The Ape-men of Xlotli
At the end of an hour, Kirby was taking a turn of guard duty at the foot of the steps, while the others remained with Elana in a chamber above. To Kirby, with things thus far along, it seemed that the seizure of the tower had proved a shrewd stroke.
It seemed that the tower was to the Duca what hair was to Sampson. From Naida had come the information that the Duca lived hidden within the great shaft of obsidion, and appeared but seldom even before his caciques. Apparently a large part of his hold upon his subjects was maintained by the mystery with which he kept himself surrounded. And now his retreat was lost to him! Such had been the moral effect of the loss upon both Duca and caciques, that his whole first hour had gone by without their doing anything.
Kirby, standing just around the first turn of the winding stairway, presently cocked his ears to listen to the conclave being held in the amphitheatre.
“Why not starve them out, O Holy One?” he heard one of the caciques ask of the Duca, only to be answered by a growl of negation.
The Duca, Kirby had gathered before this, wanted to fight.
“But there is no food in the tower, is there?” the cacique still pressed on, and this time he was supported by other voices.
“No,” the Duca rumbled back. “But am I to be deprived of my retreat, left here like a common dog amongst other dogs, while these accursed fiends starve slowly to death? No! I tell you, you must fight for me!”
But he had told them so several times before and nothing had happened. Kirby grinned at the thought of the caste the Duca was losing by being driven to this belittling parley.
“Holy One,” exclaimed a new priest in answer to the urge to fight, “what can we do against the golden haired fiend? The stairs are so narrow that he could defend them alone. And then there are the gates of bronze. If we could shatter the first, at the foot of the steps, we should only encounter others. The Duca must remember that his tower was built to withstand attack.”
“Even so,” the Duca snapped back, “it must be attacked! I--”
But then he fell silent, having been made so by the sounds of dissension which arose amongst his caciques. Kirby, laughing to himself, turned away from his listening post, and tip-toed up the steps.
After he had closed and bolted behind him three of the bronze portals so feared by the caciques, he turned to the entrance of the chamber in which he had left Naida and the others. Here all was silent, and he found his friends grouped about a couch on which lay Elana. Feeling the solemnity of the moment, he would have taken his place quietly amongst the mourners.
Naida, however, came to him at once, and in a low voice asked for news from the amphitheatre, and when Kirby answered that the caciques were unanimously in favor of leaving them alone until they starved, she exclaimed:
“Oh, then it is good news!”
After that, however, a shadow of doubt flickered in her great eyes.
“And yet, is it? It means temporary immunity, of coarse. But--starvation!”
Kirby assured her with a grin.
“If we had to starve we might worry. But there is more food here than the Duca thinks. Look!”
From a bulging pocket of his tunic he fished a strip of the roots on which he had subsisted so comfortably. Naida’s eyes widened, and several of the girls gave low cries.
“Yes,” Naida exclaimed, “but such food! Why--why, do you know what you are offering us? Why, this is the sacred Peyote! Only the Duca eats it, and, at rare intervals, his priests.”
Kirby was really startled now.
“But surely you and the others have taken quantities of the stuff away from the Valley of the Geyser. Do you mean--”
“Because we gathered the Peyote does not mean that we have ever tasted it. We gather it for the Duca. To taste would be complete, utter sacrilege. Have you been eating it?”
Inwardly Kirby was chuckling at this added proof of the buncumbe with which the Duca--and other Ducas--had fooled all.
“Of course I’ve been eating the Peyote.”
“And--and nothing has happened to you?” Naida asked.
“Hardly. I certainly haven’t been blasted by the Lords of the Sun and Moon, or the Serpent either!”
Naida and all the others were silent. The conflict between their reverence for the food and their clear desire to eat it, now that it was become the food of their leader, was pathetic.
Kirby put one of the strips in Naida’s hand.
“Why not?” he asked. “We have bested the Duca in fair fight. We have seized his tower. Why not eat his food?”
As he had hoped it would, the suggestion at last settled the matter. A moment later, as Naida nibbled her first bite, she smiled.
“Why, it--it’s good!”
With the question of provisions settled at least for a time, Kirby’s next thought was of the tower. The present lull of peace seemed made for exploration.
“Come along,” he said to Naida, “we’ve plenty to do,” and then, when he explained, they set out, accompanied by Nini, a cousin of Naida’s, and Ivana, a younger sister.
All of the others remained with little Elana.
While they climbed spiral stairs, Naida explained that the chamber they had just left was used by the Duca as a place in which he prayed before and after contacts with caciques or subjects. A sort of halfway station between earth and heaven, as it were, where the Duca might be purged of any sullying influence gained from human relationships.
At thought of the rank, egotistical hypocrisy implied by the story, Kirby smiled grimly. Then they came to a new door, heavier than that which barricaded the prayer chamber. Unlocked, the thing swung ponderously at Kirby’s push, and with the three girls pressing close beside him, he entered--and stopped.
“Naida!” he gasped.
“Oh, oh!” she cried, and while Nini and Ivana gasped, she clapped her hands in an instinctive, feminine reaction of joy. “But there are things here which I believe none but the Ducas of our race have ever seen! Oh! Why, the sacred girdle is as nothing compared to this display!”
By “display” she meant a treasure which took Kirby’s breath away, which made his heart act queerly.
The walls of the chamber were fashioned of polished blocks of obsidion on which stood out in heavy bas-relief a maze of decorative figures fashioned of pure, beaten gold--the same kind of gold which had gone into the making of the cylinder of gold. With his first glance at the gorgeously wrought motifs of Feathered Serpent and Sun and Moon symbols, Kirby knew to a certainty whence the golden cylinder had come originally.
But even the gold--literally tons of it there must have been--was nothing compared to the gems.
They were spread out in blinding array upon a great table in the center of the room. There were pearls as big as turkey eggs and whiter, softer than the light of a June morning growing in the East. There were rubies. One amongst the many was the size of a baseball and glowed like the heart of a red star. The least of the two or three hundred gems would have outclassed the greatest treasures of the Crown jewels of England and Russia combined.
Most overwhelming of all, however, was the jewel which rested against a square of black cloth all its own in the center of the table. While his heart still acted queerly, while Naida, Nini, and Ivana hung back, delighted, but still too bewildered to move, Kirby advanced and took gingerly in his hands a single white diamond about eighteen inches long, and almost as wide and deep as it was long.
The thing was carved with exquisite cunning to a likeness of the living head of Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent.
Kirby dared not guess how many pounds the carven hunk of flashing, blue-white carbon weighed. He knew only that like it there was no other diamond in the world, and that the thing was real. Naida and the two girls were silent now, and suddenly Kirby realized that to their awe of the gem was added awe of deepest religious nature. Slowly he put the diamond head of the Serpent back upon its square of cloth.
“We--we had heard that this thing existed,” Naida said presently, voice hushed, “but no one except the holy men of our race has ever beheld it.”
“But, what is it?” Kirby asked. “Whence came it?”
However, when Naida would have answered, he interrupted.
“But wait! Tell me as we go. We could stay here for the rest of our lives without much trouble, but we’ve got to cover the rest of the tower and get back to the others.”
It was after they had closed the door to the treasure room that Naida told him the story.
“There is not so much to tell,” she began. “The diamond itself is so gorgeous that it is hard to talk about. But here is the story. A great many ages ago one of the Ducas of our race found the diamond, decided to carve it into a perfect likeness of the head of the Serpent God. All of the craftsmen of the race helped him and when they were done, they took their image to Quetzalcoatl himself, and showed him what they had done.