Half-stunned, Bradley lay for a minute as he had fallen and then slowly an_ainfully wriggled into a less uncomfortable position. He could see nothing o_is surroundings in the gloom about him until after a few minutes his eye_ecame accustomed to the dark interior when he rolled them from side to sid_n survey of his prison.
He discovered himself to be in a bare room which was windowless, nor could h_ee any other opening than that through which he had been lowered. In on_orner was a huddled mass that might have been almost anything from a bundl_f rags to a dead body.
Almost immediately after he had taken his bearings Bradley commenced workin_ith his bonds. He was a man of powerful physique, and as from the first h_ad been imbued with a belief that the fiber ropes were too weak to hold him, he worked on with a firm conviction that sooner or later they would part t_is strainings. After a matter of five minutes he was positive that th_trands about his wrists were beginning to give; but he was compelled to res_hen from exhaustion.
As he lay, his eyes rested upon the bundle in the corner, and presently h_ould have sworn that the thing moved. With eyes straining through the gloo_he man lay watching the grim and sinister thing in the corner. Perhaps hi_verwrought nerves were playing a sorry joke upon him. He thought of this an_lso that his condition of utter helplessness might still further hav_timulated his imagination. He closed his eyes and sought to relax his muscle_nd his nerves; but when he looked again, he knew that he had not bee_istaken—the thing had moved; now it lay in a slightly altered form an_arther from the wall. It was nearer him.
With renewed strength Bradley strained at his bonds, his fascinated gaze stil_lued upon the shapeless bundle. No longer was there any doubt that i_oved—he saw it rise in the center several inches and then creep closer t_im. It sank and arose again—a headless, hideous, monstrous thing of menace.
Its very silence rendered it the more terrible.
Bradley was a brave man; ordinarily his nerves were of steel; but to be at th_ercy of some unknown and nameless horror, to be unable to defend himself—i_as these things that almost unstrung him, for at best he was only human. T_tand in the open, even with the odds all against him; to be able to use hi_ists, to put up some sort of defense, to inflict punishment upon hi_dversary—then he could face death with a smile. It was not death that h_eared now—it was that horror of the unknown that is part of the fiber o_very son of woman.
Closer and closer came the shapeless mass. Bradley lay motionless an_istened. What was that he heard! Breathing? He could not be mistaken—and the_rom out of the bundle of rags issued a hollow groan. Bradley felt his hai_ise upon his head. He struggled with the slowly parting strands that hel_im. The thing beside him rose up higher than before and the Englishman coul_ave sworn that he saw a single eye peering at him from among the tumble_loth. For a moment the bundle remained motionless—only the sound of breathin_ssued from it, then there broke from it a maniacal laugh.
Cold sweat stood upon Bradley’s brow as he tugged for liberation. He saw th_ags rise higher and higher above him until at last they tumbled upon th_loor from the body of a naked man—a thin, a bony, a hideous caricature o_an, that mouthed and mummed and, wabbling upon its weak and shaking legs, crumpled to the floor again, still laughing—laughing horribly.
It crawled toward Bradley. “Food! Food!” it screamed. “There is a way out!
There is a way out!”
Dragging itself to his side the creature slumped upon the Englishman’s breast.
“Food!” it shrilled as with its bony fingers and its teeth, it sought th_an’s bare throat.
“Food! There is a way out!” Bradley felt teeth upon his jugular. He turned an_wisted, shaking himself free for an instant; but once more with hideou_ersistence the thing fastened itself upon him. The weak jaws were unable t_end the dull teeth through the victim’s flesh; but Bradley felt it pawing, pawing, pawing, like a monstrous rat, seeking his life’s blood.
The skinny arms now embraced his neck, holding the teeth to his throat agains_ll his efforts to dislodge the thing. Weak as it was it had strength enoug_or this in its mad efforts to eat. Mumbling as it worked, it repeated agai_nd again, “Food! Food! There is a way out!” until Bradley thought those tw_xpressions alone would drive him mad.
And all but mad he was as with a final effort backed by almost maniaca_trength he tore his wrists from the confining bonds and grasping th_epulsive thing upon his breast hurled it halfway across the room. Pantin_ike a spent hound Bradley worked at the thongs about his ankles while th_aniac lay quivering and mumbling where it had fallen. Presently th_nglishman leaped to his feet—freer than he had ever before felt in all hi_ife, though he was still hopelessly a prisoner in the Blue Place of Seve_kulls.
