Tarzan and the Forbidden City

Chapter 29

Edgar Rice Burroughs

HAND IN HAND, Tarzan and Helen sank gently down to the darkness of the lake’s bottom. If Herkuf were near them, they could see nothing of him; and so Tarzan waited for the coming of the new day that would lift the black veil from the mysteries of Horus’s depths, as to proceed without Herkuf might easily foredoom the entire venture to failure. That they might never find him, Tarzan was aware; but he could only wait and hope.

It was an eerie experience for Helen Gregory that was rendered doubly trying by the recollection of her previous experiences in this silent world of horrors. Dimly seen, great forms glided through the forest of grotesque treelike plants that waved their dark foliage on every hand. Momentarily, the girl expected some hideous monster to attack; but the night passed and dawn broke without their having once been threatened. It seemed a miracle to her, but the explanation probably lay in the fact that they had remained quietly sitting on the gravelly bottom. Had they been moving, it might have been different.

As the light of the new day filtered down to them, Tarzan looked about for Herkuf; but he was nowhere to be seen. Reluctantly, the ape-man started off across the lake toward the temple of Brulor. What he could accomplish alone, he did not know, as part of the plan was to enter the temple during a period of meditation and release the prisoners; but of the three, only Herkuf was familiar with the mechanism that operated the doors to the air chamber and emptied and refilled it; only Herkuf knew the exact time of the periods of meditation.

Unable to communicate with Tarzan, Helen followed where he led, ignorant of his new plans but more secure in her faith in him than he was of himself in this particular venture, where every condition varied so from all that he had been accustomed to meet in the familiar jungles that he knew so well.

They had gone but a short distance in the direction in which Tarzan thought the temple lay, when they came upon Herkuf. He, too, had been waiting for daylight, feeling certain that Tarzan would have done the same and that, having leaped overboard almost simultaneously, they could not be far separated. It was with feelings of the greatest relief that they found themselves reunited.

Herkuf took the lead now, and with Tarzan and Helen following, commenced the tiresome and dangerous journey toward Ashair, all of them now greatly encouraged after the long hours of doubt and uncertainty.

They had not gone far when they came upon the wreck of a large galley partly embedded in the sand. That it had been there for years was attested by the size of the marine growth which had sprouted through its ribs, entwining the skeletons of its slaves still lying in their rusted chains.

Herkuf evinced considerable excitement; and, motioning them to wait, clambered into the interior of the craft, from which he presently emerged carrying a splendid jeweled casket. That he was overcome by excitement was obvious, but hampered by his helmet he could only express it by waving the casket before their faces and dancing jubilantly. What it was he had recovered, they could not guess, unless it were that the casket contained treasure of fabulous worth.

At last, and without further adventure, they approached the temple of Brulor; and here they went cautiously, seeking the shelter of the trees and plants that grew in the gardens of the ptomes, moving stealthily from one to another, each time assuring themselves that no ptome was in sight, knowing that at any moment one might emerge from the air chamber that they could now see. Approaching the temple, they found a place where they could hide concealed from the gardens and the air chamber door. Here they must wait until Herkuf signalled that the time had arrived when it might be safe to enter the temple. How long that would be only he could guess with any degree of accuracy. Near them was a window through which they could have looked into the temple had they dared; but as long as it was light outside they could not take the risk; and so they waited, tired, hungry, and thirsty; waited for night to fall.

Inside the temple the caged prisoners were gnawing on their evening meal of raw fish. Atan Thome enlarged in glowing terms upon his plans when he should come into possession of The Father of Diamonds and dazzle the world with his wealth. Lal Taask, scowling, cursed him. Akamen brooded in silence upon his lost liberty and his vanished dream of power. Brian and d’Arnot spoke together in low tones. Lavac paced his cage like a captive polar bear.

“I think your friend, Tarzan, has run off and left us,” remarked Brian.

“You think that because you don’t know him as well as I do,” replied d’Arnot. “As long as he and we live he will try to rescue us.”

“He will have to be a super-man to do it,” said Brian.

“He is—that and all of that. He may fail, of course, but he will come nearer succeeding than any man who lives.”

“Well, anyway, he got Helen out of that torture chamber they’d put her in,” said Brian. “Wasn’t old Brulor sore, though! Of course he really hasn’t had time to get her to a place of safety and come back for us; but every minute is an hour in here, and so it seems like a very long time since he went away. Did you know he was going?”

“Yes; he told me; but I didn’t know when he and Herkuf left. I was asleep. I am sure he must have gotten her out; otherwise he’d have been back after us.”

“Unless he was killed,” suggested Brian. “Anyway we know he took her out. That was what old Brulor was raving about.”

“I mean out of the lake—to some place of safety. Sometimes I think I’ll go crazy if I don’t know.”

