Project Gutenberg Australia
a treasure-trove of literature
treasure found hidden with no evidence of ownership



Title: The Moon of Skulls
Author: Robert E. Howard
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.:  0600841.txt
Edition: 1
Language: English
Character set encoding: Latin-1(ISO-8859-1)--8 bit
Date first posted: May 2006
Date most recently updated: May 2006

This eBook was produced by: Richard Scott

Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions
which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice
is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular
paper edition.

Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the
copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this
file.

This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions
whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms
of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at
http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html


To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au


Title: The Moon of Skulls
Author: Robert E. Howard




Contents



CHAPTER I. A MAN COMES SEEKING
CHAPTER II. THE PEOPLE OF THE STALKING DEATH
CHAPTER III. LILITH
CHAPTER IV. DREAMS OF EMPIRE
CHAPTER V. "FOR A THOUSAND YEARS--"
CHAPTER VI. THE SHATTERING OF THE SKULL
CHAPTER VII. THE FAITH OF SOLOMON





CHAPTER I. A MAN COMES SEEKING

A great black shadow lay across the land, cleaving the red flame of
the red sunset. To the man who toiled up the jungle trail it loomed
like a symbol of death and horror, a menace brooding and terrible,
like the shadow of a stealthy assassin flung upon some candle-lit
wall.

Yet it was only the shadow of the great crag which reared up in front
of him, the first outpost of the grim foothills which were his goal.
He halted a moment at its foot, staring upward where it rose blackly
limned against the dying sun. He could have sworn that he caught the
hint of a movement at the top, as he stared, hand shielding his eyes,
but the fading glare dazzled him and he could not be sure. Was it a
man who darted to cover? A man, or--?

He shrugged his shoulders and fell to examining the rough trail which
led up and over the brow of the crag. At first glance it seemed that
only a mountain goat could scale it, but closer investigation showed
numbers of finger holds drilled into the solid rock. It would be a
task to try his powers to the utmost but he had not come a thousand
miles to turn back now.

He dropped the large pouch he wore at his shoulder, and laid down the
clumsy musket, retaining only his long rapier, dagger, and one of his
pistols, these he strapped behind him, and without a backward glance
over the darkening trail he had come, he started the long ascent.

He was a tall man, long-armed and iron-muscled, yet again and again he
was forced to halt in his upward climb and rest for a moment clinging
like an ant to the precipitous face of the cliff. Night fell swiftly
and the crag above him was a shadowy blur in which he was forced to
feel with his fingers, blindly, for the holes which served him as a
precarious ladder.

Below him, the night noises of the tropical jungle broke forth, yet it
appeared to him that even these sounds were subdued and hushed as
though the great black hills looming above threw a spell of silence
and fear even over the jungle creatures.

On up he struggled, and now to make his way harder, the cliff bulged
outward near its summit, and the strain on nerve and muscle became
heart-breaking. Time and again a hold slipped and he escaped falling
by a hair's breadth. But every fibre in his lean hard body was
perfectly co-ordinated, and his fingers were like steel talons with
the grip of a vice. His progress grew slower and slower but on he went
until at last he saw the cliffy brow splitting the stars a scant
twenty feet above him.

And even as he looked, a vague bulk heaved into view, toppled on the
edge and hurtled down toward him with a great rush of air about it.
Flesh crawling, he flattened himself against the cliff's face and felt
a heavy blow against his shoulder, only a glancing blow, but even so
it nearly tore him from his hold, and as he fought desperately to
right himself, he heard a reverberating crash among the rocks far
below. Cold sweat beading his brow, he looked up. Who--or what--had
shoved that boulder over the cliff edge? He was brave, as the bones on
many a battlefield could testify, but the thought of dying like a
sheep, helpless and with no chance of resistance, turned his blood
cold.

