|The||Lake of Life|
By EDMOND HAMILTON
A weird-scientific thrill-tale of adventure, mystery and romance—of the waters of immortality, the strange Red and Black cities, and the dread Guardians that watched eternally over that terribly glowing lake
The Story Thus Far
"Deep in the unexplored jungles of equatorial Africa lies the Lake of Life. It is a lake of shining waters that contain the pure essence of life, the origin of life on earth, and it is guarded by unhuman, terrible beings, the Guardians. And anyone who drinks of those shining waters becomes immortal!"
That is the legend of many African tribes. Asa Brand, senile American millionaire morbidly afraid of death, believes that legend and thinks if he drinks of those waters his life will be vastly extended. So he has offered Clark Stannard, young adventurer, a half-million dollars if he procures for him a flask of waters from the Lake of Life.
Clark Stannard does not himself believe the shining waters will confer immortality, but has undertaken the quest. His five hard-bitten followers are Blacky Cain, gangster; Mike Shinn, former heavyweight prizefighter; Lieutenant John Morrow, disgraced army officer; Link Wilson, a Texan cowboy; and Ephraim Quell, former Yankee sea captain.
The quest has brought the six into a hidden land surrounded by the Mountains of Death, mountains which it is death to tread upon. They have gained entrance to the prisoned land by floating down a wild river that flows in through a chasm in the mountains.
In this hidden land they find two cities of white people, at war with each other. They are K'Lamm, city of the Reds, and Dordona, city of the Blacks. Clark and his five men repel a band of black warriors who attack them, and capture their leader. The leader is Lurain, wildcat daughter of the ruler of Dordona.
Then they are surrounded by a large force of Red warriors from the near-by city K'Lamm. Clark learns that the Lake of Life exists somewhere near the city Dordona. The Dordonans hold it is sacrilege for anyone to try to drink of the Lake of Life. But the people of K'Lamm thirst to drink of it and become immortal; so that there is war between the two peoples.
Clark Stannard believes that his only chance of reaching the lake is to join Thargo, king of K'Lamm, as an ally. He agrees to go to the Red city, but stipulates that the girl Lurain is his prisoner, not anyone else's, The six American adventurers and their prisoner and escort of Red warriors are now riding into the city K'Lamm.
The story continues:
The city K'Lamm was circular in outline and more than two miles in diameter, surrounded by a forty-foot wall. The wall and buildings and cobbled streets were all of quarried stone, stained bright red by some secret of pigmentation. The buildings were mostly flat-roofed, one-story ones, shops and stalls and dwellings. The inhabitants were swarming excitedly out of them as the cavalcade rode down the street.
Clark saw that at least half the men wore the crimson armor and the long swords—it was a strongly military population. The helmeted warriors, the simple architecture and weapons, all looked medieval to Clark, as though the civilization of this isolated, prisoned people had not progressed further than the Middle Ages of the outside world. There were many women, wearing extremely scanty white tunics that came only to their knees and left half their white breasts bare.
"Say, there's some good-lookin' dames in this burg," said Mike Shinn, the prize-fighter's eyes sweeping the crowd.
"And there are a lot of hard-looking warriors here too," Clark reminded him grimly. "Hands off, Mike."
"What the devil, we could put the blast on this mob easy," sneered Blacky Cain. "There isn't a gat in the whole crowd."
The men and women of K'Lamm seemed inspired with savage fury as they saw the girl prisoner in black armor, in front of Clark.
"Death to Lurain of Dordona!" they yelled, shaking swords and fists in imprecation. "Death and torture for the Dordonan wench!"
Lurain looked neither to right nor left. Again that strong, unwilling respect for the girl stirred in Clark Stannard.
"You are still our prisoner," he leaned forward to tell her. "They shall not take you from us."
"I do not fear them—nor you," snarled Lurain without turning. "The day comes when this Red spawn go to their doom."
At the end of the broad avenue down which they rode loomed the largest building in the city. It was an hexagonal scarlet tower, blunt and truncated, a hundred feet high, a squat, ugly structure. They dismounted in front of it, and the Red captain Dral strode to them.
"The king Thargo has been already informed of your coming and anxiously awaits you," he informed Clark smoothly.
"Lead the way," Clark said curtly. "Our prisoner goes with us." And as they started forward he muttered to his men, "Keep close together and don't make a move unless we're attacked."
They followed Dral into the building, past red-armored guards and down corridors. Dral clanked in the lead, Clark following with the girl, her dark head high, his five men rolling belligerently along and staring about with frank curiosity.
They emerged into a large, round banqueting-hall with red stone walls, lit by shafts of sunset from slit-like windows. All around it were tables, empty now except for one raised on a dais. There alone sat a man in the red helmet and armor, a great jewel blazing on his breast. Behind him hovered a wrinkled- faced, withered old man with sly eyes.
"The strangers and the captive, great king," announced Dral as he paused and bowed to the sitting man. The man stood up.
"You are welcome, strangers," Thargo told Clark. "Yes, more than welcome, when you bring as captive Lurain of Dordona."
Thargo, king of K'Lamm, was a big man. Well over six feet he towered, and his shoulders were as broad as Mike Shinn's. His shining red armor well set off that towering, great-thewed figure.
There was power in his face, not only the arrogant consciousness of utter authority, but hard power innate in the man himself. It was in the square, merciless mouth, in the flaring nostrils, strongest of all in the black, penetrating eyes behind which little devil-lights of mockery and amused contempt seemed to dance.
"Be ready for trouble," Clark muttered to his men. "It may pop right this minute."
For Dral, the Red captain, was now making a respectful report to his lord. And Thargo stiffened as he heard.
"So you claim the Black girl as your prisoner?" he said to Clark, his eyes narrowing.
Clark nodded curtly. "We do. We took her, and she is ours."
"Now why, strangers from outside, did you penetrate this land?" Thargo asked thoughtfully. "No others from outside have ever crossed the death mountains and entered. What object brought you here?"
"In the great world outside," Clark told him, "there are legends of a strange, shining lake in this land. We came in search of that lake, and once we find it, will return with some of its waters to our own land."
"The legends you heard were true, strangers," said Thargo, with changed expression. "That shining Lake of Life does exist in this land, but not here, not at K'Lamm. For many generations we of K'Lamm have been striving also to win to that lake. It may be," he added craftily, "that you and I should become allies. Dral tells me your weapons are strange and powerful. Together we would have no trouble in winning to the Lake of Life."
"Never will you win to the Lake, Red dog!" lashed Lurain's silver voice suddenly. "Even if you conquered us of Dordona, there are still—the Guardians."
"The Guardians?" echoed Thargo, then uttered a deep laugh. "Why, the Guardians are but a myth, a legend. For ages that myth has kept you of Dordona from the lake, but it shall not keep us. No!"
His nostrils were flaring with abrupt passion, his black eyes suddenly all devil. Clark seemed to glimpse in the man's wolfish face a long- repressed, eating ambition, a desire of superhuman intensity, baffled and raging. Then Thargo smiled smoothly at him.
"We shall talk of these things later, strangers. Meanwhile, you are welcome in K'Lamm. Tonight we banquet here in your honor, and until then the finest rooms in this palace are yours."
"Our prisoner goes with us," Clark said coolly.
"Your prisoner goes with you, of course," Thargo agreed smoothly. "But guard the little wildcat well, I warn you. I do not think she could escape from this palace"—a gleam of mirth crossed his eyes— "no, I do not think that, but she might do harm if not guarded.
"Dral will conduct you to your rooms," he finished courteously. "Until tonight, strangers."
Clark bowed curtly. Then, taking Lurain's tensed arm, he followed the suave captain out of the great banquet hall. His five men strode after him, and Dral led the way up a broad stone stair to an upper floor of stone-walled corridors and rooms. He conducted them into a suite of four large rooms.
Tapestries depicting combats of red and black armored soldiers hung on the walls, and lay on the floor. There were chairs and couches, and a series of great windows whose unshuttered openings looked out on the flat red roofs of K'Lamm, gleaming in the sunset. Dral bowed and left them, closing the door. The girl Lurain went over to the window and stood, a slim figure, looking silently out over K'Lamm.
