We Are Attacked!
For some moments, Professor Stevens prowled about without comment, examining the huge basal blocks of the structure and glancing up its sloping sides.
"You see, I was right!" he declared at length. "This is not only a man-made edifice but a true pyramid, embodying the same architectural principles as the Mayan and Egyptian forms. We see before us the visible evidence of a sunken empire--the missing link between Atlantis and America."
No comments greeted this profound announcement and the professor continued:
"This structure appears to be similar in dimensions with that of the pyramid of Xochicalco, in Mexico, which in turn approximates that of the "Sacred Hill" of Atlantis, mentioned by Plato, and which was the prototype of both the Egyptian and Mayan forms. It was here the Antillians, as the Atlanteans had taught them to do, worshipped their grim gods and performed the human sacrifices they thought necessary to appease them. And it was here, too, if I am not mistaken, that--"
Suddenly his vibratory discourse was broken into by a sharp signal from the submarine:
"Pardon interruption! Hurry back! We are attacked!"
At this, the trio stood rigid.
"Captain Petersen! Captain Petersen!" Larry heard the professor call. "Speak up! Give details! What has happened?"
But an ominous silence greeted the query.
Another moment they stood there, thoroughly dismayed now. Then came the professor's swift command:
He was already in motion, retracing his steps as fast as his bulky suit would permit. But as he rounded the corner of the pyramid, they saw him pause, stand staring. And as they drew up, they in turn paused; stood staring, too.
With sinking hearts, they saw that the Nereid was gone.
Stunned by this disaster, they stood facing one another--three lone human beings, on the bottom of the Atlantic ocean, their sole means of salvation gone.
Professor Stevens was the first to speak.
"This is unbelievable!" he said. "I cannot credit it. We must have lost our senses."
"Or our bearings!" added Diane, more hopefully. "Suppose we look around the other side."
As for Larry, a darker suspicion flashed through his mind. Captain Petersen! Had he seized his opportunity and led the crew to mutiny, in the hope of converting the expedition into a treasure hunt? Was that the reason he had been so willing to remain behind?
He kept his suspicion to himself, however, and accompanied Diane and her father on a complete circuit of the pyramid; but, as he feared, there was no sign of the Nereid anywhere. The craft had vanished as completely as though the ocean floor had opened and swallowed her up.
But no, not as completely as that! For presently the professor, who had proceeded to the site where they left the craft resting on the sand, called out excitedly:
"Here--come here! There are tracks! Captain Petersen was right! They were attacked!"
Hurrying to the scene, they saw before them the plain evidences of a struggle. The ocean bottom was scuffed and stamped, as though by many feet, and a clear trail showed where the craft had finally been dragged away.
Obviously there was but one thing to do and they did it. After a brief conference, they turned and followed the trail.
It led off over the plateau a quarter mile or more, in an eastward direction, terminating at length beside one of the smaller pyramids--and there lay the Nereid, apparently unharmed.
But her lights were out and there came no answer to their repeated calls, so they judged she must be empty.
What had happened to Captain Petersen and his crew? What strange sub-sea enemy had overcome them? What was now their fate?
Unanswerable question! But one thing was certain. Larry had misjudged the captain in suspecting him of mutiny. He was sorry for this and resolved he would make amends by doing all in his power to rescue him and his men, if they were still living.
Meanwhile his own plight, and that of Diane and her father, was critical. What was to be done?
Suddenly, as all three stood there debating that question, Professor Stevens uttered an exclamation and strode toward the pyramid. Following him with their eyes, they saw him pass through an aperture where a huge block of stone had been displaced--and disappear within.
The next moment they had joined him, to find themselves in a small flooded chamber at whose far end a narrow gallery sloped upward at a sharp angle.
The floor and walls were tiled, they noted, and showed none of the corrosion of the exterior surfaces. Indeed, so immaculate was the room that it might have been occupied but yesterday.
As they stood gazing around in wonder, scarcely daring to draw the natural inferences of this phenomena, there came a rasping sound, and, turning toward the entrance, they saw a massive section of masonry descend snugly into place.
They were trapped!
Standing there tense, speechless, they waited, wondering what would be the next move of this strange enemy who held them now so surely in his power.
Nor had they long to wait.
Almost immediately, there issued a gurgling sound from the inclined gallery, and turning their eyes in the direction of this new phenomena, they saw that the water level was receding, as though under pressure from above.
"Singular!" muttered Professor Stevens. "A sort of primitive lock. It seems incredible that human creatures could exist down here, but such appears to be the case."