Then a wave of fury supplanted his fear and he renewed his climb with
reckless speed. The expected second boulder did not come, however, and
no living thing met his sight as he clambered up over the edge and
leaped erect, sword flashing from its scabbard.

He stood upon a sort of plateau which debouched into a very broken
hilly country some half mile to the west. The crag he had just
mounted jutted out from the rest of the heights like a sullen
promontory, looming above the sea of waving foliage below, now dark
and mysterious in the tropic night.

Silence ruled here in absolute sovereignty. No breeze stirred the
sombre depths below, and no footfall rustled amid the stunted bushes
which cloaked the plateau, yet that boulder which had almost hurled
the climber to his death had not fallen by chance. What beings moved
among these grim hills? The tropical darkness fell about the lone
wanderer like a heavy veil through which the yellow stars blinked
evilly. The steams of the rotting jungle vegetation floated up to him
as tangible as a thick fog, and making a wry face he strode away from
the cliff, heading boldly across the plateau, sword in one hand and
pistol in the other.

There was an uncomfortable feeling of being watched in the very air.
The silence remained unbroken save for the soft swishing that marked
the stranger's cat-like tread through the tall upland grass, yet the
man sensed that living things glided before and behind him and on each
side. Whether man or beast trailed him he knew not, nor did he care
over-much, for he was prepared to fight human or devil who barred his
way. Occasionally he halted and glanced challengingly about him, but
nothing met his eye except the shrubs which crouched like short dark
ghosts about his trail, blended and blurred in the thick, hot darkness
through which the very stars seemed to struggle, redly.

At last he came to the place where the plateau broke into the higher
slopes and there he saw a clump of trees blocked out solidly in the
lesser shadows. He approached warily, men halted as his gaze, growing
somewhat accustomed to the darkness, made out a vague form among the
sombre trunks which was not a part of them. He hesitated. The figure
neither advanced nor fled. A dim form of silent menace, it lurked as
if in wait. A brooding horror hung over that still cluster of trees.

The stranger advanced warily, blade extended. Closer. Straining his
eyes for some hint of threatening motion. He decided that the figure
was human but he was puzzled at its lack of movement. Then the reason
became apparent--it was the corpse of a black man that stood among
those trees, held erect by spears through his body, nailing him to the
boles. One arm was extended in front of him, held in place along a
great branch by a dagger through the wrist, the index finger straight
as if the corpse pointed stiffly--back along the way the stranger had
come. The meaning was obvious; that mute grim signpost could have but
one significance--death lay beyond. The man who stood gazing upon that
grisly warning rarely laughed, but now he allowed himself the luxury
of a sardonic smile. A thousand miles of land and sea--ocean travel
and jungle travel--and now they expected to turn him back with such
mummery--whoever they were. He resisted the temptation to salute the
corpse, as an action wanting in decorum, and pushed on boldly through
the grove, half expecting an attack from the rear or an ambush.
Nothing of the sort occurred, however, and emerging from the trees, he
found himself at the foot of a rugged incline, the first of a series
of slopes. He strode stolidly upward in the night, nor did he even
pause to reflect how unusual his actions must have appeared to a
sensible man. The average man would have camped at the foot of the
crag and waited for morning before even attempting to scale the
cliffs. But this was no ordinary man. Once his objective was in sight,
he followed the straightest line to it, without a thought of
obstacles, whether day or night. What was to be done, must be done. He
had reached the outposts of the kingdom of fear at dusk, and invading
its inmost recesses by night seemed to follow as a matter of course.

As he went up the boulder-strewn slopes the moon rose, lending its air
of illusion, and in its light the broken hills ahead loomed up like
the black spires of wizards' castles. He kept his eyes fixed on the
dim trail he was following, for he knew not when another boulder might
come hurtling down the inclines. He expected an attack of any sort
and, naturally, it was the unexpected which really happened.

