Whereas Zveri and his party had started slowly along winding jungle trails, Tarzan moved almost in an air line through the jungle toward his destination, which was the same as that of Zveri. The result was that before Zveri reached the almost perpendicular crag which formed the last and greatest natural barrier to the forbidden valley of Opar, Tarzan and Nkima had disappeared beyond the summit and were crossing the desolate valley, upon the far side of which loomed the great walls and lofty spires and turrets of ancient Opar. In the bright light of the African sun, domes and minarets shone red and gold above the city; and once again the ape-man experienced the same feeling that had impressed him upon the occasion, now years gone, when his eyes had first alighted upon the splendid panorama of mystery that had unfolded before them.
No evidence of ruin was apparent at this great distance. Once again, in imagination, he beheld a city of magnificent beauty, its streets and temples thronged with people; and once again his mind toyed with the mystery of the city’s origin, when back somewhere in the dim vista’of antiquity a race of rich and powerful people had conceived and built this enduring monument to a vanished civilization. It was possible to conceive that Opar might have existed when a glorious civilization flourished upon the great continent of Atlantis, which, sinking beneath the waves of the ocean, left this lost colony to death and decay.
That its few inhabitants were direct descendants of its once powerful builders seemed not unlikely in view of the rites and ceremonies of the ancient religion which they practiced, as well is by the fact that by scarcely any other hypothesis could the presence of a white-skinned People be accounted for in this remote inaccessible African vastness.
The peculiar laws of heredity, which seemed operative in Opar as in no other portion of the world, suggested an origin differing materially from that of other men; for it is a peculiar fact that the men of Opar bear little or no resemblance to the females of their kind. The former are short, heavy set, hairy, almost ape-like in their conformation and appearance, while the women are slender, smooth skinned and often beautiful. There were certain physical and mental attributes of the men that had suggestd to Tarzan the possibility that at some time in the past the colonists had, either by choice or necessity, interbred with the great apes of the district; and he also was aware that owing to the scarcity of victims for the human sacrifice, which their rigid worship demanded it was common practice among then to use for this purpose either males or females who deviated considerably from the standard time had established for each sex, with the result that through the laws of natural selection an overwhelming majority of the males would be grotesque and the females normal and beautiful.
It was with such reveries that the mind of the ape-man was occupied as he crossed the desolate valley of Opar, which lay shimmering in the bright sunlight that was relieved only by the shade of an occasional gnarled and stunted tree. Ahead of him and to his right was the small rocky hillock, upon the summit of which was located the outer entrance to the treasure vaults of Opar. But with this he was not now interested, his sole object being to forewarn La of the approach of the invaders that she might prepare her defense.
It had been long since Tarzan had visited Opar; but upon that last occasion, when he had restored La to her loyal people and re-established her supremacy following the defeat of the forces of Cadj, the high priest, and the death of the latter beneath the fangs and talons of Jad-bal-ja, he had carried away with him for the first time a conviction of the friendliness of all of the people of Opar. He had for years known that La was secretly his friend, but her savage, grotesque retainers always heretofore had feared and hated him; and so it was now that he approached Opar as one might approach any citadel of one’s friends, without stealth and without any doubt but that he would be received in friendship.
Nkima, however, was not so sure. The gloomy ruins terrified him. He scolded and pleaded, but all to no avail; and at last terror overcame his love and loyalty so that, as they were approaching the outer wall, which loomed high above them, he leaped from his master’s shoulder and scampered away from the ruins that confronted him, for deep in his little heart was an abiding fear of strange and unfamiliar places, that not even his confidence in Tarzan could overcome.
Nkima’s keen eyes had noted the rocky hillock which they had passed a short time before, and to the summit of this he scampered as a comparatively safe haven from which to await the return of his master from Opar.
As Tarzan approached the narrow fissure which alone gave entrance through the massive outer walls of Opar, he was conscious, as he had been years before on the occasion of his first approach to the city, of unseen eyes upon him, and at any moment he expected to hear a greeting when the watchers recognized him.