"Say, what was all the powwow about?" Blacky Cain asked Clark. "This moll seemed to get the big shot's goat."
Clark told them briefly what had passed between him and Thargo.
"As far as I can see," Clark finished, "our best course is to play along with Thargo until we find out where we stand. He wants to get to the lake, that's evident—he believes that stuff about its waters conferring immortality. It's also evident that Lurain's people, the Dordonans, prevent him from reaching the lake and would prevent us also. Our best chance to reach this Lake of Life may be to throw in with Thargo."
"Why didn't you give up this girl to the Red king, then?" asked Lieutenant Morrow. "It would put us in solid with him."
"But Thargo would likely have had her killed or tortured," Clark objected. "It's plain he'd like nothing better."
"Well, what if he did?" shrugged the young ex-army officer indifferently. And Morrow's face was bitter with memory as he added, "Keeping her our own prisoner may wreck everything—it won't be the first time a woman's done it."
"Why, ye heartless scut," said Mike Shinn wrathfully, "would ye give up a spunky girl like that to be killed?"
"We're not giving her up," Clark said decisively. "I want to question her about the Lake of Life."
He advanced toward Lurain, and the Dordonan girl turned and met his gaze defiantly, with hot, stormy blue eyes.
"Lurain, just where is the Lake of Life?" Clark asked. "If you told us that, it may be we'd let you escape from here."
"Would you?" asked Lurain doubtfully, coming closer to him. Clark nodded quickly, in affirmation.
"Yes, we would. Can you tell us how to reach the lake?"
Lurain came so close that the haunting perfume of her blue-black hair was in his nostrils, her troubled eyes raised.
"I cannot tell the secrets of the sacred lake," she said slowly, worriedly. "But I can tell you—this!"
And her hand suddenly jerked out the sheath-knife at Clark's belt, and stabbed it with lightning speed at his heart.
Instinct can save itself where the momentary delay of reason would be fatal. It was not the first time in his life that Clark Stannard had seen the swift deadly flicker of steel licking toward his heart. The sight exploded his brain and body into instant action.
He threw himself staggeringly backward, and the bleak steel whizzed down through the front of his shirt, scoring his breast like a white-hot wire. Before Lurain could turn the blade and strike upward, Clark's brown hand grabbed her wrist. He twisted it, and was not gentle. There was a cold, savage anger in his brain. The knife clattered to the floor from the twisted hand. Lurain's blue eyes blazed out of a paper-white face, but she uttered no cry of pain or fear, hate throbbing from her.
"So you'd trick me, would you?" spat Clark harshly. "You'd kill me to keep me from reaching your sacred lake, eh?"
"Yes, I would!" Lurain's voice cracked like a silver whip, "You who would become Thargo's ally, who would help him and the other blasphemers of K'Lamm who lust for the lake—you deserve death!"
"I warned you," Lieutenant Morrow told Clark bitterly. "All women are alike—just playing you for a sucker."
"Say, the dame's got nerve!" said Blacky Cain, respect and admiration in the gangster's pale eyes.
"She sure has," grinned Link Wilson. "Reminds me of a litle Mex down in Agua Prieta who tried to knife me one night, when——"
"Hell, we can do without autobiography," rasped Clark. "Bring cords and we'll tie her hands—she's not safe unbound."
When they had finished securing the bonds around Lurain's wrists, the Dordonan girl sat and glared at them fiercely.
"Someone has to stay here and watch her while we're down at this banquet," Clark declared. "Not only because she might escape, but because I don't trust Thargo too far. Quell, will you stay?"
"I'll watch her," Ephraim Quell nodded dourly. "Don't ngger I'd care much for the goings-on down there, anyway."
Night fell quickly. From the window, K'Lamm stretched a mass of dark, flat roofs in the starlight, with windows and doors spilling red torchlight. Somber against the climbing stars bulked the looming, mighty barrier of the Mountains of Death.
Clark and his men shaved, brushed their clothes, and made what improvements they could in their appearance, by the light of the flickering torches servants had brought. Then Dral appeared, his long sword clanking on the stone floor as he entered.
"The lord Thargo awaits you at the banquet, strangers," he said, his eyes flickering toward the bound girl.
The great, round banquet hall flared brightly with ruddy torchlight when Clark Stannard and his four companions entered it after Dral. Now the tables that ran around the room were laden heavily with cooked meats and fruits and big glass flagons of black and yellow wines. At them sat more than a hundred men and women, the nobles and of feudal, medieval K'Lamm.
The men wore the red metal-mesh tunics and their swords, even at table. The women wore chitons of red stuffs much like the garments of the women they had seen in the city, but richer, embroidered with gold and jewels. Their upper breasts and arms were bare as in the old Cretan costume. They drank and laughed with the male feasters. But they and all in the hall fell silent, staring in eager curiosity at these five swaggering strangers who first in all the history of this land had entered from outside the deadly mountains.
"Welcome to our feast, strangers," Thargo greeted in his powerful voice. "Here are seats for you, and here are wine and meats and women, for we count you as ourselves who are, we hope, to be our allies in the great quest we soon shall make."
The Red king's face was frank and open, the sincerity of his greeting warming. But, Clark wondered, was there not a suppressed gleam in his black eyes, a quirk of secret amusement?
Clark took the backless metal chair held out for him, beside Thargo himself. His four followers were distributed further along the table. On the other side of Clark sat a languorous beauty introduced to him as Yala, the sister of Thargo. Despite his inward alertness, Clark could not but be moved to admiration by the coal-black hair, smooth ivory skin and audaciously revealed rounded figure of this princess of K'Lamm. Her velvety black eyes met his curiously.
But he turned toward Thargo. He felt that the time had come to learn what he could of the mysteries surrounding him:
"You still wish us, then, to become your allies in an attempt to reach the Lake of Life?" he asked bluntly.
"Very much I wish it," Thargo avowed frankly. "You carry weapons of a power unknown here, and they will make certain our victory; though I am sure that even without them, we still could crush Dordona."
"Where is the lake?" Clark demanded directly.
"It lies beneath us," Thargo answered.
"Aye," the Red king nodded. "Deep beneath this prisoned land, under leagues of solid rock, exists a great cavern, and in that cavern lies the shining Lake of Life."
"Then how in the world can you hope to reach it?" exploded Clark, stiffening.
"There is only one way down to that cavern of the lake," Thargo told him. "It is a pit, or shaft, whose mouth is in the city of our enemies, Dordona, near the eastern edge of this land. The river that flows through the mountains runs across this whole land, and drops into that pit.
"Long ago," Thargo continued, "our ancestors came into this land from the outside world. They climbed over the mountains, for at that time, so legend says, it was not death to tread the mountains, as it is now. They explored the land, and found the pit into which the river falls, and went down that pit into the cavern where lies the Lake of Life. And they learned that if they drank those waters they would become immortal, but they were forbidden to drink of them.
"They were forbidden, they said, by strange, unhuman beings who dwelled down in the cavern of the lake and guarded its waters of immortality. These beings, the Guardians, bade those exploring humans to return to the surface, and never again come down to drink of the waters, since that was an unholy thing. So the men returned in fear to the surface, obeying the command. And legend says that the Guardians then cast a deadly force on the mountains around this land, which still invests them, so that no more men might enter this land in future.
"The people who were already within this land founded a city around the mouth of that shaft to the underworld. They called the city Dordona and over the mouth of the pit they built a temple. They considered it blasphemy for any to think of descending the pit to the Lake of Immortality and, in their superstition, they slew any who dared to try it. For they were in great fear of the Guardians they believed dwelling below, though none but the first explorers had ever seen those beings.
"But as generations passed, age after age, rebellion grew up in the city Dordona. Many of its people said, 'Why should we die when beneath our feet lie the waters of immortality? Who are the Guardians, to forbid us the lake? Let us not allow them to monopolize the waters of immortality longer; let us go down and drink of them whether they permit it or not, so that we may become undying.'"
Thargo's fist clenched, his eyes glittered, as he continued, "Thus spake the rebellious ones in Dordona! They sought by force to enter the pit and descend to the lake. But most of the Dordonans were still swayed by superstitious fears of the mysterious Guardians. They put down the rebels by force, prevented them from entering the pit. After that, the rebels deserted Dordona and came here to the western edge of this land and founded a new city, this city of K'Lamm.
