossing, writhing painfully. The agonized cry echoed again. “Water! Please! I am dying!”
Hapu strode into the cell.
For a moment he stood still, peering down at the tossing figure. His brain suddenly shouted alarm. This was no human body! “What--” he began.
But the question was never finished. Something hard crashed into the back of his skull; his spear dropped with a clank, and he slumped to the floor.
Out of the shadows, behind, a man emerged and bent down over the outstretched figure of the guard. A smile appeared on the man’s lean face: the guard was out--cold. It took Wes Craig just a moment to ascertain this; then he tiptoed over to a dark form that lay on the floor--the girl, whose pale, anxious face peered up out of the shadows. Craig cut her bonds with the guard’s sword and raised her to her feet. She stood close to him, clinging to him, trembling, almost not believing she was free.
Her eyes were filled with awe as she looked up into the American’s eyes. “First thou didst restore me to life,” she whispered, “and now thou hast broken thy bonds. Surely, thou must be a god!”
Wes smiled. “It was simple, Taia. Look! This buckle on my belt--’tis sharp. I edged it round and cut the rope. It was slow work, else we would have been free long before.”
“But I saw thee toss and writhe on the floor, and cry out for water!”
Craig kicked a pile of furs that had been heaped one on top of the other, and tied together with thread from an unraveled woolen mitten. “This was my body,” he said coolly. “Furs. The cell must be a storeroom for them--lucky for us. I was standing with a rock in my hand near the door, when I cried out for water ... We shall not die in Aten’s hands, Taia! See--I have a sword. With luck--”
There was a warmer quality than reverence in Taia’s eyes when she spoke--though she did not realize it. “Then come quickly, O Stranger!” she said. “The guard has been changed once; the time for sacrifice nears!”
Craig nodded. Only a sword was in his hand; his automatic, he found, had been taken from him while he lay unconscious in the Temple, probably desired as a curious heathen object. The discovery, made when he had cut his bonds, had been a serious blow to his hopes: with a sword, he was only a human being, but with a gun he might have passed as supernatural to this primitive race.
But it could not be helped. He peered to each side, gestured to the girl, and together they started up the sloping incline of the corridor.
The heat of the earth was great, down where they were, and it made the passageway muggy and odorous. Fitful shadows were flung by widely separated oil lamps as they pressed forward--grotesque splotches of black that half a dozen times tightened the American’s grasp on his sword, sure that a guard had come upon them. He knew that their margin of time in which to effect escape was small, and he gradually quickened their pace, sacrificing caution for speed. Taia’s hand was in his left; and he had just turned to her to ask if they were taking the best course up to the surface, when suddenly she stopped short.
“Hearken!” she whispered, frightened.
Wes craned his ears. For a moment there was nothing but silence. Then a faint sound trembled through the shadows. It could only have been that of many approaching footsteps.