Without hesitation, however, and with no apprehensiveness, Tarzan entered the narrow cleft and descended a flight of concrete steps that led to the winding passage through the thick outer wall. The narrow court, beyond which loomed the inner wall, was silent and deserted; nor was the silence broken as he crossed it to another narrow passage which led through it; at the end of this he came to a broad avenue, upon the opposite side of which stood the crumbling riuns of the great temple of Opar.
In silence and solitlide he entered the frowning portal, flanked by its rows of stately pillars, from the capitals of which grotesque birds glared down upon him as they had stared through all the countless ages since forgotten hands had carved them from the solid rock of the monoliths. On through the temple toward the inner courtyard, where he knew the activities of the city were carried on, Tarzan made his way in silence. Perhaps another man would have given notice of his coming, voicing a greeting to apprise them of his approach; but Tarzan of the Apes in many respects is less man than beast. He goes the silent way of most beasts, wasting no breath in useless mouthing. He had not sought to approach Opar stealthily, and he knew that he had not arrived unseen. Why a greeting was delayed he did not know, unless it was that, after carrying word of his coming to La, they were waiting for her instructions.
Through the main corridor Tarzan made his way, noting again the tablets of gold with their ancient and long undeciphered hieroglyphics. Through the chamber of the seven golden pillars he passed and across the golden floor of an adjoining room, and still only silence and emptiness, yet with vague suggestions of figures moving in the galleries that over-looked the apartment through which he was passing; and then at last he came to a heavy door beyond which he was sure he would find either priests or priestesses of this great temple of The Flaming God. Fearlessly he pushed it open and stepped across the threshold, and in the same instant a knotted club descended heavily upon his head, felling him senseless to the floor.
Instantly he was surrounded by a score of gnarled and knotted men; their matted beards fell low upon their hairy chests as they rolled forward upon their short, crooked legs. They chattered in low, growling gutturals as they bound their victim’s wrists and ankles with stout thongs, and then they lifted hin, and carried him along other corridors and through the crumbling glories of magnificent apartments to a great tiled room, at one end of which a young woman sat upon a massive throne, resting upon a dais a few feet above the level of the floor.
Standing beside the girl upon the throne was another of the gnarled and knotted men. Upon his arms and legs were bands of gold and about his throat many necklaces. Upon the floor beneath these two was a gathering of men and women—the priests and priestesses of the Flaming God of Opar.
Tarzan’s captors carried their victim to the foot of the throne and tossed his body upon the tile floor. Almost simultaneously the ape-man regained consciousness and, opening his eyes, looked about him.
“Is it he?” demanded the girl upon the throne.
One of Tarzan’s captors saw that he had regained consciousness and with the help of others dragged him roughly to his feet.
“It is he, Oah,” exclaimed the man at her side.
An expression of venomous hatred convulsed the face of the woman. “God has been good to His high priestess,” she said. “I have prayed for this day to come as I prayed for the other, and as the other came so has this.”
Tarzan looked quickly from the woman to the man at her side. “What is the meaning of this, Dooth?” he demanded. “Where is La? Where is your high priestess?”
The girl rose angrily from her throne. “Know, man of the outer world, that I am high priestess. I, Oah, am high priestess of the Flaming God.”
Tarzan ignored her. “Where is La?” he demanded again of Dooth.
Oah flew into a frenzy of rage. “She is dead!” she screamed, advancing to the edge of the dais as though to leap upon Tarzan, the jeweled handle of her sacrificial knife gleaming in the sunlight, which poured through a great aperture where a portion of the ancient roof of the throne room had fallen in. “She is dead!” she repeated. “Dead as you will be when next we honor the Flaming God with the life blood of a man. La was weak. She loved you, and thus she betrayed her God, who had chosen you for sacrifice. But Oah is strong—strong with the hate she has nursed in her breast since Tarzan and La stole the throne of Opar from her. Take him away!” she screamed to his captors, “and let me not see him again until I behold him bound to the altar in the court of sacrifice.”