Larry had no desire to dispute the assumption, nor had Diane. They stood there as people might in the imminence of the supernatural, awaiting they knew not what.
Swiftly the water receded.
Now it was scarcely up to their waists, now plashing about their ankles, and now the room was empty.
The next moment, there sounded a rush of feet--and down the gallery came a swarm of the strangest beings any of them had ever seen.
They were short, thin, almost emaciated, with pale, pinched faces and pasty, half-naked bodies. But they shimmered with ornaments of gold and jade, like some strange princes from the realm of Neptune--or rather, like Aztec chieftains of the days of Cortes, thought Larry.
Blinking in the glare of the searchlights, they clamored around their captives, touching their pressure-suits half in awe and chattering among themselves.
Then one of them, larger and more regally clad than the rest, stepped up and gestured toward the balcony.
"They obviously desire us to accompany them above," said the professor, "and quite as obviously we have little choice in the matter, so I suggest we do so."
"Check!" said Larry.
"And double-check!" added Diane.
So they started up, preceded by a handful of their captors and followed by the main party.
The gallery seemed to be leading toward the center of the pyramid, but after a hundred feet or so it turned and continued up at a right angle, turning twice more before they arrived at length in another stone chamber, smaller than the one below.
Here their guides paused and waited for the main party.
There followed another conference, whereupon their leader stepped up again, indicating this time that they were to remove their suits.
At this, Professor Stevens balked.
"It is suicide!" he declared. "The air to which they are accustomed here is doubtless at many times our own atmospheric pressure."
"But I don't see that there's anything to do about it," said Larry, as their captors danced about them menacingly. "I for one will take a chance!"
And before they could stop him, he had pressed the release-valve, emitting the air from his suit--slowly, at first, then more and more rapidly, as no ill effects seemed to result.
Finally, flinging off the now deflated suit, he stepped before them in his ordinary clothes, calling with a smile:
"Come on out, folks--the air's fine!"
This statement was somewhat of an exaggeration, as the air smelt dank and bad. But at least it was breathable, as Diane and her father found when they emerged from their own suits.
They discovered, furthermore, now that their flashlights were no longer operating, that a faint illumination lit the room, issuing from a number of small crystal jars suspended from the walls: some sort of phosphorescence, evidently.
Once again the leader of the curious throng stepped up to them, beaming now and addressing Professor Stevens in some barbaric tongue, and, to their amazement, he replied in words approximating its harsh syllables.
"Why, daddy!" gasped Diane. "How can you talk to him?"
"Simply enough," was the reply. "They speak a language which seems to be about one-third Basque, mixed oddly with Greek. It merely proves another hypothesis of mine, namely, that the Atlantean influence reached eastward to the Pyrenees mountains and the Hellenic peninsula, as well as to Egypt."
Whereupon he turned and continued his conversation, haltingly it is true and with many gestures, but understandably nevertheless.
"I have received considerable enlightenment as to the mystery of this strange sunken empire," he reported, turning back to them at length. "It is a singular story this creature tells, of how his country sank slowly beneath the waves, during the course of centuries, and of how his ancestors adapted themselves by degrees to the present conditions. I shall report it to you both, in detail, when time affords. But the main thing now is that a man similar to ourselves has conquered their country and set himself up as emperor. It is to him we are about to be taken."
"But it doesn't seem possible!" exclaimed Diane. "Why, how could he have got down here?"
"In a craft similar to our own, according to this creature. Heaven knows what it is we are about to face! But whatever it is, we will face it bravely."
"Check and double-check!" said Larry, with a glance toward Diane that told her she would not find him wanting.
They were not destined to meet the test just then, however, for just at that moment a courier in breech-clout and sandals dashed up the gallery and burst into the room, bearing in his right hand a thin square of metal.
Bowing, he handed it to the leader of the pigmy throng, with the awed word:
At this, Professor Stevens gave a start.
"A message from their high priests!" he whispered.
Whatever it contained, the effect produced on the reader was profound. Facing his companions, he addressed them gravely. Then, turning from the room, he commanded the captives to follow.
The way led back down the inclined gallery to a point where another door now stood open, then on down until finally the passage leveled out into a long, straight tunnel.
This they traversed for fully a mile, entering at length a large, square chamber where for a moment they paused.
"I judge we are now at the base of the large pyramid," the professor voiced in an undertone. "It would naturally be the abode of the high priests."
"But what do you suppose they want with us?" asked Diane.