With his back against the wall for support, so weak the reaction left him, Bradley stood watching the creature upon the floor. He saw it move and slowl_aise itself to its hands and knees, where it swayed to and fro as its eye_oved about in search of him; and when at last they found him, there brok_rom the drawn lips the mumbled words: “Food! Food! There is a way out!” Th_itiful supplication in the tones touched the Englishman’s heart. He knew tha_his could be no Wieroo, but possibly once a man like himself who had bee_ast into this pit of solitary confinement with this hideous result that migh_n time be his fate, also.
And then, too, there was the suggestion of hope held out by the constan_eiteration of the phrase, “There is a way out.” Was there a way out? What di_his poor thing know?
“Who are you and how long have you been here?” Bradley suddenly demanded.
For a moment the man upon the floor made no response, then mumblingly came th_ords: “Food! Food!”
“Stop!” commanded the Englishman—the injunction might have been barked fro_he muzzle of a pistol. It brought the man to a sitting posture, his hands of_he ground. He stopped swaying to and fro and appeared to be startled into a_ttempt to master his faculties of concentration and thought.
Bradley repeated his questions sharply.
“I am An-Tak, the Galu,” replied the man. “Luata alone knows how long I hav_een here—maybe ten moons, maybe ten moons three times”—it was the Caspakia_quivalent of thirty. “I was young and strong when they brought me here. Now _m old and very weak. I am cos-ata-lu—that is why they have not killed me. I_ tell them the secret of becoming cos-ata-lu they will take me out; but ho_an I tell them that which Luata alone knows?
“What is cos-ata-lu?” demanded Bradley.
“Food! Food! There is a way out!” mumbled the Galu.
Bradley strode across the floor, seized the man by his shoulders and shoo_im.
“Tell me,” he cried, “what is cos-ata-lu?”
“Food!” whimpered An-Tak.
Bradley bethought himself. His haversack had not been taken from him. In i_esides his razor and knife were odds and ends of equipment and a smal_uantity of dried meat. He tossed a small strip of the latter to the starvin_alu. An-Tak seized upon it and devoured it ravenously. It instilled new lif_n the man.
“What is cos-ata-lu?” insisted Bradley again.
An-Tak tried to explain. His narrative was often broken by lapses o_oncentration during which he reverted to his plaintive mumbling for food an_ecurrence to the statement that there was a way out; but by firmness an_atience the Englishman drew out piece-meal a more or less lucid exposition o_he remarkable scheme of evolution that rules in Caspak. In it he foun_xplanations of the hitherto inexplicable. He discovered why he had seen n_abes or children among the Caspakian tribes with which he had come i_ontact; why each more northerly tribe evinced a higher state of developmen_han those south of them; why each tribe included individuals ranging i_hysical and mental characteristics from the highest of the next lower race t_he lowest of the next higher, and why the women of each tribe immerse_hemselves morning for an hour or more in the warm pools near which th_abitations of their people always were located; and, too, he discovered wh_hose pools were almost immune from the attacks of carnivorous animals an_eptiles.
He learned that all but those who were cos-ata-lu came up cor-sva-jo, or fro_he beginning. The egg from which they first developed into tadpole form wa_eposited, with millions of others, in one of the warm pools and with it _oisonous serum that the carnivora instinctively shunned. Down the warm strea_rom the pool floated the countless billions of eggs and tadpoles, developin_s they drifted slowly toward the sea. Some became tadpoles in the pool, som_n the sluggish stream and some not until they reached the great inland sea.
In the next stage they became fishes or reptiles, An-Tak was not positiv_hich, and in this form, always developing, they swam far to the south, where, amid the rank and teeming jungles, some of them evolved into amphibians.
Always there were those whose development stopped at the first stage, other_hose development ceased when they became reptiles, while by far the greate_roportion formed the food supply of the ravenous creatures of the deep.
Few indeed were those that eventually developed into baboons and then apes, which was considered by Caspakians the real beginning of evolution. From th_gg, then, the individual developed slowly into a higher form, just as th_rog’s egg develops through various stages from a fish with gills to a fro_ith lungs. With that thought in mind Bradley discovered that it was no_ifficult to believe in the possibility of such a scheme— there was nothin_ew in it.
From the ape the individual, if it survived, slowly developed into the lowes_rder of man—the Alu—and then by degrees to Bo-lu, Sto-lu, Band-lu, Kro-lu an_inally Galu. And in each stage countless millions of other eggs wer_eposited in the warm pools of the various races and floated down to the grea_ea to go through a similar process of evolution outside the womb as develop_ur own young within; but in Caspak the scheme is much more inclusive, for i_ombines not only individual development but the evolution of species an_enera. If an egg survives it goes through all the stages of development tha_an has passed through during the unthinkable eons since life first moved upo_he earth’s face.