Suddenly from behind a great rock stepped a man, an ebony giant in the
pale moonlight, a long spear blade gleaming silver in his hand, his
headpiece of ostrich plumes floating above him like a white cloud. He
lifted the spear in a ponderous salute, and spoke in the dialect of
the river-tribes: "This is not the white man's land. Who is my white
brother in his own kraal and why does he come into the Land of
Skulls?"

"My name is Solomon Kane." The white man answered in the same
language. "I seek the vampire queen of Negari."

"Few seek. Fewer find. None return," answered the other cryptically.

"Will you lead me to her?"

"You bear a long dagger in your right hand. There are no lions here."

"A serpent dislodged a boulder. I thought to find snakes in the
bushes."

The giant acknowledged this interchange of subtleties with a grim
smile and a brief silence fell.

"Your life," said the black man presently, "is in my hand." Kane
smiled thinly. "I carry the lives of many warriors in my hand."

The negro's gaze travelled uncertainly up and down the shimmery length
of the Englishman's sword. Then he shrugged his mighty shoulders and
let his spear point sink to the earth.

"You bear no gifts," said he; "but follow me and I will lead you to
the Terrible One, the Mistress of Doom, The Red Woman, Nakari, who
rules the land of Negari."

He stepped aside, and motioned Kane to precede him, but the
Englishman, his mind on a spear-thrust in the back, shook his head.

"Who am I that I should walk in front of my brother? We be two
chiefs--let us walk side by side." In his heart Kane railed that he should
be forced to use such unsavoury diplomacy with a savage warrior, but
he showed no sign. The giant bowed with a certain barbaric majesty and
together they went up the hill trail, unspeaking.

Kane was aware that men were stepping from hiding places and falling
in behind them, and a surreptitious glance over his shoulder showed
him some two score warriors trailing out behind them in two wedge-shaped
lines. The moonlight glittered on sleek bodies, on waving headgears
and long, cruel spear blades.

"My brothers are like leopards," said Kane courteously; "they lie in
the low bushes and no eyes see them; they steal through the high grass
and no man hears their coming."

The black chief acknowledged the compliment with a courtly inclination
of his lion-like head, that set the plumes whispering.

"The mountain leopard is our brother, oh chieftain. Our feet are like
drifting smoke but our arms are like iron. When they strike, blood
drips red and men die."

Kane sensed an undercurrent of menace in the tone. There was no actual
hint of threat on which he might base his suspicions, but the sinister
minor note was there. He said no more for a space and the strange band
moved silently upward in the moonlight like a cavalcade of spectres.

The trail grew steeper and more rocky, winding in and out among crags
and gigantic boulders. Suddenly a great chasm opened before them,
spanned by a natural bridge of rock, at the foot of which the leader
halted.

Kane stared at the abyss curiously. It was some forty feet wide, and
looking down, his gaze was swallowed by impenetrable blackness,
hundreds of feet deep, he knew. On the other side rose crags dark and
forbidding.

"Here," said the chief, "begin the true borders of Nakari's realm."

Kane was aware that the warriors were casually closing in on him. His
fingers instinctively tightened about the hilt of the rapier which he
had not sheathed. The air was suddenly super-charged with tension.

"Here, too," the warrior chief said, "they who bring no gifts to
Nakari--die!"

The last word was a shriek, as if the thought had transformed the
speaker into a maniac, and as he screamed it, the great arm went back
and then forward with a ripple of mighty muscles, and the long spear
leaped at Kane's breast.

Only a born fighter could have avoided that thrust. Kane's instinctive
action saved his life--the great blade grazed his ribs as he swayed
aside and returned the blow with a flashing thrust that killed a
warrior who jostled between him and the chief at that instant.

Spears flashed in the moonlight and Kane, parrying one and bending
under the thrust of another, sprang out upon the narrow bridge where
only one could come at him at a time.

None cared to be first. They stood upon the brink and thrust at him,
crowding forward when he retreated, giving back when he pressed them.
Their spears were longer than his rapier but he more than made up for
the difference and the great odds by his scintillant skill and the
cold ferocity of his attack.