"And ever since then, we of K'Lamm have desired to go back and conquer the Dordonans and go down the pit to the Lake of Life. We had not the strength, at first. But during past generations, more and more people have deserted from Dordona to our city, coming to believe as we do that it is folly to grow old and die when immortality is in our grasp. So that now, stranger, we of K'Lamm are powerful enough at last to attack Dordona, crush the superstitious Blacks, force our way down to the shining lake, and drink its waters and achieve immortality!"
"You actually believe, then," Clark Stannard said incredulously, "that the waters of the lake would confer immortality?"
"I am sure of it!" Thargo said, his eyes flashing. "If we drink of them we shall never die* for they contain the pure essence of life itself. That fact, our exploring ancestors were sure about."
"Yet you're not afraid of meeting the legended Guardians, if you penetrate to the lake?" Clark asked curiously.
Thargo laughed contemptuously. "The Guardians do not frighten us, for we do not think they still watch down there by the lake. No man has seen them for ages, and even the few who saw them ages ago were not slain by them. I think that even if the Guardians still exist down there, they will not be able to stop us."
Here was a frank, unfearing skeptic, Clark thought. It was odd that while Thargo was so skeptical of the dreaded Guardians, he still believed in the impossible virtues of the shining lake.
"Why," Clark asked bluntly, "do you want our help, if you have enough forces to overwhelm Dordona, as you say?"
"We want it," Thargo said frankly, "not because we need your help—easily can we overcome Dordona—but because we do not want you against us, strangers, with your strange, powerful weapons. And for reward for joining us," the Red king added, "you shall drink the waters of the Lake of Life with us. You will become immortal, strangers, as we will."
Thargo's black eyes Bashed with strange light, his fist clenched tight, his voice pregnant with emotion.
"To be immortal—think what that will mean! To stride the world undying, generation after generation, feared and worshipped by the races that continue to die! By the sun, once I have drunk those waters of undying life, I will go forth from this prisoned land, will rule——"
He stopped abruptly, glancing at Clark with narrowed eyes. Then he continued in a smooth, lower tone.
"But what is your answer, stranger, now that you know the situation? Do you join forces with us to attack Dordona?"
Clark hesitated. A strong instinct told him not to commit himself.
"I think we will join you," he said slowly, "but before I give my word on it, I must speak with my followers. If we do join you, our reward is to be as much of the shining waters as we wish to take."
"Has that Dordonan wench Lurain tried to turn you against me?" Thargo asked suspiciously. "Has she endeavored to make you an ally of her doomed people?"
"She tried to kill me, but an hour ago," Clark said tartly. "There's no danger of my becoming her ally."
Yet it seemed to him that smoldering suspicion persisted in Thargo's eyes. Then the Red king laughed and exclaimed:
"But we will talk further of this in the morning. We neglect the feast."
He raised his big hand in a signal. From an alcove suddenly thrummed music, weird harmonies of plucked strings. It throbbed louder, wilder, and a score of supple girls in shimmering veils rushed lightly to the center of the torchlit hall.
They began to dance in the space between the tables, swaying, whirling and undulating to the barbaric rush of the music, their white limbs gleaming through the gossamer of the swirling veils.
"Whoopee!" shouted Mike Shinn happily over the wild music, from down the table. "This is better than a night-club."
"Don't bother me, Mike," drawled Link Wilson, his tanned reckless face bending toward a laughing girl beside him. "I'm doin' right fine in sign-language with this muchacha."
"I'll say this beats that damned jungle, anyway," Clark heard Blacky Cain saying with a rasping chuckle.
But Lieutenant Morrow sat drinking and staring moodily, with bitter eyes, at the whirling, weaving girls.
"You do not drink, lord from outside?" a soft voice reproached Clark. It was Yala, the sister of Thargo, bending toward him, her slender white fingers extending a goblet of the black, thick wine. "Is our wine then so poor beside that of the outside world?"
Clark took the goblet, tasted the liquor. It was heady stuff, potent, strangely scented. Yala's languorous eyes approved as he drained the cup. An alert servant refilled it from a flagon.
"Aye, drink all!" boomed Thargo's powerful voice over the music. "Drink to the day that is almost here, the day when we of K'Lamm win at last to the shining waters that will make us all undying."
"To the day!" shouted the excited, half-intoxicated feasters, draining the goblets and setting them down with a crash.
Clark Stannard felt sudden heady exaltation as he set down the goblet for the second time. The wine sang in his veins and suddenly life seemed wild, sweet, thrilling. It was good to have done with the old and outworn things of the world he had known, to sit here with this company in feast.
They were a good crowd, he thought warmly, as he drained the goblet again. They were making his men welcome, for now Mike Shinn was standing up and bellowing an Irish song, and they were laughing and applauding. Morrow was drinking heavily, silently, and the lank Texan had his arm around the girl next to him, and only Blacky Cain's dark, predatory face still remained watchful as the gangster sat there. What the deuce was Blacky so watchful about?—everyone here was their friend.
Thargo's powerful face had a smile of complete friendliness on it. Damned good scout, Thargo—by heaven, he and his men would help Thargo conquer those superstitious Dordonans! And the girl Yala swaying languorously closer to him, perfumed white shoulders and breasts rising out of her red chiton like a great lily, brooding sweetness of her black eyes making Clark's swimming senses reel!
"Are many men of the outer world as hard and handsome of face as you, lord from outside?" she whispered.
"That may be," Clark laughed, "but of this I'm sure—no women of that outer world are as beautiful as you, princess."
Her eyes were melting as she swayed closer, and slender satin fingers touched and twined about his in electrical contact.
Then as he bent unsteadily toward Yala, Clark just glimpsed an upward, meaning flash of her dark eyes, directed at Thargo. It chilled instantly through the winy haze around Clark's brain.
Danger here! shouted an alarmed voice inside him. He realized suddenly how near he was to intoxication. That wine—he'd already tossed off three or four goblets of it. And Yala was proffering him another beaker of the black stuff, with a soft smile.
"Wine brings gracious compliments from you, lord from outside. I would hear more—so drink."
Clark took the goblet. But now his half-hazy brain raced. Yala was trying to get him drunk, that was certain, and from the glance he had intercepted, he knew it was at Thargo's orders.
Nevertheless he took the goblet. But as he raised it, Clark feigned a far greater dazedness than he felt, letting his gaze wander dully, making his tongue thick when he spoke.
"Shouldn't drink any more," he muttered thickly to the leaning princess. "Doesn't take much—to knock me out."
"But you do not wish, surely, to deprive me of further compliments?" Yala's red, ripe mouth pouted bewitchingly.
Clark laughed unsteadily, though inwardly he was cold and alert. "Never—never say no to a lady. Here's to your eyes!"
He drained the goblet. The heady wine made his half-numbed senses spin, but he resolutely kept his head. Yet he feigned now a complete intoxication, hurled the glass away with a drunken laugh.
"Yala, I could give you compliments all night," he said maudlinly. "You're most—most beautiful woman—ever lived."
As his eyelids pretended to droop, Clark caught again that significant glance from the girl to her brother. Then she was leaning, her warm breath whispering in his ears.
"Would you rather tell me those things where there are not so many to listen, lord from outside?" she murmured.
"Sure, that's what we need—a little more quiet," Clark said sleepily. "My head, too—feels funny——"
"Come with me," she whispered softly. "I will take you where it is quiet—and where you can tell me all those things."
Her soft hand under his elbow impelled him to his feet. Clark swayed unsteadily, blinking owlishly over the torchlit hall and the noisy, riotous feasters. His dulled gaze was really keenly alert. He perceived that Shinn and Link Wilson were at the height of merriment with their Red neighbors, and that Morrow was still drinking heavily. But Blacky Cain was still alert, could be depended on to watch the others.
None of the feasters, in the din of laughter, clinking goblets and shouting voices, noticed as Clark Stannard stumbled out of the hall with Yala half supporting him. Yet Clark glimpsed Thargo looking keenly after them.