They cut the bonds now that secured Tarzan’s ankles so that he might walk; but even though his wrists were tied behind him it was evident that they still held him in great fear, for they put ropes about his neck and his arms and led him as man might lead a lion. Down into the familiar darkness of the pits of Opar they led him, lighting the way with torches; and when finally they had brought him to the dungeon in which he was to be confined it was some time before they could muster sufficient courage to cut the bonds that held his wrists, and even then they did not do so until they had again bound his ankles securely so that they might escape from the chamber and bolt the door before he could release his feet and pursue them. Thus greatly had the prowess of Tarzan impressed itself upon the brains of the crooked priests of Opar.
Tarzan had been in the dungeons of Opar before and, before, he had escaped; and so he set to work immediately seeking for a means of escape from his present predicament, for he knew that the chances were that Oah would not long delay the moment for which she had prayed—the instant when she should plunge the gleaming sacrificial knife into his breast. Quickly removing the thongs from his ankles, Tarzan groped his way carefully along the walls of his cell until he had made a complete circuit of it; then, similarly, he examined the floor. He discovered that he was in a rectangular chamber about ten feet long and eight wide and that by standing upon his tiptoes he could just reach the ceiling. The only opening was the door through which he had entered, in which an aperture, protected by iron bars, gave the cell its only ventilation but, as it opened upon a dark corridor, admitted no light. Tarzan examined the bolts and the hinges of the door, but they were, as he had conjectured, too substantial to be forced and then, for the first time, he saw that a priest sat on guard in the corridor without, thus putting a definite end to any thoughts of surreptitious escape.
For three days and nights priests relieved each other at intervals; but upon the morning of the fourth day Tarzan discovered that the corridor was empty, and once again he turned his attention actively to thoughts of escape.
It had so happened that at the time of Tarzan’s capture his hunting knife had been hidden by the tail of the leopard skin that formed his loin cloth; and, in their excitement, the ignorant, half-human priests of Opar had overlooked it when they took his other weapons away from him. Doubly thankful was Tarzan for this good fortune, since, for sentimental reasons, he cherished the hunting knife of his long dead sire—the knife that had started him upon the upward path to ascendancy over the beasts of the jungle that day, long gone, when, more by accident than intent, he had plunged it into the heart of Bolgani, the gorilla. But for more practical reasons it was, indeed, a gift from the gods, since it afforded him not only a weapon of defense, but an instrument wherewith he might seek to make good his escape.
Years before had Tarzan of the Apes escaped from the pits of Opar, and so he well knew the construction of their massive walls. Granite blocks of various sizes, hand hewn to fit with perfection, were laid in courses without mortar, the one wall that he had passed through having been fifteen feet in thickness. Fortune had favored him upon that occasion in that he had been placed in a cell which, unknown to the present inhabitants of Opar, had a secret entrance, the opening of which was closed by a single layer of loosely laid courses that the ape-man had been able to remove without great effort.
Naturally he sought for a similar condition in the cell in which be now found himself, but his search was not crowned with success. No single stone could be budged from its place, anchored as each was by the tremendous weight of the temple walls they supported; and so, perforce, he turned his attention toward the door.
He knew that there were few locks in Opar since the present degraded inhabitants of the city had not developed sufficient ingenuity either to repair old ones or construct new. Those locks that he had seen were ponderous affairs opened by huge keys and were, he guessed, of an antiquity that reached back to tne days of Atlantis; but, for the most part, heavy bolts and bars secured such doors as might be fastened at all, and he guessed that it was such a crude contrivance that barred his way to freedom.
Groping his way to the door, he examined the small opening that let in air. It was about shoulder high and perhaps ten inches square and was equipped with four vertical iron bars half an inch square, set an inch and a halt apart—too close to permit him to insert his hands between them, but this fact did not entirely discourage the ape-man. Perhaps there was another way.
