HELEN AND D’ARNOT were imprisoned briefly in a dungeon of the palace at Ashair; then they were summoned to appear before the Queen. As they were led into the throne room, Helen exclaimed in amazement.
“Why, there are Thorne and Taask!” she whispered to d’Arnot, “there, at the side of the dais.”
“So that is Thorne,” said d’Arnot. “I’d like to get my hands on him. They don’t seem to be prisoners. I wonder what it means.”
“Silence!” ordered one of their guard. As they were led to the foot of the dais, Atka eyed them sternly. “Why came you to The Forbidden City?” she demanded.
“To find my brother, Brian Gregory,” replied Helen.
“You lie!” snapped Atka. “You came to steal The Father of Diamonds.”
“The girl is innocent, O Queen,” said Thorne. “It was the man and his companions who sought The Father of Diamonds. If you will give the girl into my keeping, I will be responsible for her.”
“The girl speaks the truth,” cried d’Arnot. “She came solely to find her brother, but that man lies. It was he who came to steal The Father of Diamonds. Why else should he have come? He has no brother here. There is no other reason why he should have undertaken the expensive and dangerous journey to Ashair.”
“You all lie,” snapped Atka. “Send the girl to the temple as handmaiden to the priests. Imprison the men.”
Suddenly, before they could prevent him, d’Arnot tore away from his guards and leaped upon Atan Thome, his strong fingers closing upon the Eurasian’s throat to kill him.
“If it’s the last thing in life I do!” he cried, but warriors leaped in and dragged him away before he could consummate his design.
“To the cages with him!” ordered Atka. “He shall spend the rest of his life looking at The Father of Diamonds he would have profaned.”
“Good-by, Helen!” he called back as warriors dragged him from the throne room.
“Good-by, Paul!” That was all; but tears welled in her eyes as they strained after the man she loved, whom she believed she was looking upon for the last time.
As warriors seized Atan Thome and Lal Taask, Akamen stepped close to the Queen and whispered a few words to her. She nodded, and ordered the warriors to release the two men.
“I give these men into the keeping of Akamen,” she said. “He shall be responsible for them. Take the girl away. Let the women purify her before she is taken to the priests.”
Two warriors led d’Arnot down a long ramp to a crude elevator operated by slaves at a windlass on the floor above. They entered the cage with him, and the descent began down a dark shaft.
“I hope you took a good look at the world before you were brought into the palace,” remarked one of the warriors, “for it’s the last you’ll ever see of it.”
“Why?” asked d’Arnot. “Where are you taking me?”
“To the temple of Brulor,” replied the warrior. “It lies at the bottom of Lake Horus, the sacred. You will spend the rest of your life there. It may be a short life, or it may be a long one. After you’ve spent a few weeks in the temple, you’ll pray that it will be short.”
D’Arnot could not judge the depth of the long shaft down which he was being lowered to what fate he could not guess. He might have descended two hundred feet or it might have been more. Whatever it was, he was convinced that there could be neither escape nor rescue. At the foot of the shaft, the warriors turned him over to two priests, who conducted him along a corridor that extended far out beneath the lake. At the end of the corridor, he was led into a large, oblong room, at the far end of which an old man sat upon an ornate throne. Surrounding him were priests and handmaidens, and before him an altar on which rested a large, jeweled casket.
Along both sides of the room were several cages, which reminded d’Arnot of the cages in the lion house of a zoo; but here there were no lions, only a few emaciated, almost naked men with unkempt hair and beards.
The priests led d’Arnot to the foot of the throne. “Here is a would-be profaner of The Father of Diamonds that Queen Atka has sent as an offering to Brulor,” said one of the priests.
“We already have too many to feed,” grumbled the old man. “Zytheb, put him in a cage.”
A tall priest, carrying a great ring of keys at his belt, came forward and led the way to one of the cages, which he unlocked and motioned d’Arnot to enter. As the door clanged behind him, a sudden chill ran through the Frenchman’s body as though he were entering his own tomb.
