The Ape-men of Xlotli
It was with Naida at his side and the other girls grouped about them, that they started their journey to the “caciques,” whoever they might be, “to have it over with,” whatever that might mean. As they strode along in silence, Kirby did what he could to straighten out in his mind the many curious things which had happened since he sat testing his rope in the upper world this morning.
In final analysis, it seemed to him that, extraordinary as his experience had been, there was nothing so much out of the way about it, after all. The only unusual thing was the existence of this inhabited pocket in the earth. For the rest, the strange colors to which he could not put a name, were simply some manifestation of infra-reds and ultra-violets. And then the startling effect of his single shot at the ape-men--that was simply the old story of savage creatures running from a new weapon and a new enemy; naturally the shot had sounded loud in this enclosed cavern. Lastly, the pull of gravity down here seemed upset somehow. But why should it not seem so, at this distance within the earth? The American was no scientist; the conclusions he reached seemed very reasonable to him.
All told, the last thing Kirby found he needed to do was pinch himself to see if he was awake.
A place of indefinite extent, the cavern seemed to be exactly what he had already judged it--a giant pocket within the earth. The ceiling, or the sky, was of some kind of natural glass--no doubt the same kind which was crackling on his clothes now--and from it emanated the brilliant, many colored glow which lighted the cavern. Radium? Perhaps it was that. Perhaps the rays were cast off from some other element even less understood than mysterious radium. As for the plant and animal life with which the cavern teemed, it was amazing.
But Kirby did not give himself up to silent observation any longer.
“Will you finish telling me,” he asked of Naida, “about the task I am to perform for you here?”
Naida, walking with lithe strides along a path jungle-hemmed on both sides, smiled at him.
“You are to be our leader.”
Now both Naida and the other girls became sober.
“You will lead us in a revolt.”
“Ah!” Kirby whistled softly.
“In a revolt against the caciques--the wise men--whose kind have governed the People of the Temple since the beginning.”
Her statement was received with acclaim by the whole troop, who crowded close around, the while they smiled at Kirby.
“You mean I am to lead a revolt,” he asked, “against these same caciques whom we are going now to face?”
Naida nodded emphatically.
“Yes, if revolt proves necessary. And it probably will.”
“Hum.” Kirby scratched behind his ear. “You’d better tell me what you can about it.”
Then, as they hurried on, Naida spoke rapidly.
The situation before the People of the Temple was that for a long time now, the only children to be born had been girls. Worse still, not even a girl had been born during a period equal to sixteen upper-world years. The only remaining members of a race which had flourished in this underground land for countless thousands of years, consisted of the caciques, a handful of aged people, and the thirty-four girls, including Naida, who accompanied Kirby now.
On one hand was promised extinction through lack of reproduction. On the other, even swifter and more terrible extinction at the hands of the ape-men, whom Naida called the Worshippers of Xlotli, the Rabbit God, the God of all bestiality and drunkenness.
It was the menace of the ape-men, rather than the less appalling one of lack of reproduction, which was making the most trouble now. Ages ago, when the People of the Temple had flourished as a race, they had been untroubled by the Worshippers of Xlotli. But now the ape-men were by far the stronger; and they desired the girls who had been born as the last generation of an ancient race. The battle of this morning had been only one of many.
Dissension between the caciques, who ruled the People of the Temple, and their girl subjects, had arisen on the subject of the best way of dealing with the ape-man menace.
Some time ago, Naida, heading a council of all the girls, had proposed to the caciques that support be sought amongst the people of the upper world. This would be done judiciously, by bringing to the lower realm a few men who were wise and strong, men who would make good husbands, and who could fight the ape-men.
This proposal the priests had promptly quashed. They would never receive, they said, any members of the teeming outer races from whom the People of the Temple had so long been hidden. Those few who had blundered into the Valley of the Geyser during the centuries, and who had never escaped, were enough. Better, said the caciques, that a compromise be arranged with the subjects of the Rabbit God.
Flatly then, the priests had proposed that some of the girls, the number to be specified later, should be given to the ape-men, and peace won. During the time of reprieve which would thus be afforded, prayers and sacrifices could be offered the Lords of the Sun and Moon, and to Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent. In answer to these prayers, the Gods would surely send the aged people who alone were left as prospective parents, a generation of sons.
Once the priests’ program of giving up some of the girls to the ape-men had been made definite, it had not taken Naida and the others long to decide that they would never submit. And then, while matters were at an acute stage, a tall, blond white man had come to the Valley of the Geyser--Kirby.
As Naida had finished her story, Kirby mustered a smile despite the soberness which had come upon him.
“So the white man came,” he repeated after her, “and all of you decided forthwith to stage your revolt.”
“Why not?” Naida answered. “We observed you until we were sure you possessed the qualities of leadership we wanted. After that, we did what we could to coax you to come here.”
Kirby grinned at that.
“Now,” Naida ended simply, “we will go to the caciques. If they accept you, and grant our requests to them, there will be peace. If they rage, it will be war.”
Suddenly she drew closer to Kirby as they swung along, and slipped her hand into his, looking up at him in silent entreaty.
“How much farther,” he asked in a voice which became sharp, “until we reach the headquarters of these caciques?”
“They live in a castle which our ancestors built ages ago on a protected plateau,” Naida answered tensely. “It is a good distance still, but we will cover it soon enough.”
They crossed now one edge of a shadow-filled forest composed principally of immense, pallid palmlike trees. Farther on, the path wound through a belt of swampy land covered by gigantic reeds which rustled above their heads with a glassy sound, and by things which looked like the cat-tails of the upper world, but were a hundred times larger. Everywhere hovered odd little creatures like birds, but with teeth in their long snouts and small frondlike growths on each side of their tails. About some swamp plants with very large blooms resembling passion flowers, flitted dragon flies of jeweled hues and enormous size, and under the flowers hopped strange toadlike creatures equipped with two pair of gauzy wings.
Finally, through a tunnel composed of ferns a hundred feet high, they emerged to a still densely overgrown but higher country which Naida said was a part of the Rorroh forest.
In the forest, Kirby gained a hazy impression of bronzy, immense cycads and what appeared to be tree chrysophilums with gorgeous blossoms. Then he received a much clearer impression of other trees with blossoms of bright orange yellow and very thick petals, each tipped with a glassy sharp point. The disconcerting thing about the tree was that, as they approached, the scaly limbs began to tremble and wave, and suddenly lashed out as though making a human effort to snatch at the bright travelers.
Naida and all the others hurried along without offering comment, and Kirby asked no questions.
Once he thought he saw a group of gorilla creatures parallelling their course back amongst the forest growth, but if Naida observed the animals, she paid no attention. The one thing which had any effect upon the company was the appearance, presently, of two vast, birdlike creatures. As these things approached, Naida signaled to all to crouch beneath the shelter of a tall rock beside the path.