None of them had ever come this way before, not even Kitembo, though he had known the exact location of Opar from one who had seen it; and so when the first view of the distant city broke upon them they were filled with awe, and vague questionings arose in the primitive minds of the black men.
It was a silent party that filed across the dusty plain toward Opar; nor were the blacks the only members of the expedition to be assailed with doubt, for in their black tents on distant deserts the Arabs had imbibed with the milk of their mothers the fear of jan and ghrol and had heard, too, of the fabled city of Nimmr, which it was not well for men to approach. With such thoughts and forebodings were the minds of the men filled as they approached the towering ruins of the ancient Atlantian city.
From the top of the great boulder that guards the outer entrance to the treasure vaults of Opar a little monkey watched the progress of the expedition across the valley. He was a very much distraught little monkey, for in his heart he knew that his master should be warned of the coming of these many Gomangani and Tarmangani with their thundersticks; but fear of the forbidding ruins gave him pause, and so he danced about upon the top of the rock, chattering and scolding. The warriors of Peter Zveri marched right past and never paid any attention to him; and as they marched, other eyes were upon them, peering from out of the foliage of the trees that grew rank among the ruins.
If any member of the party saw a little monkey scampering quickly past upon their right, or saw him clamber up the ruined outer wall of Opar, he doubtless gave the matter no thought; for his mind, like the minds of all his fellows, was occupied by speculation as to what lay within that gloomy pile.
Kitembo did not know the location of the treasure vaults of Opar. He had but agreed to guide Zveri to the city, but, like Zveri, he entertained no doubt but that it would be easy to discover the vaults if they were unable to wring its location from any of the inhabitants of the city. Surprised, indeed, would they have been had they known that no living Oparian knew either of the location of the treasure vaults or of their existence and that, among all living men, only Tarzan and some of his Waziri warriors knew their location or how to reach them.
“The place is nothing but a deserted ruin,” said Zveri to one of his white companions.
“It is an ominous looking place though,” replied the other, “and it has already had its effect upon the men.”
Zveri shrugged. “This might frighten them at night, but not in broad daylight; they are certainly not that yellow.”
They were close to the ruined outer wall now, which frowned down upon them menacingly, and here they halted while several searched for an opening. Abu Batn was the first to find it—the narrow crevice with the flight of concrete steps leading upward. “Here is a way through, Comrade,” he called to Zveri.
“Take some of your men with you and reconnoiter,” ordered Zveri.
Abu Batn summoned a half dozen of his black men, who advanced with evident reluctance.
Gathering the skirt of his thob about him, the sheykh entered the crevice, and at the same instant a piercing screech broke from the interior of the ruined city—a long drawn, high pitched shriek that ended in a series of low moans. The Bedauwy halted. The blacks froze in terrified rigidity.
“Go on!” yelled Zveri. “A scream can’t kill you!”
“Wullah!” exclainied one of the Arabs: “but jan can.”
“Get out of there, then!” cried Zveri angrily. “If you damned cowards are afraid to go, I’ll go in myself.”
There was no argument. The Arabs stepped aside. And then a little monkey, screaming with terror, appeared upon the top of the wall from the inside of the city. His sudden and noisy appearance brought every eye to bear upon him. They saw him turn an affrighted glance backward over his shoulder and then, with a loud scream, leap far out to the ground below. It scarcely seemed that he could survive the jump, yet it barely sufficed to interrupt his flight, for he was on his way again in an instant as, with prodigious leaps and bounds, he fled screaming out across the barren plains.
It was the last straw. The shaken nerves of the superstitious blacks gave way to the sudden strain; and almost with one accord they turned and fled the dismal city, while close upon their heels were Abu Batn and his desert warriors in swift and undignified retreat.
Peter Zveri and his three white companions, finding themselves suddenly deserted, looked at one another questioningly.
“The dirty cowards!” exclaimed Zveri angrily. “You go back, Mike, and see if you can rally them. We are going on in, now that we are here.”
Michael Dorsky, only too glad of any assignment that took him farther away from Opar, started at a brisk run after the fleeing warriors, while Zveri turned once more into the fissure with Miguel Romero and Paul Ivitch at his heels.
The three men passed through the outer wall and entered the court yard, across which they saw the lofty inner wall rising before them. Romero was the first to find the opening that led to the city proper and, calling to his fellows, he stepped boldly into the narrow passage. Then once again the hideous scream shattered the brooding silence of the ancient temple.