They wavered back and forth and then suddenly a giant leaped from
among his fellows and charged out upon the bridge like a wild buffalo,
shoulders hunched, spear held low, eyes gleaming with a look not
wholly sane. Kane leaped back before the onslaught, leaped back again,
striving to avoid that stabbing spear and to find an opening for his
point. He sprang to one side and found himself reeling on the edge of
the bridge with eternity gaping beneath him. The warriors yelled in
savage exultation as he swayed and fought for his balance, and the
giant on the bridge roared and plunged at his rocking foe.

Kane parried with all his strength--a feat few swordsman could have
accomplished, off balance as he was--saw the cruel spear blade flash
by his cheek--felt himself falling backward into the abyss. A
desperate effort, and he gripped the spear shaft, righted himself and
ran the spearman through the body. The giant's great red cavern of a
mouth spouted blood and with a dying effort he hurled himself blindly
against his foe. Kane, with his heels over the bridge's edge, was
unable to avoid him and they toppled over together, to disappear
silently into the depths below.

So swiftly had it all happened that the warriors stood stunned. The
giant's roar of triumph had scarcely died on his lips before the two
were falling into the darkness. Now the rest of the natives came out
on the bridge to peer down curiously, but no sound came up from the
dark void.



CHAPTER II. THE PEOPLE OF THE STALKING DEATH

As Kane fell he followed his fighting instinct, twisting in midair so
that when he struck, were it ten or a thousand feet below, he would
land on top of the man who fell with him.

The end came suddenly--much more suddenly than the Englishman had
thought for. He lay half stunned for an instant, then looking up, saw
dimly the narrow bridge banding the sky above him, and the forms of
the warriors, limned in the moonlight and grotesquely foreshortened as
they leaned over the edge. He lay still, knowing that the beams of the
moon did not pierce the deeps in which he was hidden, and that to
those watchers he was invisible. Then when they vanished from view he
began to review his present plight. His opponent was dead, and only
for the fact that his corpse had cushioned the fall, Kane would have
been dead likewise, for they had fallen a considerable distance. As it
was, the Englishman was stiff and bruised.

He drew his sword from the native's body, thankful that it had not
been broken, and began to grope about in the darkness. His hand
encountered the edge of what seemed a cliff. He had thought that he
was on the bottom of the chasm and that its impression of great depth
had been a delusion, but now he decided that he had fallen on a ledge,
part of the way down. He dropped a small stone over the side, and
after what seemed a very long time he heard the faint sound of its
striking far below.

Somewhat at a loss as to how to proceed, he drew flint and steel from
his belt and struck them to some tinder, warily shielding the light
with his hands. The faint illumination showed a large ledge jutting
out from the side of the cliff, that is, the side next the hills, to
which he had been attempting to cross. He had fallen close to the edge
and it was only by the narrowest margin that he had escaped sliding
off it, not knowing his position.

Crouching there, his eyes seeking to accustom themselves to the
abysmal gloom, he made out what seemed to be a darker shadow in the
shadows of the wall. On closer examination he found it to be an
opening large enough to admit his body standing erect. A cavern, he
assumed, and though its appearance was dark and forbidding in the
extreme, he entered, groping his way when the tinder burned out.

Where it led to, he naturally had no idea, but any action was
preferable to sitting still until the mountain vultures plucked his
bones. For a long way the cave floor tilted upward--solid rock beneath
his feet--and Kane made his way with some difficulty up the rather
steep slant, slipping and sliding now and then. The cavern seemed a
large one, for at no time after entering it could he touch the roof,
nor could he, with a hand on one wall, reach the other.