"That I am not disposed to conjecture," was her father's reply.
But the note of anxiety in his voice was not lost on Diane, nor on Larry, who pressed her hand reassuringly.
Now their captors led them from the room through a small door opening on another inclined gallery, whose turns they followed until all were out of breath from the climb.
It ended abruptly on a short, level corridor with apertures to left and right.
Into the latter they were led, finding themselves in a grotesquely furnished room, lit dimly by phosphorescent lamps.
Swiftly the leader addressed Professor Stevens. Then all withdrew. The aperture was closed by a sliding block of stone.
For a moment they stood there silent, straining their eyes in the gloom to detect the details of their surroundings, which included several curious chairs and a number of mattings strewn on the tiled floor.
"What did he say?" asked Diane at length, in a tremulous voice.
"He said we will remain here for the night," her father replied, "and will be taken before the high priests at dawn."
"At dawn!" exclaimed Larry. "How the deuce do they know when it is dawn, down here?"
"By their calendars, which they have kept accurately," was the answer. "But there are many other questions you must both want to ask, so I shall anticipate them by telling you now what I have been able to learn. Suppose we first sit down, however. I for one am weary."
Whereupon they drew up three of those curious chairs of some heavy wood carved with the hideous figures of this strange people's ancient gods, and Professor Stevens began.
Their sunken empire, as he had surmised, had indeed been the great island of Antillia and a colony of Atlantis. A series of earthquakes and tidal waves such as engulfed their homeland ages before had sent it down, and the estimated archaeological date of the final submergence--namely, 200 B. C.--was approximately correct.
But long before this ultimate catastrophe, the bulk of the disheartened population had migrated to Central and South America, founding the Mayan and Incan dynasties. Many of the faithful had stayed on, however, among them most of the Cabiri or high priests, who either were loath to leave their temples or had been ordered by their gods to remain.
At any rate, they had remained, and as the great island sank lower and lower, they had fortified themselves against the disaster in their pyramids, which by then alone remained above the surface.
These, too, had gradually disappeared beneath the angry waters, however, and with them had disappeared the steadfast priests and their faithful followers, sealing their living tombs into air-tight bell-jars that retained the atmosphere.
This they had supplemented at first by drawing it down from above, but as time went by they found other means of getting air; extracting it from the sea water under pressure, by utilizing their subterranean volcanoes, in whose seething cauldrons the gods had placed their salvation; and it was this process that now provided them with the atmosphere which had so amazed their captives.
But naturally, lack of sunshine had produced serious degeneration in their race, and that accounted for their diminutive forms and pale bodies. Still, they had been able to survive with a degree of happiness until some ten or a dozen years ago, when a strange enemy had come down in a great metal fish, like that of these new strangers, and with a handful of men had conquered their country.
This marauder was after their gold and had looted their temples ruthlessly, carrying away its treasures, for which they hated him with a fury that only violation of their most sacred deities could arouse. Long ago they would have destroyed him, but for the fact that he possessed terrible weapons which were impossible to combat. But they were in smouldering rebellion and waited only the support of their gods, when they would fall on this oppressor and hurl him off.
That, though it left many things unexplained, was all the professor had been able to gather from his conversation with the leader of their captors. He ended, admitting regretfully that he was still in ignorance of what fate had befallen Captain Petersen and the crew of the Nereid.
"Perhaps this fellow in the other submarine has got them," suggested Larry.
"But why weren't we taken to him too?" asked Diane. "What do you suppose they want with us, anyway, daddy?"
"That, my dear, as I told you before," replied her father, "I am not disposed to conjecture. Time will reveal it. Meanwhile, we can only wait."
As before, there was a note of anxiety in his voice not lost on either of them. And as for Larry, though he knew but little of those old religions, he knew enough to realize that their altars often ran with the blood of their captives, and he shuddered.
With these grim thoughts between them, the trio fell silent.
A silence that was interrupted presently by the arrival of a native bearing a tray heaped with strange food.
Bowing, he placed it before them and departed.
Upon examination, the meal proved to consist mainly of some curious kind of steamed fish, not unpalatable but rather rank and tough. There were several varieties of fungus, too, more or less resembling mushrooms and doubtless grown in some sunless garden of the pyramid.
These articles, together with a pitcher of good water that had obviously been distilled from the sea, comprised their meal, and though it was far from appetizing, they ate it.
But none of the three slept that night, though Diane dozed off for a few minutes once or twice, for their apprehension of what the dawn might hold made it impossible, to say nothing of the closeness of the air in that windowless subterranean room.