The three men halted. Zveri wiped the perspiration from his brow. “I think we haive gone as far as we can alone,” he said. “Perhaps we had all better go back and rally the men. There is no sense in doing anything foolhardy.” Miguel Romero threw him a contemptuous sneer, but Ivitch assured Zveri that the suggestion met with his entire approval.
The two men crossed the court quickly without waiting to see whether the Mexican followed them or not and were soon once again outside the city.
“Where is Miguel?” asked Ivitch.
Zveri looked around. “Romero!” he shouted in a loud voice, but there was no reply.
“It must have got him,” said Ivitch with a shudder.
“Small loss,” grumbled Zveri.
But whatever the thing was that Ivitch feared, it had not, as yet, gotten the young Mexican, who, after watching his companions’ precipitate flight, had continued on through the opening in the inner wall determined to have at least one look at the interior of the ancient city of Opar that he had travelled so far to see and of the fabulous wealth of which he had been dreaming for weeks.
Before his eyes spread a magnificent panorama of stately ruins, before which the young and impressiodable Latin-American stood spellbound; and then once again the eerie wail rose from the interior of a great building before him, but if he was frightened Romero gave no evidence of it. Perhaps he grasped his rifle a little more tightly; perhaps he loosened his revolver in his holster, but he did not retreat. He was awed by the stately grandeur of the scene before him, where age and ruin seemed only to enhance its pristine magnificence.
A movement within the temple caught his attention. He saw a figure emerge from somewhere, the figure of a gnarled and knotted man that rolled on short crooked legs; and then another and another came until there were fully a hundred of the savage creatures approaching slowly toward him. He saw their knotted bludgeons and their knives, and he realized that here was a menace more effective than an unearthly scream.
With a shrug he backed into the passageway. “I cannot fight an army single-handed,” he muttered. Slowly he crossed the outer court, passed through the first great wall and stood again upon the plain outside the city. In the distance he saw the dust of the fleeing expedition and, with a grin, he started in pursuit, swinging along at an easy walk as he puffed upon a cigarette. From the top of the rocky hill at his left a little monkey saw him pass—a little monkey, which still trembled from fright, but whose terrified screams had become only low, pitiful moans. It had been a hard day for little Nkima.
So rapid had been the retreat of the expedition that Zveri, with Dorsky and Ivitch, did not overtake the main party until the greater part of it was already descending the barrier cliffs; nor could any threats or promises stay the retreat, which ended only when camp was reached.
Immediately Zveri called Abu Batn, together with Dorsky and Ivitch, into council. The affair had been Zveri’s first reverse, and it was a serious one inasmuch as he had relied heavily upon the inexhaustible store of gold to be found in the treasure vaults of Opar. First, he berated Abu Batn, Kitembo, their ancestors and all their followers for cowardice; but all that he accomplished was to arouse the anger and resentment of these two.
“We came with you to fight the white men, not demons and ghosts,” said Kitembo. “I am not afraid. I would go into the city, but my men will not accompany me and I cannot fight the enemy alone.”
“Nor I,” said Abu Batn, a sullen scowl still further darkening his swart countenance.
“I know,” sneered Zveri, “you are both brave men, but you are much better runners than you are fighters. Look at us. We were not afraid. We went in and we were not harmed.”
“Where is Comrade Romero?” demanded Abu Batn.
“Well, perhaps, he is lost,” admitted Zveri. “What do you expect? To win a battle without losing a man?”
“There was no battle,” said Kitembo, “and the man who went farthest into the accursed city did not return.”
Dorsky looked up suddenly. “There he is now!” he exclaimed, and as all eyes turned up the trail toward Opar, they saw Miguel Romero strolling jauntily into camp.
“Greeting, my brave comrades!” he cried to them. “I am glad to find you alive, I feared that you might all succumb to heart failure.”
Sullen silence greeted his raillery, and no one spoke until he had approached and seated himself near them.
“What detained you?” demanded Zveri presently.
“I wanted to see what was beyond the inner wall,” replied the Mexican.
“And you saw.?” asked Abu Batn.
“I saw magnificent buildings in splendid ruin,” replied Romero; “a dead and moldering city of the dead past.”
“And what else’?” asked Kitembo.
“I saw a company of strange warriors, short heavy men on crooked legs, with long powerful arms and hairy bodies. They came out of a building that might have been a temple. There were too many of them for me. I could not fight them alone, so I came away.”
“Did they have weapons?” asked Zveri.
“Clubs and knives,” replied Romero.
“You see,” exclaimed Zveri, “just a band of savages armed with clubs. We could take the city without the loss of a man.”