He stumbled with the princess of K'Lamm down shadowy stone halls, and finally into a great chamber which breathed of femininity. Silken hangings of yellow were on the walls, in the soft light of low-burning torches. Across the room was a low, soft silken couch, and above it a great window looked across the starlit roofs of K'Lamm.
Yala spoke a few soft words, and the two submissive-looking girls who had hurried forward, hastily withdrew. The Red princess led Clark to the couch, and as he sat down unsteadily, looking heavily about, she poured more of the black wine from a flagon in the room.
She drank also, her dark eyes looking over the rim of the glass with an expression that, despite himself, stirred his blood. Then she held the glass to his lips, her fingertips caressing his cheek.
"Drink with me to our—friendship," she murmured.
Clark drank. His brain seemed to float inside his skull as the additional alcohol leaped into his blood, but every fiber in him was taut and alert. He blinked at Yala as though she was hard for him to see. She came temptingly closer to him.
"Does the wine make me look—more beautiful?" she asked provocatively. Her arms went softly around his neck.
"Don't need wine for that," muttered Clark. He set his lips against her half-opened ones, his hands tightening on her bare, perfumed shoulders.
He knew the kiss was as feigned on her part as on his own. But for all that, it was none the less wildly thrilling. Then as she drew back a little from his embrace, eyes searching his dazed-looking face, Yala asked him seductively:
"Lord, tell me—am I more beautiful than the Dordonan girl you took captive—Lurain?"
"Much—much more beautiful," stammered Clark, his eyelids drooping, "She's just—little wildcat."
"Has Lurain asked you and your men to help Dordona in the coming war?" Yala asked him swiftly. "Has she made any offers to get you to ally yourselves with Dordona?"
Now, Clark knew suddenly, he had discovered the reason for this subtle temptation by Yala. Thargo was suspicious! Suspicious that Clark might have agreed with the Dordonan girl to aid her people, that he might be intending to betray K'Lamm! Thargo had had this girl, one capable of tempting an angel, get him intoxicated to question him.
"Lurain has not asked me to help Dordona," Clark said thickly, his eyes closing, his body swaying sleepily against Yala. "I—wouldn't listen to her if she did. The Dordonans she led tried to kill me and my men. We're—going to help Thargo conquer their city."
He heard the hiss of Yala's indrawn breath. Then she murmured softly, "You are tired, lord from outside. You must rest."
He let himself fall like a log onto the soft couch as she lowered him. Then he heard Yala stand up quickly. She bent over him as he lay with eyes closed, her breath warm on his face. He breathed in long snores, pretending heavy, drunken sleep.
Satisfied, Yala went to the door of the chamber and uttered a low call. Almost at once, Clark heard the tramp of heavier feet entering the chamber, two pairs of them. The first voice that spoke was Thargo's. He guessed the Red king had been waiting outside.
"You heard?" Yala was saying swiftly. "He is safely on our side—he will have nothing to do with Dordona."
"Yes, I heard," Thargo said. "I was suspicious because he would not give up the Dordonan princess to us. But no doubt he is keeping the girl for himself, simply because she is pretty."
"That half-boy fighting cat!" said Yala scornfully. "What would any man want with her?"
The voice of Thargo's companion interrupted. It was an age-cracked, ominous voice Clark guessed to be that of the withered old counsellor he had seen with Thargo when he had first met the Red king.
"Better to slay all these strangers tonight, by surprize, and make sure," he warned. "We of K'Lamm have more than enough force to conquer Dordona and win to the lake. We do not need the strangers' help."
"No, we will not slay them, Shama—not yet," Thargo said authoritatively. "Their weapons are powerful, from what Dral says. They might kill many of us before we slew them all, and that would be bad for the minds of our people at this time when we are on the very verge of our long-planned attack on Dordona. Besides, why not make use of these strangers to make our conquest even easier?
"This is what we shall do," he continued in a hard, rapid voice. "Four days from now, as we have planned, we ride to attack Dordona, and the strangers go with us. In the attack on the Black city, we will put them in the forefront. As soon as we have won Dordona and our way down to the Lake of Life lies clear and open, then we shall turn suddenly on the strangers and kill them all."
It was all Clark Stannard could do to keep his body from stiffening betrayingly as he lay in pretended drunken sleep, listening to those calmly treacherous words. Blind fury burned in him as he heard Thargo's callous plan to make use of him, then dispose of him. Yet he managed to preserve his appearance of intoxicated stupor. His muscles tensed as he heard Thargo's strong step come over to the couch, and he knew that the Red king was looking down at him.
"This drunken fool!" said Thargo contemptuously. "If he is a sample of the men of the outside world, they will not be hard for us to rule, once we have drunk of the lake and are immortal."
"Be not so sure," warned the old counsellor, Shama. "This man and his comrades have courage and cunning, or they could not have penetrated the death mountains no men ever came through before."
"He was not cunning enough," Thargo said scornfully, "to prevent a woman's eyes from making a sot of him. You did well what I asked, my sister. In fact, the task did not seem distasteful to you."
"Perhaps not," Yala said* with a soft laugh. "Fool he may be, but this man is—different. Until he and his men ride with your forces to Dordona four days hence, I think to find him amusing."
"That is your affair," Thargo said indifferently. "Best get him back to his chambers now before his men miss him. Shama and I return to the feast."
Clark heard the ruthless plotter and the aged counsellor leave. Then Yala bent over him, holding a pungent liquid to his nose and shaking him softly.
"Wake, lord from outside," she said tenderly. "You must not stay here longer—my brother would be angry."
Clark was careful to awake slowly, blinking and rubbing his eyes dazedly. "More wine," he muttered thickly. "Got to have more wine—so I can tell you—how beautiful you are——"
"You shall have opportunity for that in the next few days," Yala promised with a provocative smile. "You had best return to your chambers now and sleep, my lord. It seems that you are almost overcome by my beauty—or the wine!"
She went to the door and called, as Clark stumbled to his feet. A warrior in the crimson armor answered quickly.
"This soldier will conduct you to your chambers," Yala told him. "Until tomorrow, lord from outside."
Her fingers clung warmly to his in caressing promise. Clark nodded dazedly and staggered out into the hall. He stumbled with his guide by shadowy, torchlit corridors, up a stair to the upper floor. The warrior took him to the door of their chambers, bowed and left.
But Clark's apparently owlish gaze took in the fact that now there were a score of armored guards posted unobtrusively along the corridor outside their chambers. That showed that Thargo was still taking no chances—and that was going to make things difficult.
Ephraim quell looked up in surprize when Clark stumbled into the torchlit rooms and slammed the door. Quell's eyes ran over Clark's disordered hair and flushed face, and the girl Lurain, sitting taut as a trapped tigress in a chair, watched with bitter contempt.
"There's a Book that says, 'Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging,'" twanged Quell, his bony face condemnatory. "Figger you might ought to have read that, before you went down there."
"I'm not drunk," Clark rasped. "But I've found out a lot and it adds up to the total news that our lives are not worth a plugged nickel if we stay around here."
Quell jumped to his feet in alarm.
"Go down and get the others up here," Clark told him. "Don't appear too urgent about it—but get them!"
Ephraim Quell nodded tightly, and went out of the room. Clark Stannard went rapidly across the room to Lurain.
Clark's mind, racing at top speed ever since he had discovered Thargo's contemplated treachery, had hit upon a desperate plan. It was a hazardous one but the only one, as far as he could see, that would give him and his men a chance to reach the Lake of Life now.
To stay longer in K'Lamm would merely allow Thargo to make pawns of them and then kill them. There was but one other possible course of action by which they might win to the lake.
Lurain's blue eyes blazed hatred as Clark approached. To her amazement, he cut her bonds.
"Lurain, I must talk with you and talk fast," he said swiftly. "I've discovered that Thargo intends to kill me and my men, as soon as we've helped him conquer your city of Dordona."
"I am glad!" she blazed. "Now you learn the full evil of these Red spawn. They will kill me, but you also will die."
"Listen, you and your men came spying on K'Lamm to learn when Thargo and his forces will attack your city, didn't you?" Clark demanded, heedless of her hate. "Well, I can tell you that. Thargo and his men will ride toward Dordona in four days."
"Four days?" whispered Lurain, her face suddenly going dead white. "But we did not dream he would attack so soon—my people will be surprized—he will overwhelm Dordona!"