The final stage—that which the Galus have almost attained and for which al_ope—is cos-ata-lu, which literally, means no-egg-man, or one who is bor_irectly as are the young of the outer world of mammals. Some of the Galu_roduce cos-ata-lu and cos-ata-lo both; the Weiroos only cos-ata-lu—in othe_ords all Wieroos are born male, and so they prey upon the Galus for thei_omen and sometimes capture and torture the Galu men who are cos-ata-lu in a_ndeavor to learn the secret which they believe will give them unlimited powe_ver all other denizens of Caspak.
No Wieroos come up from the beginning—all are born of the Wieroo fathers an_alu mothers who are cos-ata-lo, and there are very few of the latter owing t_he long and precarious stages of development. Seven generations of the sam_ncestor must come up from the beginning before a cos-ata-lu child may b_orn; and when one considers the frightful dangers that surround the vita_park from the moment it leaves the warm pool where it has been deposited t_loat down to the sea amid the voracious creatures that swarm the surface an_he deeps and the almost equally unthinkable trials of its effort to surviv_fter it once becomes a land animal and starts northward through the horror_f the Caspakian jungles and forests, it is plainly a wonder that even _ingle babe has ever been born to a Galu woman.
Seven cycles it requires before the seventh Galu can complete the sevent_anger-infested circle since its first Galu ancestor achieved the state o_alu. For ages before, the ancestors of this first Galu may have develope_rom a Band-lu or Bo-lu egg without ever once completing the whole circle—tha_s from a Galu egg, back to a fully developed Galu.
Bradley’s head was whirling before he even commenced to grasp the complexitie_f Caspakian evolution; but as the truth slowly filtered into hi_nderstanding—as gradually it became possible for him to visualize the scheme, it appeared simpler. In fact, it seemed even less difficult of comprehensio_han that with which he was familiar.
For several minutes after An-Tak ceased speaking, his voice having trailed of_eakly into silence, neither spoke again. Then the Galu recommenced his, “Food! Food! There is a way out!” Bradley tossed him another bit of drie_eat, waiting patiently until he had eaten it, this time more slowly.
“What do you mean by saying there is a way out?” he asked.
“He who died here just after I came, told me,” replied An-Tak. “He said ther_as a way out, that he had discovered it but was too weak to use hi_nowledge. He was trying to tell me how to find it when he died. Oh, Luata, i_e had lived but a moment more!”
“They do not feed you here?” asked Bradley.
“No, they give me water once a day—that is all.”
“But how have you lived, then?”
“The lizards and the rats,” replied An-Tak. “The lizards are not so bad; bu_he rats are foul to taste. However, I must eat them or they would eat me, an_hey are better than nothing; but of late they do not come so often, and _ave not had a lizard for a long time. I shall eat though,” he mumbled. “_hall eat now, for you cannot remain awake forever.” He laughed, a cackling, dry laugh. “When you sleep, An-Tak will eat.”
It was horrible. Bradley shuddered. For a long time each sat in silence. Th_nglishman could guess why the other made no sound—he awaited the moment tha_leep should overcome his victim. In the long silence there was born upo_radley’s ears a faint, monotonous sound as of running water. He listene_ntently. It seemed to come from far beneath the floor.
“What is that noise?” he asked. “That sounds like water running through _arrow channel.”
“It is the river,” replied An-Tak. “Why do you not go to sleep? It passe_irectly beneath the Blue Place of Seven Skulls. It runs through the templ_rounds, beneath the temple and under the city. When we die, they will cut of_ur heads and throw our bodies into the river. At the mouth of the river awai_any large reptiles. Thus do they feed. The Wieroos do likewise with their ow_ead, keeping only the skulls and the wings. Come, let us sleep.”
“Do the reptiles come up the river into the city?” asked Bradley.
“The water is too cold—they never leave the warm water of the great pool,” replied An-Tak.
“Let us search for the way out,” suggested Bradley.
An-Tak shook his head. “I have searched for it all these moons,” he said. “I_ could not find it, how would you?”
Bradley made no reply but commenced a diligent examination of the walls an_loor of the room, pressing over each square foot and tapping with hi_nuckles. About six feet from the floor he discovered a sleeping-perch nea_ne end of the apartment. He asked An-Tak about it, but the Galu said that n_eiroo had occupied the place since he had been incarcerated there. Again an_gain Bradley went over the floor and walls as high up as he could reach.
Finally he swung himself to the perch, that he might examine at least one en_f the room all the way to the ceiling.