A half starved, bearded man in the next cage looked at d’Arnot curiously. “Poor devil!” he said. “Did you, too, come in search of The Father of Diamonds?”
“No,” said d’Arnot. “I came looking for a man.”
“What man?” asked the other.
“A man named Gregory, who is supposed to be a prisoner here,” replied d’Arnot.
“Most interesting,” said the man. “But I cannot but wonder what interest you would have had in looking for Brian Gregory, for, you see, I am he; and I do not recall having known you.”
“So you are Brian Gregory!” exclaimed d’Arnot. “I have found you at last, but much good it will do either of us. But may I introduce myself? I am Captain d’Arnot, of the French navy.”
“That makes it all the more puzzling,” said Gregory. “Why should the French navy be looking for me?”
“It is not,” replied d’Arnot. “I just chanced to be in Loango when your father was arranging his expedition to come in search of you, and I joined it.”
“Oh, so Dad was coming after me? I hope he didn’t.”
“He did; and your sister, also.”
“Helen? She didn’t come here!”
D’Arnot nodded. “I regret to say that she did.”
“Where is she? Where is Dad?”
“I don’t know where your father is, but your sister was taken prisoner with me. She is here in Ashair.”
“God!” exclaimed Gregory. “And I brought them to this! I and that damned thing out there in the casket.”
“It is The Father of Diamonds?” asked d’Arnot.
“Yes; and that is what Brulor is called, too—The Father of Diamonds. The big diamond is in the casket, and Brulor is the god who guards it; so they call him The Father of Diamonds, too.”
“The old man on the throne is Brulor?” asked d’Arnot.
Brian nodded. “The old devil!”
D’Arnot’s gaze wandered about the cages and the other prisoners. “Are these all men from the outside world?” he asked.
“No,” replied Brian. “Some are Asharians who have aroused the wrath of Atka, some are from Thobos, and the one in the next cage is Herkuf. He was a priest; but somehow he got in dutch with the old man, and here he is.”
“And there is no escape?” asked the Frenchman.
“None,” said Brian.
As the two men talked, Asharian women had completed anointing the body of Helen with aromatic oils in a chamber in the palace; and were clothing her in the scant garments of a handmaiden.
“It is fortunate for you that you are beautiful,” said one of the women, “for because of that you will go to the priests instead of to the warriors or the slaves. Of course you may be chosen for sacrifice; but if not, you will not go to the warriors or slaves until you are old and ugly.”
The toilet completed, Helen was taken down the long shaft and along the corridor to the throne room of Brulor; and as she entered, two men saw her and their hearts went cold. One of them called her by name as she was being led past his cage. She turned in astonishment.
“Brian!” she cried. “Oh, Brian, what have they done to you?” Then she recognized the man in the next cage. “Paul! You are both here!”
“Silence, woman!” commanded one of the priests escorting her; then she was led before Brulor.
As the old man examined her, Zytheb, the priest who carried the keys at his belt, whispered in Brulor’s ear.
“What is your name, girl?” demanded Brulor.
“Helen,” she replied.
“From what country do you come?”
Brulor scratched his head. “There is no such country,” he said. “There is a prisoner here who said he was from that country, but I knew he was lying. You must not lie. You will get along better here if you always tell the truth. Zytheb, you will take your place beside the girl. Helen,” he continued, “you shall serve Zytheb, Keeper of the Keys; and see, girl, that you serve him well. Learn the holy rites of the temple and obey Zytheb.” He made some mystic passes above the jeweled casket and mumbled in a strange jargon. When he ceased, he looked up at the two standing before him. “Zytheb and Helen are now man and wife!” he announced.
“What’s happening?” demanded d’Arnot.
“The old devil’s married Helen to that beast, Zytheb,” replied Brian with an oath; “and here we are caged up like wild beasts, unable to help her. You can’t know what it means to me, her brother!”
“And you don’t know what it means to me, Brian,” said d’Arnot; “I love her.”