At last the floor became level and Kane sensed that the cave was much
larger there. The air seemed better, though the darkness was just as
impenetrable. Suddenly he stopped dead in his tracks. From somewhere
in ? there came a strange indescribable rustling. Without
warning something smote him in the face and slashed wildly. All about
him sounded the eerie murmurings of many small wings and suddenly Kane
smiled crookedly, amused, relieved and chagrined. Bats, of course. The
cave was swarming with them. Still, it was a shaky experience, and as
he went on and the wings whispered through the vast emptiness of the
great cavern, Kane's mind found space to dally with a bizarre
thought-- had he wandered into Hell by some strange means, and were
these in truth bats, or were they lost souls winging through
everlasting night? Then, thought Solomon Kane, I will soon confront
Satan himself--and even as he thought this, his nostrils were assailed
by a horrid scent, fetid and repellent. The scent grew as he went
slowly on, and Kane swore softly, though he was not a profane man. He
sensed that the smell betokened some hidden threat, some unseen
malevolence, inhuman and deathly, and his sombre mind sprang at
supernatural conclusions. However, he felt perfect confidence in his
ability to cope with any fiend or demon, armoured as he was in
unshakable faith of creed and the knowledge of the rightness of his
cause. What followed happened suddenly. He was groping his way along
when in ? two narrow yellow eyes leaped up in the
darkness--eyes that were cold and expressionless, too hideously close-set
for human eyes and too high for any four-legged beast. What horror
had thus reared itself up in front of him?

This is Satan, thought Kane as the eyes swayed above him, and the next
instant he was battling for his life with the darkness that seemed to
have taken tangible form and thrown itself about his body and limbs in
great slimy coils. Those coils lapped his sword arm and rendered it
useless; with the other hand he groped for dagger or pistol, flesh
crawling as his fingers slipped from slick scales, while the hissing
of the monster filled the cavern with a cold paean of terror.

There in the black dark to the accompaniment of the bats' leathery
rustlings, Kane fought like a rat in the grip of a mouse-snake, and he
could feel his ribs giving and his breath going before his frantic
left hand closed on his dagger hilt.

Then with a volcanic twist and wrench of his steel-thewed body he tore
his left arm partly free and plunged the keen blade again and again to
the hilt in the sinuous writhing terror which enveloped him, feeling
at last the quivering coils loosen and slide from his limbs to lie
about his feet like huge cables.

The mighty serpent lashed wildly in its death struggles, and Kane,
avoiding its bone-shattering blows, reeled away in the darkness,
labouring for breath. If his antagonist had not been Satan himself, it
had been Satan's nearest earthly satellite, thought Solomon, hoping
devoutly that he would not be called upon to battle another in the
darkness there.

It seemed to him that he had been walking through the blackness for
ages and he began to wonder if there were any end to the cave when a
glimmer of light pierced the darkness. He thought it to be an outer
entrance a great way off, and started forward swiftly, but to his
astonishment, he brought up short against a blank wall after taking a
few strides.

Then he perceived that the light came through a narrow crack in the
wall, and feeling over this wall he found it to be of different
material from the rest of the cave, consisting, apparently, of regular
blocks of stone joined together with mortar of some sort--an
indubitably man-built wall. The light streamed between two of these
stones where the mortar had crumbled away. Kane ran his hands over the
surface with an interest beyond his present needs. The work
seemed very old and very much superior to what might be expected of a
tribe of ignorant savages. He felt the thrill of the explorer and
discoverer. Certainly no white man had ever seen this place and lived
to tell of it, for when he had landed on the dank West Coast some
months before, preparing to plunge into the interior, he had had no
hint of such a country as this. The few white men who knew anything at
all of Africa with whom he had talked, had never even mentioned the
Land of Skulls, or the she-fiend who ruled it.

Kane thrust against the wall cautiously. The structure seemed weakened
from age--a vigorous shove and it gave perceptibly. He hurled himself
against it with all his weight--and a whole section of wall gave way
with a crash, precipitating him into a dimly lighted corridor amid a
heap of stone, dust and mortar.