In the center of the wall close to the top, an area about three feet squar_ave forth a hollow sound when he rapped upon it. Bradley felt over ever_quare inch of that area with the tips of his fingers. Near the top he found _mall round hole a trifle larger in diameter than his forefinger, which h_mmediately stuck into it. The panel, if such it was, seemed about an inc_hick, and beyond it his finger encountered nothing. Bradley crooked hi_inger upon the opposite side of the panel and pulled toward him, steadily bu_ith considerable force. Suddenly the panel flew inward, nearly precipitatin_he man to the floor. It was hinged at the bottom, and when lowered the oute_dge rested upon the perch, making a little platform parallel with the floo_f the room.
Beyond the opening was an utterly dark void. The Englishman leaned through i_nd reached his arm as far as possible into the blackness but touched nothing.
Then he fumbled in his haversack for a match, a few of which remained to him.
When he struck it, An-Tak gave a cry of terror. Bradley held the light fa_nto the opening before him and in its flickering rays saw the top of a ladde_escending into a black abyss below. How far down it extended he could no_uess; but that he should soon know definitely he was positive.
“You have found it! You have found the way out!” screamed An-Tak. “Oh, Luata!
And now I am too weak to go. Take me with you! Take me with you!”
“Shut up!” admonished Bradley. “You will have the whole flock of birds aroun_ur heads in a minute, and neither of us will escape. Be quiet, and I’ll g_head. If I find a way out, I’ll come back and help you, if you’ll promise no_o try to eat me up again.”
“I promise,” cried An-Tak. “Oh, Luata! How could you blame me? I am hal_razed of hunger and long confinement and the horror of the lizards and th_ats and the constant waiting for death.”
“I know,” said Bradley simply. “I’m sorry for you, old top. Keep a stiff uppe_ip.” And he slipped through the opening, found the ladder with his feet, closed the panel behind him, and started downward into the darkness.
Below him rose more and more distinctly the sound of running water. The ai_elt damp and cool. He could see nothing of his surroundings and felt nothin_ut the smooth, worn sides and rungs of the ladder down which he felt his wa_autiously lest a broken rung or a misstep should hurl him downward.
As he descended thus slowly, the ladder seemed interminable and the pi_ottomless, yet he realized when at last he reached the bottom that he coul_ot have descended more than fifty feet. The bottom of the ladder rested on _arrow ledge paved with what felt like large round stones, but what he kne_rom experience to be human skulls. He could not but marvel as to where s_any countless thousands of the things had come from, until he paused t_onsider that the infancy of Caspak dated doubtlessly back into remote ages, far beyond what the outer world considered the beginning of earthly time. Fo_ll these eons the Wieroos might have been collecting human skulls from thei_nemies and their own dead—enough to have built an entire city of them.
Feeling his way along the narrow ledge, Bradley came presently to a blank wal_hat stretched out over the water swirling beneath him, as far as he coul_each. Stooping, he groped about with one hand, reaching down toward th_urface of the water, and discovered that the bottom of the wall arched abov_he stream. How much space there was between the water and the arch he coul_ot tell, nor how deep the former. There was only one way in which he migh_earn these things, and that was to lower himself into the stream. For only a_nstant he hesitated weighing his chances. Behind him lay almost certainly th_orrid fate of An-Tak; before him nothing worse than a comparatively painles_eath by drowning. Holding his haversack above his head with one hand h_owered his feet slowly over the edge of the narrow platform. Almos_mmediately he felt the swirling of cold water about his ankles, and then wit_ silent prayer he let himself drop gently into the stream.
Great was Bradley’s relief when he found the water no more than waist deep an_eneath his feet a firm, gravel bottom. Feeling his way cautiously he move_ownward with the current, which was not so strong as he had imagined from th_oise of the running water.
Beneath the first arch he made his way, following the winding curvatures o_he right-hand wall. After a few yards of progress his hand came suddenly i_ontact with a slimy thing clinging to the wall—a thing that hissed an_cuttled out of reach. What it was, the man could not know; but almos_nstantly there was a splash in the water just ahead of him and then another.
On he went, passing beneath other arches at varying distances, and always i_tter darkness. Unseen denizens of this great sewer, disturbed by th_ntruder, splashed into the water ahead of him and wriggled away. Time an_gain his hand touched them and never for an instant could he be sure that a_he next step some gruesome thing might not attack him. He had strapped hi_aversack about his neck, well above the surface of the water, and in his lef_and he carried his knife. Other precautions there were none to take.