Slowly, wearily, the hours dragged by.
At length the native who had brought their food came again. This time he spoke.
"He says we are now to be taken before the high priests," Professor Stevens translated for them.
Almost with relief, though their faces were grave, they stepped out into the corridor, where an escort waited.
Five minutes later, after proceeding along an inclined gallery that wound ever upward, they were ushered into a vast vaulted chamber lit with a thousand phosphorescent lamps and gleaming with idols of gold and silver, jewels flashing from their eyes.
High in the dome hung a great golden disc, representing the sun. At the far end, above a marble altar, coiled a dragon with tusks of ivory and scales of jade, its eyes two lustrous pearls.
And all about the room thronged priests in fantastic head-dress and long white robes, woven through elaborately with threads of yellow and green.
At the appearance of the captives, a murmur like a chant rose in the still air. Someone touched a brand to the altar and there was a flash of flame followed by a thin column of smoke that spiraled slowly upward.
Now one of the priests stepped out--the supreme one among them, to judge from the magnificence of his robe--and addressed the trio, speaking slowly, rhythmically.
As his strange, sonorous discourse continued, Professor Stevens grew visibly perturbed. His beard twitched and he shifted uneasily on his feet.
Finally the discourse ceased and the professor replied to it, briefly. Then he turned grave eyes on Larry and Diane.
"What is it?" asked the latter, nervously. "What did the priest say, daddy?"
Her father considered, before replying.
"Naturally, I did not gather everything," was his slow reply, "but I gathered sufficient to understand what is afoot. First, however, let me explain that the dragon you see over there represents their deity Tlaloc, god of the sea. In more happy circumstances, it would be interesting to note that the name is identified with the Mayan god of the same element."
He paused, as though loath to go on, then continued:
"At any rate, the Antillians have worshipped Tlaloc principally, since their sun god failed them. They believe he dragged down their empire in his mighty coils, through anger with them, and will raise it up again if appeased. Therefore they propose today to--"
"Daddy!" cried Diane, shrinking back in horror, while a chill went up Larry's spine. "You mean--mean that--"
"I mean, my poor child, that we are about to be sacrificed to the dragon god of the Antillians."
The words were no more than uttered, when with a weird chant the Cabiri closed in on their victims and led them with solemn ceremonial toward the altar.
In vain did Professor Stevens protest. Their decision had been made and was irrevocable. Tlaloc must be appeased. Lo, even now he roared for the offering!
They pointed to the dragon, from whose nostrils suddenly issued hissing spurts of flame.
Larry fumed in disgust at the cheap hocus-pocus of it--but the next moment a more violent emotion swept over him as he saw Diane seized and borne swiftly to that loathsome shrine.
But even as he lunged forward, the professor reached his daughter's side. Throwing himself in front of her, he begged them to spare her, to sacrifice him instead.
The answer of the priests was a blow that knocked the graybeard senseless, and lifting Diane up, half-swooning, they flung her upon the altar.
"Mr. Hunter! Larry!" came her despairing cry.
She struggled up and for a moment her blue eyes opened, met his beseechingly.
That was enough--that and that despairing cry, "Larry!"
With the strength of frenzy, he flung off his captors, rushed to her aid, his hard fists flailing.
The pigmies went down in his path like grain before the scythe. Reaching the altar, he seized the priest whose knife was already upraised, and, lifting him bodily, flung him full into the ugly snout of that snorting dragon.
Then, as a wail of dismay rose from the Cabiri, at this supreme sacrilege, he seized the now unconscious Diane and retreated with her toward the door.
But there spears barred his escape; and now, recovered from the first shock of this fearful affront to their god, the priests started toward him.
Standing at bay, with that limp, tender burden in his arms, Larry awaited the end.
As the maddened horde drew near, she stirred, lifted her pale face and smiled, her eyes still shut.
"You saved me. I won't forget."
Then, the smile still lingering, she slipped once more into merciful oblivion, and as Larry held her close to his heart, a new warmth kindled there.
But bitterness burned in his heart, too. He had saved her--won her love, perhaps--only to lose her. It wasn't fair! Was there no way out?
The priests were close now, their pasty faces leering with fierce anticipation of their revenge, when suddenly, from down the gallery outside that guarded door, came the sharp crash of an explosion, followed by shouts and the rush of feet.
At the sound, the priests trembled, fled backward into the room and fell moaning before their idols, while the quaking guards strove frantically to close the door.