He sprang up and looked about, expecting the noise to bring a horde of
wild spearmen. Utter silence reigned. The corridor in which he now
stood was much like a long narrow cave itself, save that it was the
work of man. It was several feet wide and the roof was many feet above
his head. Dust lay ankle-deep on the floor as if no foot had trod
there for countless centuries, and the dim light, Kane decided,
filtered in somehow through the roof or ceiling, for nowhere did he
see any doors or windows. At last he decided the source was the
ceiling itself, which was of a peculiar phosphorescent quality.

He set off down the corridor, feeling uncomfortably like a grey ghost
moving along the grey halls of death and decay. The evident antiquity
of his surroundings depressed him, making him sense vaguely the
fleeting and futile existence of mankind. That he was now on top of
the earth he believed, since light of a sort came in, but where, he
could not even offer a conjecture. This was a land of enchantment--a
land of horror and fearful mysteries, the jungle and river natives had
said, and he had gotten whispered hints of its terrors ever since he
had set his back to the Slave Coast and ventured into the hinterlands
alone. Now and then he caught a low indistinct murmur which seemed to
come through one of the walls, and he at last came to the conclusion
that he had stumbled onto a secret passage in some castle or house.
The natives who had dared speak to him of Negari, had whispered of a
ju-ju city built of stone, set high amid the grim black crags of the
fetish hills.

Then, thought Kane, it may be that I have blundered upon the very
thing I sought and am in the midst of that city of terror. He halted,
and choosing a place at random, began to loosen the mortar with his
dagger. As he worked he again heard that low murmur, increasing in
volume as he bored through the wall, and presently the point pierced
through, and looking through the aperture it had made, he saw a
strange and fantastic scene.

He was looking into a great chamber, whose walls and floors were of
stone, and whose mighty roof was upheld by gigantic stone columns,
strangely carved. Ranks of feathered black warriors lined the walls
and a double column of them stood like statues before a throne set
between two stone dragons which were larger than elephants. These men
he recognized, by their bearing and general appearance, to be
tribesmen of the warriors he had fought at the chasm. But his gaze was
drawn irresistibly to the great, grotesquely ornamented throne. There,
dwarfed by the ponderous splendour about her, a woman reclined. A
tawny woman she was, young and of a tigerish comeliness. She was naked
except for a beplumed helmet, armbands, anklets and a girdle of
coloured ostrich feathers, and she sprawled upon the silken cushions
with her limbs thrown about in voluptuous abandon. Even at that
distance Kane could make out that her features were regal yet
barbaric, haughty and imperious, yet sensual, and with a touch of
ruthless cruelty about the curl of full red lips. Kane felt his pulse
quicken. This could be no other than she whose crimes had become
almost mythical--Nakari of Negari, demon queen of a demon city, whose
monstrous lust for blood had set half a continent shivering. At least
she seemed human enough; the tales of the fearful river tribes had
lent her a supernatural aspect. Kane had half expected to see a
loathsome semi-human monster out of some past and demoniacal age.

The Englishman gazed, fascinated though repelled. Not even in the
courts of Europe had he seen such grandeur. The chamber and all its
accoutrements, from the carven serpents twined about the bases of the
pillars to the dimly seen dragons on the shadowy ceiling, were
fashioned on a gigantic scale. The splendour was awesome--elephantine
--inhumanly oversized, and almost numbing to the mind which sought to
measure and conceive the magnitude thereof. To Kane it seemed that
these things must have been the work of gods rather than men, for this
chamber alone would dwarf most of the castles he had known in Europe.