The monotony of the blind trail was increased by the fact that from the momen_e had started from the foot of the ladder he had counted his every step. H_ad promised to return for An-Tak if it proved humanly possible to do so, an_e knew that in the blackness of the tunnel he could locate the foot of th_adder in no other way.
He had taken two hundred and sixty-nine steps—afterward he knew that he shoul_ever forget that number—when something bumped gently against him from behind.
Instantly he wheeled about and with knife ready to defend himself stretche_orth his right hand to push away the object that now had lodged against hi_ody. His fingers feeling through the darkness came in contact with somethin_old and clammy—they passed to and fro over the thing until Bradley knew tha_t was the face of a dead man floating upon the surface of the stream. With a_ath he pushed his gruesome companion out into mid-stream to float on dow_oward the great pool and the awaiting scavengers of the deep.
At his four hundred and thirteenth step another corpse bumped against him—ho_any had passed him without touching he could not guess; but suddenly h_xperienced the sensation of being surrounded by dead faces floating alon_ith him, all set in hideous grimaces, their dead eyes glaring at thi_rofaning alien who dared intrude upon the waters of this river of the dead—_orrid escort, pregnant with dire forebodings and with menace.
Though he advanced very slowly, he tried always to take steps of about th_ame length; so that he knew that though considerable time had elapsed, yet h_ad really advanced no more than four hundred yards when ahead he saw _essening of the pitch-darkness, and at the next turn of the stream hi_urroundings became vaguelydiscernible. Above him was an arched roof and o_ither hand walls pierced at intervals by apertures covered with wooden doors.
Just ahead of him in the roof of the aqueduct was a round, black hole abou_hirty inches in diameter. His eyes still rested upon the opening when ther_hot downward from it to the water below the naked body of a human being whic_lmost immediately rose to the surface again and floated off down the stream.
In the dim light Bradley saw that it was a dead Wieroo from which the wing_nd head had been removed. A moment later another headless body floated past, recalling what An-Tak had told him of the skull-collecting customs of th_ieroo. Bradley wondered how it happened that the first corpse he ha_ncountered in the stream had not been similarly mutilated.
The farther he advanced now, the lighter it became. The number of corpses wa_uch smaller than he had imagined, only two more passing him before, at si_undred steps, or about five hundred yards, from the point he had taken to th_tream, he came to the end of the tunnel and looked out upon sunlit water, running between grassy banks.
One of the last corpses to pass him was still clothed in the white robe of _ieroo, blood-stained over the headless neck that it concealed.
Drawing closer to the opening leading into the bright daylight, Bradle_urveyed what lay beyond. A short distance before him a large building stoo_n the center of several acres of grass and tree-covered ground, spanning th_tream which disappeared through an opening in its foundation wall. From th_arge saucer-shaped roof and the vivid colorings of the various heterogeneou_arts of the structure he recognized it as the temple past which he had bee_orne to the Blue Place of Seven Skulls.
To and fro flew Wieroos, going to and from the temple. Others passed on foo_cross the open grounds, assisting themselves with their great wings, so tha_hey barely skimmed the earth. To leave the mouth of the tunnel would hav_een to court instant discovery and capture; but by what other avenue he migh_scape, Bradley could not guess, unless he retraced his steps up the strea_nd sought egress from the other end of the city. The thought of traversin_hat dark and horror-ridden tunnel for perhaps miles he could no_ntertain—there must be some other way. Perhaps after dark he could stea_hrough the temple grounds and continue on downstream until he had come beyon_he city; and so he stood and waited until his limbs became almost paralyze_ith cold, and he knew that he must find some other plan for escape.
A half-formed decision to risk an attempt to swim under water to the templ_as crystallizing in spite of the fact that any chance Wieroo flying above th_tream might easily see him, when again a floating object bumped against hi_rom behind and lodged across his back. Turning quickly he saw that the thin_as what he had immediately guessed it to be—a headless and wingless Wiero_orpse. With a grunt of disgust he was about to push it from him when th_hite garment enshrouding it suggested a bold plan to his resourceful brain.
Grasping the corpse by an arm he tore the garment from it and then let th_ody float downward toward the temple. With great care he draped the rob_bout him; the bloody blotch that had covered the severed neck he arrange_bout his own head. His haversack he rolled as tightly as possible and stuffe_eneath his coat over his breast. Then he fell gently to the surface of th_tream and lying upon his back floated downward with the current and out int_he open sunlight.
Through the weave of the cloth he could distinguish large objects. He saw _ieroo flap dismally above him; he saw the banks of the stream float slowl_ast; he heard a sudden wail upon the right- hand shore, and his heart stoo_till lest his ruse had been discovered; but never by a move of a muscle di_e betray that aught but a cold lump of clay floated there upon the bosom o_he water, and soon, though it seemed an eternity to him, the direct sunligh_as blotted out, and he knew that he had entered beneath the temple.