"Exactly," rasped Clark. "He will, unless we carry a warning to Dordona."
"You mean you strangers will help me escape, help me warn Dordona?" the girl exclaimed, with sudden desperate hope.
"We will," Clark said grimly, "and what is more, we will fight on the side of Dordona in the coming battle. You have seen how powerful our weapons are—it may be that our help will turn the tide against K'Lamm. But, for all this, there is a price."
"What price, for your aid?" Lurain demanded.
"The price," Clark told her, "is this: that when we reach Dordona, you shall take me down the pit to the Lake of Life, so that I may fill a flask with its shining waters to take back to the world outside. For that price, I and my men will aid your people."
"No!" flamed Lurain, leaping erect, her face blazing with wrath. "By the sun, never will I pay that price! Ages on ages have we of Dordona faithfully obeyed the commandments given us long ago by the Guardians below. Never have we permitted one blasphemer to descend to the lake. To allow you to do so would be supreme sacrilege. I reject your proposal. I would rather die!"
"But Dordona will die too, if it is not warned," Clark pointed out. "Yes, all its people will perish when Thargo leads the armies to K'Lamm into the city in surprize attack. And then Thargo will be able to descend to the lake and drink of it."
"The Guardians are there and will destroy Thargo and his horde if they dare descend," Lurain retorted fiercely.
"Are you so sure the Guardians are there?" Clark said. "Are you sure they exist? None in your city has seen them for ages."
"The Guardians are there!" Complete, unshakable faith of generations rang in the girl's voice. "Though Thargo and his spawn doubt their existence, they exist and still ward the sacred lake. Their powers are vast and they will slay any who approaches the lake, doubt it not."
"But then, why not agree to let me descend to the lake?" Clark pressed quickly. "If the Guardians are there, they will not let me touch the shining waters anyway, will they? The blame will not be yours, for you warned me. And by agreeing to let me go down there, you will save Dordona from surprize and death."
Lurain's face expressed doubt, hesitation, agony for her imperilled city. Clark hung on her answer. He was hoping the girl's blind faith in the legended Guardians of the lake was strong enough so that she would agree to let him go, as she supposed, to his death.
She said finally, her voice low and shaken, "It is true that the Guardians will kill you when you descend to the lake. The sin of letting you descend there will be on my soul. But—Dordona will be warned in time to prepare for Thargo's attack.
"Yes, I agree," she continued with desperate resolution on her face. "Help me escape from K'Lamm, promise to give my city your help in the coming war, and when we reach Dordona I will show you how you may descend the sacred shaft."
"Good!" Clark exclaimed, his heart quickening with excitement. "Now if we can just get safely out of K'Lamm——"
The door opened, and Ephraim Quell grimly entered, followed by Clark's other four followers. Mike Shinn was fighting drunk, bawling a song, his battered face glistening. Link Wilson too was flushed with wine, but Lieutenant Morrow and Blacky Cain were sober—the first because the drink had not affected him, the second from abstinence.
"What's the lay, chief?" rasped Blacky. "Something wrong?"
"A lot wrong," Clark snapped. He told them in curt sentences of Thargo's plot. A vicious oath ripped from the gangster.
"Double-crossing us, eh? We'll go down and put the blast on him, damn him!"
"Sure, I'll choke the dirty scut with me bare hands!" raged Mike Shinn furiously.
"Listen," Clark rapped, "we'll have alt we can do to escape this trap without bothering for revenge on Thargo. We're going to get out of here, at once—and join the people of Dordona."
Rapidly he told them of the agreement he had made with Lurain. The Dordonan girl stood tense and pale as he talked.
"It's a great idea!" exclaimed Blacky. The gangster laughed. "We'll hand Thargo a double-cross, and when we get to this other burg, Dordona, we can easy lift the water from the lake below."
"How are we going to get out of K'Lamm?" Lieutenant Morrow asked quickly. "How out of this palace, even?"
"We can't go down through the palace itself." Clark said emphatically. "The guards posted out there in the corridor would give the alarm. There's the way we'll have to take out."
He pointed to one of the big, open windows, that looked out across the dark city and the starry sky.
"We'll slide down from that window on a rope of some kind," Clark said quickly. "Behind the palace I noticed a court where the horses of the palace guards are evidently kept at night. If we can sneak back there and get mounts, we'll make a dash out through the city."
"That's the idea," approved Link Wilson, his eyes lighting. "We can ride right out through these hombres."
"What if the gates of the city wall are closed?" Morrow asked.
Clark shrugged. "I don't think they will be. I doubt if they close those gates every night—this city fears no attack from Dordona."
The six adventurers acted rapidly. While Ephraim Quell listened watchfully at the door, Clark and the others tore down the wall hangings and converted them into heavy, knotted rope. They tied the end of the rope to a heavy chest, then dropped it into the darkness outside.
The men quickly shouldered their packs. Clark peered from the window. There were no sentries in the palace yard immediately beneath, though he heard movement of some at the front of the building. The walled courts in the rear of the palace were silent except for an occasional stamping of the restless horses back there.
Clark hung for a moment, transfixed by the weird beauty of the scene. The moon was rising above the mountain wall in the east, a flood of silvery light pouring across the prisoned land. And bathed in the moon slept the city K'Lamm, a sea of dully gleaming roofs and streets and squares. Solemn and somber bulked the dark mountains, crouched above the city. Then Clark Stannard snapped out of the spell.
"Come on, that moonlight will make it harder for us," he whispered urgently. "Lurain, you follow me closely."
"Yes, Stannar," she whispered, approximating as closely as she could the name she had heard the others call him.
Clark swung over the stone window-rail and slid softly down the knotted rope through the moonlight, to the ground. He poised there in the shadow, gun in hand. No sound broke the sleeping hush.
Now Lurain was following, her black metal-mesh tunic gleaming in the silver moon. Mike Shinn and Lieutenant Morrow came after, and in a moment they all stood in the shadow of the looming palace wall, their pistols glinting in their hands.
They moved at once toward the rear of the sleeping palace, stepping soundlessly on the stone paving. There seemed no guards outside the big building. Neither were there any outside the broad wooden door of the walled horse-court. The door creaked, and they slipped inside.
There were a score of horses in the court, and as the strangers entered, the animals stamped nervously, tossed their heads suspiciously in the moonlight. Clark's gaze searched the court desperately. But it was Link Wilson who spotted the saddles and bridles, hanging on a rail at one side of the court. Quickly they grasped these and approached the restless horses.
The horses snorted, stamped, wheeled away with hoofs ringing loudly on the paving. Clark cursed inwardly as they again approached the nervous steeds. Link Wilson talked to the horses in a low, soothing monotone as he advanced. The ex-cowboy was soon saddling one of them, and Morrow too and also Lurain had got others to stand still. Clark noticed that the girl worked as silently and swiftly as any of the men, her face showing no particle of fear in the silver light. His heart warmed again to her proud, unwavering courage.
He got one of the restive horses by the mane, and quickly attached the high, queer saddle and the rude bridle. Quell also managed to saddle one, but Mike Shinn and Blacky were having the devil's own time, hanging onto horses that had begun to plunge and rear.
"Help Mike, Link," whispered Clark quickly to the Texan. As the other obeyed, Clark hurried to aid the gangster, leading his own saddled steed.
"This damned goat has got the devil himself in him!" whispered Blacky furiously as Clark reached him. "I wish we had a good eight-cylinder jaloppy for the getaway, instead of these plugs."
Clark grabbed the saddle from the gangster and threw it over the plunging, rearing animal.
"Guards!" cried Lurain suddenly, her silver voice stabbing.
Clark whirled, still holding the mane of the plunging horse. Two armored guards, attracted by the commotion in the horse-court, stood framed in the half-opened door, staring. Then with a yell of alarm, drawing their swords, they rushed forward.
Blacky Cain's automatic sprang into his hand, and with a snarl on his lips, the gangster shot. The reports cracked in close succession and the two charging soldiers fell in heaps.
"That ties it!" cried the gangster. "Now we got to crash our way out!"
"More guards come," called Lurain's high voice, completely calm and unfearful but urgent, as she snatched up one of the swords of the fallen men.