“What did they took like?” demanded Kitembo. “Describe them to me,” and when Romero had done so, with careful attention to details, Kitembo shook his head. “it is as I thought,” he said. “They are not men; they are demons.”
“Men or demons, we are going back there and take their city,” said Zveri angrily. “We must have the gold of Opar.”
“You may go, white man,” returned Kitembo, “but you will go alone. I know my men, and I tell you that they will not follow you there. Lead us against white men, or brown men, or black men, and we will follow you. But we will not follow you against demons and ghosts.”
“And you, Abu Batn?” demanded Zveri.
“I have talked with my men on the return from the city, and they tell me that they will not go back there. They will not fight the jan and ghrol. They heard the voice of the jin warning them away, and they are afraid.”
Zveri stormed and threatened and cajoled, but all to no effect. Neither the Aarab sheykh nor the African chief could be moved.
“There is still a way,” said Romero.
“And what is that?” asked Zveri.
“When the gringo comes and the Philippine, there will be six of us who are neither Aarabs nor Africans. We six can take Opar.” Paul Ivitch made a wry face, and Zveri cleared his throat.
“If we are killed,” said the latter, “our whole Plan is wrecked. There will be no one left to carry on.”
Romero shrugged. “It was only a suggestion,” he said, “but, of course, if you are afraid——”
“I am not afraid,” stormed Zveri, “but neither am I a fool.”
An ill-concealed sneer curved Romero’s lips. “I am going to eat,” he said, and, rising, he left them.
“You sent a message this morning, Comrade Colt,” she said.
He looked up at her quickly. “Yes,” he replied.
“Perhaps you should know that only Comrade Zveri is permitted to send messages from the expedition,” she told him.
“I did not know,” he said. “It was merely in relation to some funds that were to have been awaiting me when I reached the Coast. They were not there. I sent the boy back after them.”
“Oh,” she said, and then their conversation drifted to other topics.
That afternoon he took his rifle and went out to look for game and Zora went with him, and that evening they had supper together again, but this time she was the hostess. And so the days passed until an excited native aroused the camp one day with an announcement that the expedition was returning. No words were necessary to apprise those who had been left behind that victory had not perched upon the banner of their little army. Failure was clearly written upon the faces of the leaders. Zveri greeted Zora and Colt, introducing the latter to his companions, and when Tony had been similarly presented the returning warriors threw themselves down upon cots or upon the ground to rest.
That night, as they gathered around the supper table, each party narrated the adventures that had befallen them since the expedition had left camp. Colt and Zora were thrilled by the stories of weird Opar, but no less mysterious was their tale of the death of Raghunath Jafar and his burial and uncanny resurrection.
“Not one of the boys would touch the body after that,” said Zora. “Tony and Comrade Colt had to bury him themselves.”
“I hope you made a good job of it this time,” said Miguel.
“He hasn’t come back again,” rejoined Colt with a grin.
“Who could have dug him up in the first place?” demanded Zveri.
“None of the boys certainly,” said Zora. “They were all too much frightened by the peculiar circumstances surrounding his death.”
“It must have been the same creature that killed him,” suggested Colt, “and whoever or whatever it was must have been of almost superhuman strength to carry that heavy corpse into a tree and drop it upon us.”
“The most uncanny feature of it to me,” said Zora, “is the fact that it was accomplished in absolute silence. I’ll swear that not even a leaf rustled until just before the body hurtled down upon our table.”
“It could have been only a man,” said Zveri.
“Unquestionably,” said Colt, “but what a man!”
As the company broke up later, repairing to their various tents, Zveri detained Zora with a gesture. “I want to talk to you a minute, Zora,” he said, and the girl sank back into the chair she had just quitted. “What do you think of this American? You have had a good opportunity to size him up.”
“He seems to be all right. He is a very likable fellow,” replied the girl.
“He said or did nothing, then, that might arouse your suspicion?” demanded Zveri.
“No,” said Zora, “nothing at all.”
“You two have been alone here together for a number of days,” continued Zveri. “Did he treat you with perfect respect?”
“He was certainly much more respectful than your friend, Raghunath Jafar.”
“Don’t mention that dog to me,” said Zveri, “I wish that I had been here to kill him myself.”
“I told him that you would when you got back, but someone beat you to it.”
They were silent for several moments. it was evident that Zveri was trying to frame into words something that was upon his mind. At last he spoke. “Colt is a very prepossessing young man. See that you don’t fall in love with him, Zora.”