Quickly he felt for bottom with his feet and as quickly stood erect, snatchin_he bloody, clammy cloth from his face. On both sides were blank walls an_efore him the river turned a sharp corner and disappeared. Feeling his wa_autiously forward he approached the turn and looked around the corner. To hi_eft was a low platform about a foot above the level of the stream, and ont_his he lost no time in climbing, for he was soaked from head to foot, col_nd almost exhausted.
As he lay resting on the skull-paved shelf, he saw in the center of the vaul_bove the river another of those sinister round holes through which h_omentarily expected to see a headless corpse shoot downward in its las_lunge to a watery grave. A few feet along the platform a closed door brok_he blankness of the wall. As he lay looking at it and wondering what la_ehind, his mind filled with fragments of many wild schemes of escape, i_pened and a white robed Wieroo stepped out upon the platform. The creatur_arried a large wooden basin filled with rubbish. Its eyes were not upo_radley, who drew himself to a squatting position and crouched as far back i_he corner of the niche in which the platform was set as he could forc_imself. The Wieroo stepped to the edge of the platform and dumped the rubbis_nto the stream. If it turned away from him as it started to retrace its step_o the doorway, there was a small chance that it might not see him; but if i_urned toward him there was none at all. Bradley held his breath.
The Wieroo paused a moment, gazing down into the water, then it straightene_p and turned toward the Englishman. Bradley did not move. The Wieroo stoppe_nd stared intently at him. It approached him questioningly. Still Bradle_emained as though carved of stone. The creature was directly in front of him.
It stopped. There was no chance on earth that it would not discover what h_as.
With the quickness of a cat, Bradley sprang to his feet and with all his grea_trength, backed by his heavy weight, struck the Wieroo upon the point of th_hin. Without a sound the thing crumpled to the platform, while Bradley, acting almost instinctively to the urge of the first law of nature, rolled th_nanimate body over the edge into the river.
Then he looked at the open doorway, crossed the platform and peered within th_partment beyond. What he saw was a large room, dimly lighted, and about th_ide rows of wooden vessels stacked one upon another. There was no Wieroo i_ight, so the Englishman entered. At the far end of the room was another door, and as he crossed toward it, he glanced into some of the vessels, which h_ound were filled with dried fruits, vegetables and fish. Without more ado h_tuffed his pockets and his haversack full, thinking of the poor creatur_waiting his return in the gloom of the Place of Seven Skulls.
When night came, he would return and fetch An-Tak this far at least; but i_he meantime it was his intention to reconnoiter in the hope that he migh_iscover some easier way out of the city than that offered by the chill, blac_hannel of the ghastly river of corpses.
Beyond the farther door stretched a long passageway from which closed doorway_ed into other parts of the cellars of the temple. A few yards from th_toreroom a ladder rose from the corridor through an aperture in the ceiling.
Bradley paused at the foot of it, debating the wisdom of further investigatio_gainst a return to the river; but strong within him was the spirit o_xploration that has scattered his race to the four corners of the earth. Wha_ew mysteries lay hidden in the chambers above? The urge to know was stron_pon him though his better judgment warned him that the safer course lay i_etreat. For a moment he stood thus, running his fingers through his hair; then he cast discretion to the winds and began the ascent.
In conformity with such Wieroo architecture as he had already observed, th_ell through which the ladder rose continually canted at an angle from th_erpendicular. At more or less regular stages it was pierced by aperture_losed by doors, none of which he could open until he had climbed fully fift_eet from the river level. Here he discovered a door already ajar opening int_ large, circular chamber, the walls and floors of which were covered with th_kins of wild beasts and with rugs of many colors; but what interested hi_ost was the occupants of the room—a Wieroo, and a girl of human proportions.
She was standing with her back against a column which rose from the center o_he apartment from floor to ceiling—a hollow column about forty inches i_iameter in which he could see an opening some thirty inches across. Th_irl’s side was toward Bradley, and her face averted, for she was watching th_ieroo, who was now advancing slowly toward her, talking as he came.
Bradley could distinctly hear the words of the creature, who was urging th_irl to accompany him to another Wieroo city. “Come with me,” he said, “an_ou shall have your life; remain here and He Who Speaks for Luata will clai_ou for his own; and when he is done with you, your skull will bleach at th_op of a tall staff while your body feeds the reptiles at the mouth of th_iver of Death. Even though you bring into the world a female Wieroo, you_ate will be the same if you do not escape him, while with me you shall hav_ife and food and none shall harm you.”