The yell of alarm had been repeated near the looming palace, and there was a clank of running men. Clark Stannard fought furiously to tie the girths of the struggling horse. He finally succeeded, and then he yelled to Blacky Cain.
"Here you are! Mount at once, all of you!"
Now an uproar was spreading through the whole pile of the hexagonal palace, and shouts and clash of arms could be heard from all around it, converging on the horse-court.
Clark swung into the saddle. As he jerked the reins to control the rearing animal, he saw that outside the horsecourt a scattered body of twenty or thirty Red guards were rushing forward with drawn swords gleaming in the moonlight.
"We'll have to break out through them!" Clark yelled. "Ride!"
And he dug his heels into his steed's flanks. The nervous animal needed no further urging, and sprang forward toward the door with hoofs clanging on the pavement. Right beside Clark rode Link Wilson, the Texan sitting easily in the saddle, the rest thundering after.
Straight into the scattered band of guards at the door of the court they rode. Clark glimpsed their drawn swords, then heard the boom of a gun beside him, over the din of hoofs and yells. Link Wilson had drawn one of his forty-fives and was shooting as they charged. Three of the guards slumped down as the heavy slugs hit them.
They crashed through the other guards, a mad whirlwind of riders and steeds, the soldiers and stabbing swords seeming to spin around them. Then, with the swiftness of a cinema film, they were through the soldiers, riding full tilt around the big palace toward the great avenue that led to the city wall.
Other guards ran wildly out from the palace, swords raised in the moonlight. Clark had his own gun out now and fired, and heard Link Wilson's pistol booming again. He saw Lurain bending low over her mount's neck and slashing at a guard whose spear struck toward her. The man went down and she rode right over him, and the little band raced clattering down the wide street of the awakening city.
"The spawn of K'Lamm cannot stand against us, Stannar!" cried Lorain's silver, pealing voice as she rode.
"Yippee!" yelled Link Wilson, the ex-cowboy, drunk with reckless excitement as his horse galloped furiously over the paving.
"The whole city is rousing!" shouted Lieutenant Morrow, spurring his horse beside Clark's.
They thundered down that wide dark street to the accompaniment of mad yells of rage from behind them, and startled cries along the street. A few men ran out as though to intercept them, but recoiled abruptly as the desperate little band rode down on them.
Clanging of hoofs on stone, chorus of yells and orders, were wild music in Clark Stannard's ears as he and his men and the Dordonan girl thundered down the street of moonlit K'Lamm. He saw torches flickering and bobbing ahead of them.
"Look!" yelled Ephraim Quell suddenly over the din. "The gates——"
"Faster!" cried Clark wildly, as he saw at what the Yankee skipper pointed.
The great gates in the city wall had been open, as Clark had guessed. But now, alarmed by the clamor at the distant palace, the guards around those gates were hastily pushing against the mighty bronze valves, were closing them.
If they close those gates, we're trapped!" yelled Clark.
They spurred desperately forward. From the guard-towers on either side of the gate, several dozen soldiers had run out and formed a line in front of the gate. Behind that line, a half-dozen other Red warriors were slowly forcing the great valves shut.
"Ride through them!" Clark shouted. "It's now or never."
They crashed into that solid line of guards—and stopped! For these soldiers grabbed their bridles and stirrups and clung to them, holding them, stabbing at them with their swords. The crazed horses whirled and plunged in a mad inferno of struggle, the riders rising like swimmers above a wave of armored men and slashing swords.
Clark felt a blade sear along his forearm, and glimpsed the brutal face of the Red warrior stabbing at him. His gun kicked in his hand and the man fell with his forehead driven in. Clark shot again, trying to clear away the men clinging to his bridle. Link Wilson's heavy gun was booming, while Blacky Cain, his eyes blazing and a frozen killer mask on his face, was viciously shooting the men trying to pull him down.
"Dordona! Dordona!" pealed a silver cry from the girl Lurain, wielding her sword with wildcat swiftness and fury.
The gates were almost closed! And from far back at the palace of Thargo, masses of soldiers were coming on the run. Clark had a cold, sinking sense that they were trapped. Then he heard a hoarse cry.
"Out of my way, you scum!" Ephraim Quell shouted, forcing through his attackers, clubbing his reversed gun on their heads.
Quell broke through them. Clark saw the bony Yankee skipper break through on his mount to the half-dozen men who now had pushed the gates within a foot of closing. Ephraim Quell's gun-butt smashed down among them, sent them reeling, his horse trampling them. The Yankee leaped from his horse, swiftly pulled on one of the great valves.
He pulled it open a few yards, by frenzied, tremendous effort. But the men he had scattered were on their feet again, rushing at him and stabbing with their swords. Quell reeled back from them.
Clark shouted, his voice ringing over the mad din, and the others heard and pushed desperately forward. The horses, maddened by the struggle to the pitch of frenzy, surged forward crazily toward the gate-opening that promised freedom, trampling down the clinging guards.
Clark's gun blazed the last of its clip, and the men stabbing at Quell fell. Link Wilson spurred in, grabbed the Yankee skipper's horse, helped haul the bony seaman up onto it. Then before the guards they had broken through could reach them again, their horses were bolting out through the opened gates. Wild from the battle and unaccustomed gunfire, they plunged for freedom, Clark's and Lurain's steeds jamming momentarily in the narrow opening.
Then they were all out in the open moonlight of the plain, the dark walls and confusion and raging shouts of K'Lamm behind them. Plunging, racing, snorting, the horses galloped wildly over the moonlit sea of grass and brush. The wild uproar of the Red city receded swiftly.
"Which way to Dordona?" cried Clark to Lurain, shouting to her over the rush of wind.
"We follow the way now," she cried. "Due east from here it lies—we go to the river, and along it to my city."
Now the horses were settling to a steady, rushing lope as their frenzy of panic quieted a little. Clark turned in the saddle, but there was no sign of pursuit as yet from K'Lamm.
But none of them had escaped unscathed. Mike Shinn had a bleeding cut on his forehead; Blacky Cain had one sleeve slashed to ribbons; the rest all had small cut or stab wounds. Only Ephraim Quell, riding grimly forward with jacket buttoned tightly against the wind, appeared to have escaped without injury.
Clark leaned toward the Dordonan girl riding close beside him. Lorain had a cut across one bare knee, but it was not serious. As they galloped, she looked tautly back to where K'Lamm had dropped from sight in the moonlight.
"They will try to follow but they cannot trail us by night, and they dare not go too close to Dordona in small parties," she said. Then she laughed. "I would like to see Thargo's face now."
Ahead in the dim moonlight there soon loomed vaguely a long, low line of dark trees. It marked the river, and they reached it in a quarter-hour. The dull roar of the stream was loud, as it raced with the swiftness of a mountain-flume toward Dordona.
As they rode along it, heading east, the first gray streak of dawn showed ahead. Clark's hopes were soaring. Every beat of the hoofs brought them nearer to Dordona, where lay the pit that was entrance to the Lake of Life. He'd yet succeed in reaching it—he had the girl's word now that he could descend to it.
Ephraim quell suddenly toppled stiffly from his horse. They reined in hastily and Clark ran to the Yankee's side. Quell's bony face was a ghastly, stiff mask, his eyes closed. From under his coat welled a dark stain, and when Clark ripped the coat open, he saw that beneath it had been concealed two deep sword-wounds.
"Good God! Quell was badly wounded when he kept the gate from closing, but he said nothing to us!" Clark exclaimed. Ephraim Quell's glazed eyes flickered at Clark's drawn, tense countenance. A smile glimmered in them.
"I'm—'bout ready to cast anchor," Quell muttered. "Felt the life running out of me, as I rode——"
"Quell; you're not dying!" Clark said desperately. "We'll get you to Dordona, and pull you through."
"No, I'm done for," whispered the seaman. "And—I don't mind. Ever since my ship burned and they took my certificate, I—haven't cared much about living.
His glazed eyes fixed on the eastern sky, pale with dawn. A cool breeze had begun to blow from there, stirring the grass. The Yankee skipper's lips moved, almost inaudibly.
"Fair skies and a good wind—today " he whispered. Then his head lolled laxly, his eyes dull, dead.