“We’ve got one nut here now,” said Brian, nodding toward Atan Thome. “We couldn’t stand another. Anyway, wait until you’ve been here as long as I have; then you’ll really have an excuse to go cuckoo.”

“They’re all clearing out of the throne room now,” said d’Arnot. “The period of meditation has come. I wonder what they meditate about.”

“Meditate, hell!” exclaimed Brian. “Ask the handmaidens.”

Outside the temple the weary trio waited. Since the evening before they had had neither food nor water, nor spoken a single word; but now Herkuf cautiously moved to a spot opposite the window but not too close to it. It was dark now, and there was little danger that he would be seen from the inside. The throne room was deserted except for the prisoners. He came back to Tarzan and Helen and nodded that all was right; then he left the casket at Helen’s feet’ and motioned that she was to remain where she was. She was very lonely after Tarzan and Herkuf left her.

This was the moment for which the two men had been waiting. What did it hold for them? Carrying out the plan they had carefully laid out in every detail, the two men each speared a fish; then, with their quarry wriggling on their tridents, they went to the air chamber. It was only a matter of a few moments before they had passed through it and stood in the corridor leading to the ptomes’ room.

Beside them was another door opening into a passageway that led to the throne room, avoiding the ptomes’ room. Herkuf tried to open it, but could not. He shrugged. There was nothing to do now but make the attempt to pass through the room where the ptomes should be sleeping. They prayed that they were sleeping. Cautiously, Herkuf opened the door to that room and looked in; then he beckoned Tarzan to follow him.

The entire success of their venture depended upon their reaching the throne room unchallenged. They had almost succeeded, when a ptome, awakening, sat up and looked at them. With their fish upon their tridents, the two men continued on unconcernedly across the room. The sleepy ptome, scarce awake, thought them two of his own kind, and lay down to sleep again. Thus they came in safety to the throne room, while outside, Helen waited in the loneliness of the black water. She was almost happy, so certain was she that Tarzan and Herkuf would succeed in liberating d’Arnot, Brian, and Lavac; but then she was not aware of the figure in a white water suit that was swimming down toward her from above and behind. Whatever it was, it was evident that it had discovered her and was swimming directly toward her.

Tarzan and Herkuf hurried directly to the cages, tossing their fish to the floor. The excited prisoners watched them, for they had never seen ptomes behave like this. Only d’Arnot really guessed who they were. Seizing the bars in his powerful grasp, Tarzan released them one after the other, cautioning them to silence with a gesture; then he removed his helmet and told d’Arnot, Brian, and Lavac to put on the three water suits that Herkuf carried.

“The rest of you,” he said, “may be able to escape by the secret passage at the end of the long corridor. Does any of you know where to find it and open it?”

“I do,” replied Akamen.

“So do I,” said Atan Thome. “I learned from Akamen.” As he spoke he darted toward the altar and seized the casket containing The Father of Diamonds, the accursed casket that had wrought such havoc.

As Helen felt a hand seize her from behind, she turned to see the strange figure in white confronting her; and her vision of a successful termination of their venture faded. Once again she was plunged into the depths of despair. She tried to wrench herself free from the restraining hand, but she was helpless to escape. She realized that she must not be taken now, for it might jeopardize the lives and liberty of all her companions; she knew that they would search for her and that the delay might prove fatal to them. A sudden rage seized her; and, wheeling, she tried to drive her trident into the heart of her captor. But the creature that held her was alert and powerful. It wrenched the trident from her hands and cast it aside; then it seized her by a wrist and swam up with her toward the surface of the lake. The girl still struggled, but she was helpless. To what new and unpredictable fate was she being dragged? Who, now, might find or save her?

In the throne room of the temple, Tarzan and Herkuf saw all their efforts, their risks, and their plans being brought to nothing by the stupid avarice of three men, for as Atan Thome had seized the casket, Lal Taask and Brian Gregory had leaped upon him; and the three were fighting for the vast treasure for which they had risked their lives. At sight of the casket in the hands of another, Brian had forgotten all his fine resolutions; and cupidity dominated him to the exclusion of all else.

Tarzan ran forward to quiet them, but they thought that he too wanted the casket; so they fought down the throne room in an effort to evade him; and then that happened which Tarzan had feared—a door burst open and a horde of ptomes poured into the throne room. They wore no encumbering water suits or helmets, but they carried tridents and knives. Tarzan, Herkuf, and the liberated prisoners waited to receive them. Brian and Lal Taask, realizing that here was a matter of life and death, abandoned the casket temporarily to assist in the attempt to repulse the ptomes; but Atan Thome clung desperately to his treasure, and sneaking stealthily behind the others he made for the corridor at the far end of which was the entrance to the secret passageway that led to the rocky hillside above Ashair.

It devolved upon Tarzan to bear the brunt of the battle with the ptomes. Beside him, only Herkuf was armed; and the others fought with their bare hands but with such desperation that the ptomes fell back, while Tarzan speared them on his trident and tossed them among their fellows.