He was quite close to the girl when she replied by striking him in the fac_ith all her strength. “Until I am slain,” she cried, “I shall fight agains_ou all.” From the throat of the Wieroo issued that dismal wail that Bradle_ad heard so often in the past—it was like a scream of pain smothered to _roan—and then the thing leaped upon the girl, its face working in hideou_rimaces as it clawed and beat at her to force her to the floor.
The Englishman was upon the point of entering to defend her when a door at th_pposite side of the chamber opened to admit a huge Wieroo clothed entirely i_ed. At sight of the two struggling upon the floor the newcomer raised hi_oice in a shriek of rage. Instantly the Wieroo who was attacking the gir_eaped to his feet and faced the other.
“I heard,” screamed he who had just entered the room. “I heard, and when H_ho Speaks for Lu-ata shall have heard—” He paused and made a suggestiv_ovement of a finger across his throat.
“He shall not hear,” returned the first Wieroo as, with a powerful motion o_is great wings, he launched himself upon the red-robed figure. The latte_odged the first charge, drew a wicked-looking curved blade from beneath it_ed robe, spread its wings and dived for its antagonist. Beating their wings, wailing and groaning, the two hideous things sparred for position. The white- robed one being unarmed sought to grasp the other by the wrist of its knife- hand and by the throat, while the latter hopped around on its dainty whit_eet, seeking an opening for a mortal blow. Once it struck and missed, an_hen the other rushed in and clinched, at the same time securing both th_olds it sought. Immediately the two commenced beating at each other’s head_ith the joints of their wings, kicking with their soft, puny feet and biting, each at the other’s face.
In the meantime the girl moved about the room, keeping out of the way of th_uelists, and as she did so, Bradley caught a glimpse of her full face an_mmediately recognized her as the girl of the place of the yellow door. He di_ot dare intervene now until one of the Wieroo had overcome the other, les_he two should turn upon him at once, when the chances were fair that he woul_e defeated in so unequal a battle as the curved blade of the red Wieroo woul_ender it, and so he waited, watching the white-robed figure slowly chokin_he life from him of the red robe. The protruding tongue and the popping eye_roclaimed that the end was near and a moment later the red robe sank to th_loor of the room, the curved blade slipping from nerveless fingers. For a_nstant longer the victor clung to the throat of his defeated antagonist an_hen he rose, dragging the body after him, and approached the central column.
Here he raised the body and thrust it into the aperture where Bradley saw i_rop suddenly from sight. Instantly there flashed into his memory the circula_penings in the roof of the river vault and the corpses he had seen drop fro_hem to the water beneath.
As the body disappeared, the Wieroo turned and cast about the room for th_irl. For a moment he stood eying her. “You saw,” he muttered, “and if yo_ell them, He Who Speaks for Luata will have my wings severed while still _ive and my head will be severed and I shall be cast into the River of Death, for thus it happens even to the highest who slay one of the red robe. You saw, and you must die!” he ended with a scream as he rushed upon the girl.
Bradley waited no longer. Leaping into the room he ran for the Wieroo, who ha_lready seized the girl, and as he ran, he stooped and picked up the curve_lade. The creature’s back was toward him as, with his left hand, he seized i_y the neck. Like a flash the great wings beat backward as the creatur_urned, and Bradley was swept from his feet, though he still retained his hol_pon the blade. Instantly the Wieroo was upon him. Bradley lay slightly raise_pon his left elbow, his right arm free, and as the thing came close, he cu_t the hideous face with all the strength that lay within him. The blad_truck at the junction of the neck and torso and with such force as t_ompletely decapitate the Wieroo, the hideous head dropping to the floor an_he body falling forward upon the Englishman. Pushing it from him he rose t_is feet and faced the wide-eyed girl.
“Luata!” she exclaimed. “How came you here?”
Bradley shrugged. “Here I am,” he said; “but the thing now is to get out o_ere—both of us.”
The girl shook her head. “It cannot be,” she stated sadly.
“That is what I thought when they dropped me into the Blue Place of Seve_kulls,” replied Bradley. “Can’t be done. I did it.— Here! You’re mussing u_he floor something awful, you.” This last to the dead Wieroo as he stoope_nd dragged the corpse to the central shaft, where he raised it to th_perture and let it slip into the tube. Then he picked up the head and tosse_t after the body. “Don’t be so glum,” he admonished the former as he carrie_t toward the well; “smile!”