Clark let him down and got to his feet. There was a hard lump in his throat but he made his voice harsh.
"Mike—Blacky—keep a watch to the south and west. Link and Morrow and I will bury him."
In the paling dawn, they scooped a grave under a tree beside the roaring river, using a little camp-spade from one of the packs. White mists of morning made everything unreal as they put Ephraim Quell's stiff body into the shallow grave, and covered it.
"Mount! Forward!" Clark ordered.
Again they galloped, hoofs thudding above the river roar, bearing them on through swirling white mists.
"I'm kind of glad," said Link Wilson's drawling voice finally, "that we buried him where he can hear water."
"Yeah," muttered Mike Shinn. "Quell was a good guy. He was a great guy."
An hour later, Lurain suddenly reined in her horse and pointed eagerly ahead. "There is Dordona!"
Five miles ahead rose the eastern wall of the great crater, the mighty, looming barrier of the mountains. Close under the frowning cliffs brooded ancient, crumbling Dordona. Black, silent, brooding like a withered ancient who has long ago fallen from greatness, it lay in the chill white mists, strange contrast to the city from which they had come.
Behind the black battlements of an encircling wall whose top had crumbled at places, rose a mass of antique towers and roofs of dull black stone, weathered by the winds and rains of ages. Under a water-gate in the dilapidated wall ran the roaring, mill-race river they had followed. It ran straight toward a building at the center of the city, a huge black dome that towered two hundred feet into the air.
The gates in the black wall were pushed open as they approached. Soldiers in black armor waved their swords in the air and yelled joyful greetings to Lurain, riding now at the head of the little troop. And as they rode on into the city, from somber, crumbling buildings poured men and women with shouts of gladness.
"Lurain! The princess Lurain has returned!" they shouted.
Clark Stannard, looking about keenly, saw that indeed Dordona had long passed the zenith of its glory. Many of the black stone buildings were untenanted, falling to ruins. Green grass grew between the blocks of black paving in the streets.
And the people pouring forth were not nearly so numerous as the Reds, he saw. Clark sensed despair under their momentary joy, read hopelessness on their pale faces, the hopelessness of great fear.
"Say, we'll be the white-haired boys in this joint for bringing back the girl," Mike Shinn said happily.
"There aren't enough men here to defend this city properly," Lieutenant Morrow told Clark keenly. "The place is too big now for its population, and the wall hasn't been kept up."
Clark nodded grimly. "From what Thargo said, the population of this place has been steadily dwindling for a long time."
"We go to the Temple of the Shaft," Lurain called to Clark. "My father, the lord Kimor, will be there."
They rode after her toward the huge, black-domed temple that brooded at the center of the city. It loomed massively in front of them, incomparably the largest and most ancient building they had seen in this land. For it was old, the stone paving in front of it worn deep by ages of tramping feet, its slot-windows crumbling at the edges.
Guards took their horses, and swung open the high bronze doors of the temple. Lurain led the way inside, her slim, boyish figure striding with her sheathed sword rattling on the stone floor. Clark and his men, following her inside, paused for a moment, thunderstruck.
The interior of the temple was one co lossal room, dim and dusky and vast, its only illumination shafts of sunlight from the slot-like windows. And it was throbbing and quivering to a thunder of bellowing sound that was deafening, an unbroken, tremendous roar of waters.
The racing river from outside ran right into the temple, through a gap in one wall. The waters rushed with blinding speed across the floor of the vast room, in a deep, wide canal, toward a round, black opening a hundred feet across that yawned at the center of the floor. Into this gaping abyss, the river tumbled with a reverberating thunder.
Clark and his men moved nearer the pit, stood on the very edge of the abyss. He peered down into an impenetrable darkness that seemed to go down to the bowels of the earth. He could make out that the vertical sides of the pit were of rough rock, in which had been carved the steps of a narrow, spiraling stair. The head of this stair was closed by a barred gate guarded by Black warriors. And the raging cataract of waters, leaping out over the edge of the pit, tumbled down its center in a tremendous waterfall, dropping into the dark.
"Good God! this must be the way down to the cavern far below—to the Lake of Life!" exclaimed Clark, stupefiedly.
"Say, I don't hanker to go down there," said Mike Shinn, awed. "It looks to me like the doorway down to purgatory."
Lurain was coming around the edge of the pit now, bringing with her a half-dozen Dordonan men in black armor.
"My father, Stannar!" she said.
Clark turned to confront Kimor, the ruler of Dordona.
Kimor was sixty years old, at least, a tall, arrow- straight, superbly muscled man with white hair and pointed white beard, and fierce, shaggy white eyebrows over keen, watchful blue eyes.
"Strangers, you are welcome!" he told Clark. "My daughter has told me how you helped her escape K'Lamm and bring us warning of the attack which Thargo plans for three days hence. We expected no attack for weeks—there is hardly time to prepare.
"We of Dordona will be grateful for your help in the coming battle." Kimor continued. "Lurain informs me you are from outside the mountains, and bear weapons of great and strange power. You can aid us much, and any reward we can give you will be yours."
"Why, we ask but one reward," Clark said, looking puzzledly at Lurain. "It is what I told your daughter—that we be allowed to go down that stair in the pit to the Lake of Life, and bring back a flask of its waters. For that reward, we have joined you."
Kimor's fierce face turned dead-white as he heard. His eyes blazed fire of outraged, fanatical fury, and he ripped out his sword from its sheath. And from the Dordonans behind him came wrathful, raging cries as they too drew their weapons, their faces contorted.
"You ask that?" thundered Kimor to Clark. "You ask leave from us to commit the supreme sacrilege that no man may commit and live? Your very request is a sacrilege to this Temple of the Shaft! Nobles of Dordona, kill these men for their blasphemy!"
Blacky Cain's gun leaped into his hands, and the others followed his example swiftly as the Dordonan warriors leaped forward with upraised swords, wild wrath on their faces.
"Don't shoot!" Clark yelled tensely.
For Lurain had sprung in front of the charging nobles and her fanatical father, halting them with an urgent gesture.
"Wait!" she cried. "These are strangers from outside our land—they do not know that it is blasphemy they speak. They will not ask for such a thing when they understand that it is a sacrilege."
"So this," Clark grated to the girl, "is how you keep the bargain you made with me!"
"I do not understand you, stranger," she said coldly, and turned back to Kimor. "You will forgive their ignorance, father?"
"They should be slain for such blasphemy," said Kimor fiercely. But slowly, reluctantly, he sheathed his sword, and said, "They are forgiven because they are strangers who know not the law. But let them repeat their blasphemy, let them even but glance at the sacred shaft, and it shall mean their deaths."
"Looks like the girl's double-crossed us," rasped Blacky Cain. "Shall we try to crash our way down into that pit? It looks like suicide to me to go down that damned stair, but we'll do it if you say."
"Put away your guns," Clark said quickly to the gangster and the others. "There are too many of them here for us, and the whole city would come running. Later on, we may be able to enter the pit."
Then he turned back to Kimor and Lurain. The girl showed no sign of emotion as she met his bitterly accusing gaze.
"We withdraw our request, since it is against your law," Clark told the fierce old Dordonan ruler.
"Well that you do," said Kimor grimly, "for I tell you no man for ages has been permitted to enter the sacred shaft."
He continued, "You shall be given a dwelling for your use, and food and wine. If you wish to help us against the Reds, your help is welcome. But whether you help or not, you cannot go near this pit. You are forbidden from now on to enter this temple, under pain of death."
"We understand," Clark said tightly. His gaze again sought Lurain's face, charged with his bitter scorn.
Two of the black-armored warriors, at Kimor's command, led Clark and his men out of the temple. They conducted them along the crumbling streets, whose occupants watched the strangers curiously.
Clark's thoughts were bitter. Lurain had tricked him neatly—had had no intention of fulfilling the promise she had made him. They were here in Dordona, but as far from the shining lake as ever.
The two Dordonan guides left them outside a weathered, one-story building of black stone, with a promise that food and drink would be brought them. The interior of the building, they found when they entered, was one of dark, gloomy rooms, its furniture and floor covered with dust, everything here exuding antiquity.
"Just as lief bed down in a mausoleum!" grunted Mike Shinn in disgust as he tossed his pack into a corner and sat down.