It was upon this scene that Brulor burst, red of face and trembling with rage; then above the yells and curses of the battling men there rose his screaming voice as he stood behind the empty altar.

“Curses!” he cried. “Curses upon the profaners of the temple! Death to them! Death to him who hath raped the casket of The Father of Diamonds! Summon the warriors of Ashair to avenge the sacrilege!”

Herkuf saw his Nemesis standing defenseless before him, and he saw red with the pent up hatred of many years. He leaped to the dais, and Brulor backed away, screaming for help; but the ptomes who remained alive were too busily engaged now, for all the prisoners who remained had armed themselves with the tridents and knives of the ptomes who had fallen.

“Die, imposter!” screamed Herkuf. “For years I have lived in the hope of this moment. Let the warriors of Ashair come, for now I may die happy. The true god shall be avenged and the wrong you did me wiped out in your blood.”

Brulor dropped to his knees and begged for mercy; but there was no mercy in the heart of Herkuf, as he raised his trident and drove it with both hands deep into the heart of the terrified man grovelling before him. Thus died Brulor, the false god.

A breathless ptome had staggered into the presence of Atka, who sat among her nobles at a great banquet. “What is the meaning of this?” demanded the Queen.

“Oh, Atka,” cried the lesser priest. “The prisoners have been liberated and they are killing the ptomes. Send many warriors at once or they will all be slain.”

Atka could not conceive of such a thing transpiring in the throne room of the temple of Brulor, yet she realized that the man was in earnest; so she gave orders that warriors were to be sent at once to quell the disturbance.

“They will soon bring order,” she said, and returned to her feasting.

When the last ptome had fallen, Tarzan saw that Akamen was dead and that Taask and Thome had disappeared with the casket. “Let them go,” he said. “The Father of Diamonds is bad luck.”

“Not I,” said Brian. “I shan’t let them go. Why do you suppose I have suffered in this hellhole? Now I have a chance to reap my reward; and when others steal it, you say, ‘let them go.’”

Tarzan shrugged. “Do as you please,” he said; then he turned to the others. “Come, we must get out of here before they get a chance to send a lot of warriors down on top of us.”

All four were now in their water suits, and were adjusting their helmets as they made their way toward the corridor that led to the water chamber. Brian had reached the end of the throne room. He was the first to realize that the warriors of Ashair were already upon them. Throwing himself to the floor, he feigned death as the warriors rushed past him into the throne room.

When the others saw them, they thought that they were lost; but Herkuf motioned them to follow him, as he hurried on toward the air chamber. Tarzan had no idea what Herkuf planned to do. He only knew that there would not be time to pass through the air chamber before the warriors reached it and reversed the valves; then they would be caught like rats in a trap. He had no intention of inviting any such situation. He would turn his back to the wall and fight. Maybe he could delay the warriors long enough for the others to escape. That was what he thought; so he turned at the doorway leading from the throne room, and took his stand. The others, glancing back, saw what he was doing. D’Arnot took his place beside him, ignoring the ape-man’s attempt to motion him on. Herkuf ran rapidly toward the air chamber. Lavac could have followed him to safety, but instead he took his stand beside d’Arnot in the face of certain death.

While Herkuf hastened on toward the air chamber, the warriors hesitated in the throne room, appalled by the bloody shambles that met their astonished view and confused by the fact that the three who faced them appeared to be ptomes of the temple; but at last, seeing no other enemy, the officer in charge of Atka’s warriors ordered them forward; while out of sight, Herkuf worked feverishly with the controls of the air chamber, spinning valve handles and pulling levers.

Shouting now, the warriors came steadily down the length of the throne room toward the forlorn hope making a last stand before overwhelming odds; and the warriors looked for an easy victory. Nor were they alone in this belief, which was shared by the three who opposed them.

As the warriors closed upon the three, Tarzan met the leader in a duel between spear and trident, while d’Arnot and Lavac stood upon either side of him, determined, as was the ape-man, to sell their lives dearly; and as they fought thus, there was a sudden rush of water through the doorway behind them.

Herkuf had thought and acted quickly in the emergency that had confronted them, taking advantage of the only means whereby he and his companions could be saved from the vengeance of the warriors. Throwing open both doors of the air chamber, he had let the waters of Horus pour in to fill the temple.

Safe in their water suits, Tarzan, d’Arnot, and Lavac watched the gushing torrent drive back their foes, as, cursing and yelling, the warriors of Ashair sought to climb over one another in their mad panic to escape the watery death Herkuf had loosed upon them out of sacred Horus; but not one escaped as the water filled the throne room and rose through the upper chambers of the temple. It was a gruesome sight from which the three turned gladly at a signal from Tarzan and followed him toward the air chamber, beyond which he had left Helen waiting in the garden of the ptomes.

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