“But how can he smile?” questioned the girl, a half-puzzled, half-frightene_ook upon her face. “He is dead.”
“That’s so,” admitted Bradley, “and I suppose he does feel a bit cut up abou_t.”
The girl shook her head and edged away from the man—toward the door.
“Come!” said the Englishman. “We’ve got to get out of here. If you don’t kno_ better way than the river, it’s the river then.”
The girl still eyed him askance. “But how could he smile when he was dead?”
Bradley laughed aloud. “I thought we English were supposed to have the leas_ense of humor of any people in the world,” he cried; “but now I’ve found on_uman being who hasn’t any. Of course you don’t know half I’m saying; bu_on’t worry, little girl; I’m not going to hurt you, and if I can get you ou_f here, I’ll do it.”
Even if she did not understand all he said, she at least read something in hi_miling, countenance—something which reassured her. “I do not fear you,” sh_aid; “though I do not understand all that you say even though you speak m_wn tongue and use words that I know. But as for escaping”—she sighed—“alas, how can it be done?”
“I escaped from the Blue Place of Seven Skulls,” Bradley reminded her. “Come!” And he turned toward the shaft and the ladder that he had ascended from th_iver. “We cannot waste time here.”
The girl followed him; but at the doorway both drew back, for from below cam_he sound of some one ascending.
Bradley tiptoed to the door and peered cautiously into the well; then h_tepped back beside the girl. “There are half a dozen of them coming up; bu_ossibly they will pass this room.”
“No,” she said, “they will pass directly through this room—they are on thei_ay to Him Who Speaks for Luata. We may be able to hide in the next room—ther_re skins there beneath which we may crawl. They will not stop in that room; but they may stop in this one for a short time—the other room is blue.”
“What’s that go to do with it?” demanded the Englishman.
“They fear blue,” she replied. “In every room where murder has been done yo_ill find blue—a certain amount for each murder. When the room is all blue, they shun it. This room has much blue; but evidently they kill mostly in th_ext room, which is now all blue.”
“But there is blue on the outside of every house I have seen,” said Bradley.
“Yes, ” assented the girl, “and there are blue rooms in each of thos_ouses—when all the rooms are blue then the whole outside of the house will b_lue as is the Blue Place of Seven Skulls. There are many such here.”
“And the skulls with blue upon them?” inquired Bradley. “Did they belong t_urderers?”
“They were murdered—some of them; those with only a small amount of blue wer_urderers—known murderers. All Wieroos are murderers. When they have committe_ certain number of murders without being caught at it, they confess to Hi_ho Speaks for Luata and are advanced, after which they wear robes with _lash of some color— I think yellow comes first. When they reach a point wher_he entire robe is of yellow, they discard it for a white robe with a re_lash; and when one wins a complete red robe, he carries such a long, curve_nife as you have in your hand; after that comes the blue slash on a whit_obe, and then, I suppose, an all blue robe. I have never seen such a one.”
As they talked in low tones they had moved from the room of the death shaf_nto an all blue room adjoining, where they sat down together in a corner wit_heir backs against a wall and drew a pile of hides over themselves. A momen_ater they heard a number of Wieroos enter the chamber. They were talkin_ogether as they crossed the floor, or the two could not have heard them.
Halfway across the chamber they halted as the door toward which they wer_dvancing opened and a dozen others of their kind entered the apartment.
Bradley could guess all this by the increased volume of sound and the disma_reetings; but the sudden silence that almost immediately ensued he could no_athom, for he could not know that from beneath one of the hides that covere_im protruded one of his heavy army shoes, or that some eighteen large Wieroo_ith robes either solid red or slashed with red or blue were standing gazin_t it. Nor could he hear their stealthy approach.
The first intimation he had that he had been discovered was when his foot wa_uddenly seized, and he was yanked violently from beneath the hides to fin_imself surrounded by menacing blades. They would have slain him on the spo_ad not one clothed all in red held them back, saying that He Who Speaks fo_uata desired to see this strange creature.
As they led Bradley away, he caught an opportunity to glance back toward th_ides to see what had become of the girl, and, to his gratification, h_iscovered that she still lay concealed beneath the hides. He wondered if sh_ould have the nerve to attempt the river trip alone and regretted that now h_ould not accompany her. He felt rather all in, himself, more so than he ha_t any time since he had been captured by the Wieroo, for there appeared no_he slightest cause for hope in his present predicament. He had dropped th_urved blade beneath the hides when he had been jerked so violently from thei_ancied security. It was almost in a spirit of resigned hopelessness that h_uietly accompanied his captors through various chambers and corridors towar_he heart of the temple.