"What," Lieutenant Morrow asked Clark keenly, "are we going to do now?"
"We're going to get into that pit, somehow, by force or stealth," Clark declared. "We'll wait until tonight, steal into the temple, and overpower the guards at the head of the stair. Then we can get down the shaft, and I think they're too superstitious to pursue us."
"But they'll be waitin' for us when we come back up," reminded Link Wilson. "That is, if we do come back up."
"It will be up to us then to fight our way through them," Clark said grimly. He added bitterly, "Lurain broke her bargain with us; so our promise to help them in the coming war no longer holds. If we get back up with the flask of water from the lake, we'll get out of Dordona as soon as we can."
The day passed slowly. Clark Stannard and his men went out into the streets of the crumbling black city for a time. Apparently they sauntered idly, but in reality were mapping a route to the temple, one that they could follow with less chance of being observed. He noticed the Dordonan people now shunned them, looking at them in half-veiled hate. News of their blasphemy had apparently spread in the city.
Night fell, and Clark watched the moon rise over the ancient city. Then after some hours had passed, he led the others into the dark back rooms of their dwelling, intending to slip out that way. But as he entered the darkness there, he glimpsed a moving figure in the blackness. Instantly he leaped at the other, grasped him by the throat.
"It's a spy!" he grated. "If they've found out what we're planning, we're sunk." And he rasped in the language of Dordona to his prisoner, "One shout and you die."
"Release me—I will not shout," gasped a voice.
"Lurain!" he exclaimed. "What in the world——"
He dragged the girl over to one of the windows, where the moonlight illuminated her white, strange face and distended eyes.
"What are you doing, spying on us?" Clark demanded, his face hardening as he remembered.
"No, I came to fulfill the promise I made you, to lead you down to the holy lake!" she gasped. Her words poured forth in a torrent as Clark stood in stunned surprize. "Stannar, why did you tell my father Kimor you wished to descend to the lake? That was madness!"
"But you had promised me that you would see that I got down the shaft," Clark said bewilderedly.
"You do not understand," Lurain told him. "I made that promise, yes—but what I meant was that I would secretly take you down the shaft; for if my father knew of it he would slay us instantly for the sacrilege—yes, even me, his daughter. I thought you understood that and would be silent about the lake until I could fulfill my promise."
"Lord,* I've misjudged you, Lurain," Clark told her impulsively. "Come to think of it, it was rather asinine of me to blurt out my whole business without making sure how things stood. But I hadn't had time to think, I guess, in the rush of our escape."
"And I had to pretend ignorance when you reproached me," she said. "But I have come now, Stannar. I shall fulfill my promise and take you down to the cavern of the Lake of Life. The sin will be on my head, not on my father and people. And my sin will be expiated, for surely the Guardians will slay us down there for our sacrilege."
She was trembling violently, though her voice was steady. Clark Stannard stared at her, frowning.
"You believe that?—believe we're both going to die down there, Lurain? And yet you're willing to keep your promise?"
"Yes," the girl told him. "I gave you my word, and you brought warning to Dordona as you promised. My death matters not,"
Clark suddenly put his arms around her, and as he held her quivering figure he could feel the pounding of her heart.
"Lurain, you're not going to die—neither of us will die," he told her reassuringly. "There are no Guardians down there—that is legend only. Even if they were there, I have my weapon."
She said nothing, but he knew she was convinced of the futility of all human weapons against those mysterious warders. He turned to his four men, who had listened tensely in the dark room.
"You'll stay here," Clark told them. "I should be back by morning with the waters from the lake, if all goes well."
"Why don't we go with you?" Blacky demanded.
But when Lurain understood the question, she shook her head. "No, I promised but to take you, Stannar. Your men would only be destroyed down there as we will be, and their help will be needed here when Thargo comes to attack Dordona."
"Remember, you're bound by my promise to help these Blacks against Thargo," Clark told his men, "whether or not I return."
Then Clark brought from his pack the leaden flask he had brought so far, along such a dangerous trail in preparation for this time. He paused then for a moment, before the silent quartet.
"Good luck, boys, if I don't come back," he said.
"The same to you, chief, and it's me thinks you're going to need it," muttered Mike Shinn, as they shook hands.
"We go out the back of this dwelling," whispered Lurain, to Clark. "Follow me—and be very silent."
He emerged with her into the checkered moonlight and shadow of one of Dordona's silent streets. The girl, he saw now, carried a short, pointed metal bar. She led by deserted alleys of crumbling ruins, not toward the great temple, but toward a ruined, deserted stone building a quarter-mile from the great dome.
Clark followed her wonderingly into the ruin. She led across a room strewn with debris of crumbling stone, and knelt on the corner of the stone floor. He knelt puzzledly beside her, turning his tiny flashlight beam on the weathered blocks of the floor.
"Dig out these blocks," whispered Lurain, pointing to the floor. "I will hold the light."
"But I don't " Clark began, then halted and obeyed. It was evident that Lurain knew what she was about.
With the metal bar she had brought, he soon dug out four of the big blocks. There was revealed beneath them a dark, burrow-like opening in the earth, the mouth of a horizontal underground passage. Lurain dropped quickly down into this, and Clark followed. Turning his beam, he discovered the passage was shoulder-high, extending away through the solid rock.
"This passage," Lurain whispered, "was dug secretly many generations ago, by plotters in the city who wished to reach the pit and go down the stairs to the Lake of Life. They were of the rebels of that time who finally left Dordona to found the city K'Lamm. They could not enter the pit from the temple, for the stair-head there is always guarded, as you saw. So they dug this passage, opening into the pit below.
"Just as they finished their sacrilegious work," she continued, "their plot was detected. They were slain before they could make use of the passage, and it was blocked up and its existence kept secret. But the rulers of Dordona have known of it, and as daughter of the present ruler I knew of it. It is the one way we can enter the pit, for if we tried to enter it in the temple, the guards there would kill us at once."
Clark's hopes bounded. "Let's get on, then."
He led the way, flashing his beam ahead. As they advanced in the passage, they heard a dull roar that became louder and louder. Clark knew it was the sound of the cataract falling into the sacred shaft, and his excitement increased. Lurain, pressing on behind him, was shivering.
They reached the end of the passage. They crouched, petrified by the stupefying view ahead. The opening in which they crouched was twenty feet below the floor of the temple, in the rock side of the stupendous pit. Right below and outside this opening lay the narrow steps of the spiraling stone stair.
Out there in the pit, not ten yards from them, there gleamed in the faint light from above the falling waters of the thundering cataract, the river from far away that tumbled headlong down into this unguessable abyss. Its roar seemed to shatter their cars, and its flying spray was cold on their white faces.
Clark gripped his nerves and crawled out onto the stone steps. The steps were not four feet wide, grown with the slimy green moss of ages, drenched and dripping with spray. Looking up, he could just glimpse the moonlit interior of the great temple, could just see the heads of the armored guards on duty at the head of the stair.
Looking down, he could see nothing—nothing but an unplumbed abyss of darkness into which the waters tumbled, and round whose side dropped the coils of the spiral stair. Clark's nerves shrank, appalled for the moment from the thought of venturing down into that enigmatic gulf, along tli at slippery, ancient way. Then his jaw set in renewed resolution. Below lay what he had come so far to seek.
"Lurain, we go downward now," he told the girl, raising his voice over the roar. "Would you rather wait here?"
"No, Stannar—I go with you," she cried. "My promise was to lead you to the lake itself."
Cautiously, every nerve strung taut, Clark stepped downward, feeling with his foot for the next step. He dared not use the flashlight here, so near the surface. The wet, mossy stone was slippery under his feet, threatening to send him slipping and sliding off the unrailed stair. Sick dizziness swept him as he visualized himself plunging downward, racing those tumbling waters in a nightmare fall.
Now he and Lurain had followed the spiral stair twice around the falling cataract, were deeper below the surface. They were in almost complete darkness. Spray stung their cheeks, gusty air-currents howled up the great shaft, the thunder of the falling waters beside them was brain-numbing. Still down and down they crept, feeling for each slippery step, groping down through somber, eternal night toward the mystic Lake of Life and its legended warders.
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