His steel thewed fingers closed upon the center of one of the bars. With his left hand he clung to another, and bracing one knee high against the door he slowly flexed his right elbow. Rolling like plastic steel, the muscles of his forearm and his biceps swelled, until gradually the bar bent inward toward him. The ape-man smiled as he took a new grip upon the iron bar. Then he surged backward with all his weight and all the strength of that mighty arm, and the bar bent to a wide U as he wrenched it from its sockets. He tried to insert his arm through the now opening, but it stil, was too small.
A moment later another bar was torn away, and now, his arm through the aperture to its full length, he groped for the bar or bolts that held him prisoner.
At the fullest extent to which he could reach his fingertips downward against the door, he just touched the top of the bar, which was a timber about three inches in thickness. Its other dimensions, however, he was unable to ascertain, or whether it would release by raising one end or must be drawn back through keepers. It was most tantalizing! To have freedom almost within one’s grasp and yet to be denied it was maddening.
Withdrawing his arm from the aperture, he removed his hunting knife from his scabbard and, again reaching outward, pressed the point of the blade into the wood of the bar. At first he tried lifting the bar by this means, but his knife point only pulled out of the wood. Next, he attempted to move the bar backward in a horizontal plane, and in this he was successful. Though the distance that he moved it in one effort was small, he was satisfied, for he knew that patience would win its reward. Never more than a quarter of an inch, sometimes only a sixteentb of an inch at a time, Tarzan slowly worked the bar backward. He worked methodically and carefully, never hurrying, never affected by nervous anxiety, although he never knew at what moment a savage warrior priest of Opar might make his rounds; and at last his efforts were rewarded, and the door swung upon its hinges.
Stepping quickly out, Tarzan shot the bar behind him and, knowing no other avenue of escape, turned back up the corridor along which his captors had conducted him to his prison cell. Faintly in the distance he discerned a lessening darkness, and toward this he moved upon silent feet. As the light increased slightly, he saw that the corridor was about ten feet wide and that at irregular intervals it was pierced by doors, all of which were closed and secured by bolts or bars.
A hundred yards from the cell in which he had been incarcerated he crossed a transversed corridor, and here he paused an instant to investigate with palpitating nostrils and keen eyes and ears, In neither direction could he discern any light, but faint sounds came to his ears indicating that life existed somewhere behind the doors along this corridor, and his nostrils were assailed by a medley of scents—the sweet aroma of incense, the odor of human bodies and the acrid scent of carnivores; but there was nothing there to attract his further investigation, so he continued on his way along the corriclor toward the rapidly increasing light ahead.
He had advanced but a short distance when his keen ears detected the sound of approaching footsteps. Here was no place to risk discovery. Slowly he fell back toward the transverse corridor, seeking to take concealment there until the danger had passed; but it was already closer than he had imagined, and an instant later half a dozen priests of Opar turned into the corridor from one just ahead of him. They saw him instantly and halted, peering through the gloom.
“It is the ape-man,” said one. “He has escaped,” and with their knotted cudgels and their wicked knives they advanced upon him.
That they came slowly evidenced the respect in which they held his prowess, but still they came; and Tarzan fell back, for even he, armed only with a knife, was no match for six of these savage half-men with their heavy cudgels. As he retreated, a plan formed quickly in his alert mind, and when he reached the transverse corridor he backed slowly into it. Knowing that now that he was hidden from them they would come very slowly, fearing that he might be lying in wait for them, he turned and ran swiftly along the corridor. He passed several doors, not because he was looking for any door in particular, but because he knew that the more difficult it was for them to find him the greater his chances of eluding them; but at last he paused before one secured by a huge wooden bar. Quickly he raised it, opened the door and stepped within just as the leader of the priests came into view at the intersection of the corridor.
The instant that Tarzan stepped into the dark and gloomy chamber beyond he knew that he had made a fatal blunder. Strong in his nostrils was the acrid scent of Numa, the lion; the silence of the pit was shattered by a savage roar; in the dark background he saw two yellow-green eyes flaming with hate, and then the lion charged.