“And why not?” she demanded. “I have given my mind and my strength and my talent to the cause and, perhaps, most of my heart. But there is a corner of it that is mine to do with as I wish.”
“You mean to say that you are in love with him?” demanded Zveri.
“Certainly not. Nothing of the kind. Such an idea had not entered my head. I just want you to know, Peter, that in matters of this kind you may not dictate to me.”
“Listen, Zora. You know perfectly well that I love you, and what is more, I am going to have you. I get what I go after.”
“Don’t bore me, Peter. I have no time for anything so foolish as love now. When we are well through with this undertaking, perhaps I shall take the time to give it a little thought.”
“I want you to give it a lot of thought right now, Zora,” he insisted. “There are some details in relation to this expedition that I have not told you. I have not divulged them to anyone, but I am going to tell you now because I love you and you are going to become my wife. There is more at stake in this for us than you dream. After all the thought and all the risks and all the hardships, I do not intend to surrender all of the power and the wealth that I shall have gained to anyone.”
“You mean not even to the cause?” she asked.
“I mean not even to the cause, except that I shall use them both for the cause.”
“Then what do you intend? I do not understand you,” she said.
“I intend to make myself Emperor of Africa,” he declared, “and I intend to make you my empress.”
“Peter!” she cried. “Are you crazy?”
“Yes, I am crazy for power, for riches, and for you.”
“You can never do it, Peter. You know how far-reaching are the tentacles of the power we serve. If you fail it, if you turn traitor, those tentacles will reach you and drag you down to destruction.”
“When I win my goal, my power will be as great as theirs, and then I may defy them.”
“But how about these others with us, who are serving loyally the cause which they think you represent? They will tear you to pieces, Peter.”
The man laughed. “You do not know them, Zora. They are all alike. All men and women are alike. If I offered to make them Grand Dukes and give them each a palace and a harem, they would slit their own mothers’ throats to obtain such a prize.”
The girl arose. “I am astounded, Peter. I thought that you, at least, were sincere.”
He arose quickly and grasped her by the arm. “Listen, Zora,” he hissed in her car, “I love you, and because I love you I have put my life in your hands. But understand this, if you betray me, no matter how well I love you, I shall kill you. Do not forget that.”
“You did not have to tell me that, Peter. I was perfectly well aware of it.”
“And you will not betray me?” he demanded.
“I never betray a friend, Peter,” she said.
The next morning Zveri was engaged in working out the details of a second expedition to Opar based upon Romero’s suggestions. It was decided that this time they would call for volunteers; and as the Europeans, the two Americans and the Filipino had already indicated their willingness to take part in the adventure, it remained now only to seek to enlist the services of some of the blacks and Arabs, and for this purpose Zveri summoned the entire company to a palaver. Here he explained just what they purposed doing. He stressed the fact that Comrade Romero had seen the inhabitants of the city and that they were only members of a race of stunted savages, armed only with sticks. Eloquently he explained how easily they might be overcome with rifles.
Practically the entire party was willing to go as far as the walls of Opar; but there were only ten warriors who would agree to enter the city with the white men, and all of these were from the askaris who had been left behind to guard camp and from those who had accompanied Colt from the Coast, none of whom had been subjected to the terrors of Opar. Not one of those who had heard the weird screams issuing from the ruins would agree to enter the city, and it was admitted among the whites that it was not at all unlikely that their ten volunteers might suddenly develop a change of heart when at last they stood before the frowning portals of Opar and heard the weird warning cry from its defenders.
Several days were spent in making careful preparations for the new expedition, but at last the final detail was completed; and early one morning Zveri and his followers set out once more upon the trail to Opar.
Zora Drinov had wished to accompany them, but as Zveri was expecting messages from a number of his various agents throughout Northern Africa, it had been necessary to leave her behind. Abu Batn and his warriors were left to guard the camp, and these, with a few black servants, were all who did not accompany the expedition.
Since the failure of the first expedition and the fiasco at the gates of Opar, the relations of Abu Batn and Zveri had been strained. The sheykh and his warriors, smarting under the charges of cowardice, had kept more to themselves than formerly; and though they would not volunteer to enter the city of Opar, they still resented the affront of their selection to remain behind as camp guards and so it was that as the others departed, the Aarabs sat in the muk’aad of their sheykh’s beyt es-sh’ar, whispering over their thick coffee, their swart scowling faces half hidden by their thorribs.
They did not deign even to glance at their departing comrades, but the eyes of Abu Batn were fixed upon the slender figure of Zora Drinov as the sheykh sat in silent meditation.