The fighting men who thronged that mighty room seemed grotesquely
incongruous. They were not the architects of that ancient place. As
Kane realized this the sinister importance of Queen Nakari dwindled.
Sprawled on that august throne in the midst of the terrific glory of
another age, she seemed to assume her true proportions, a spoiled,
petulant child engaged in a game of make-believe and using for her
sport a toy discarded by her elders. And at the same time a thought
entered Kane's mind--who were these elders? Still, the child
could become deadly in her game, as the Englishman soon saw. A tall
and massive warrior came through the ranks fronting the throne, and
after prostrating himself four times before it, remained on his knees,
evidently waiting permission to speak. The queen's air of lazy
indifference fell from her and she straightened with a quick lithe
motion that reminded Kane of a leopardess springing erect. She spoke,
and the words came faintly to him as he strained his faculties to
hear. She spoke in a language very similar to that of the river
tribes.

"Speak!"

"Great and Terrible One," said the kneeling warrior, and Kane
recognized him as the chief who had first accosted him on the
plateau--the chief of the guards on the cliffs, "let not the fire of
your fury consume your slave." The young woman's eyes narrowed
viciously.

"You know why you were summoned, son of a vulture?"

"Fire of Beauty, the stranger called Kane brought no gifts."

"No gifts?" she spat out the words. "What have I to do with gifts?"
The chief hesitated, knowing now that there was some special
importance in this stranger.

"Gazelle of Negari, he came climbing the crags in the night like an
assassin, with a dagger as long as a man's arm in his hand. The
boulder we hurled down missed him, and we met him upon the plateau and
took him to the Bridge-Across-the-Sky, where, as is the custom, we
thought to slay him; for it was your word that you were weary of men
who came wooing you."

"Fool," she snarled. "Fool!"

"Your slave did not know, Queen of Beauty. The strange man fought like
a mountain leopard. Two men he slew and fell with the last one into
the chasm, and so he perished, Star of Negari."

"Aye," the queen's tone was venomous. "The first great man who ever
came "to Negari! One who might have--rise, fool!"

The man got to his feet.

"Mighty Lioness, might not this one have come seeking--"

The sentence was never completed. Even as he straightened, Nakari made
a swift gesture with her hand. Two warriors plunged from the silent
ranks and two spears crossed in the chief's body before he could turn.
A gurgling scream burst from his lips, blood spurted high in the air
and the corpse fell flatly at the foot of the great throne.

The ranks never wavered, but Kane caught the sidelong flash of
strangely red eyes and the involuntary wetting of thick lips. Nakari
had half risen as the spears flashed, and now she sank back, an
expression of cruel satisfaction on her beautiful face and a strange
brooding gleam in her scintillant eyes.

An indifferent wave of her hand and the corpse was dragged away by the
heels, the dead arms trailing limply in the wide smear of blood left
by the passage of the body. Kane could see other wide stains crossing
the stone floor, some almost indistinct, others less dim. How many
wild scenes of blood and cruel frenzy had the great stone
throne-dragons looked upon with their carven eyes?

He did not doubt, now, the tales told him by the river tribes. These
people were bred in rapine and horror. Their prowess had burst their
brains. They lived, like some terrible beast, only to destroy. There
were strange gleams behind their eyes which at times lit those eyes
with up-leading flames and shadows of Hell. What had the river tribes
said of these mountain people who had ravaged them for countless
centuries?

"That they were henchmen of death, who stalked among them, and whom
they worshipped." Still the thought hovered in Kane's mind as he
watched--who built this place, and why were these people evidently in
possession? Fighting men such as they were could not have reached the
culture evidenced by these carvings. Yet the river tribes had spoken
of no other men than those upon which he now looked. The Englishman
tore himself away from the fascination of the barbaric scene with an
effort. He had no time to waste; as long as they thought him dead, he
had more chance of eluding possible guards and seeking what he had
come to find. He turned and set off down the dim corridor. No plan
of action offered itself to his mind and one direction was as good as
another. The passage did not run straight; it turned and twisted,
following the line of the walls, Kane supposed, and found time to
wonder at the evident enormous thickness of those walls. He expected
at any moment to meet some guard or slave, but as the corridors
continued to stretch empty before him, with the dusty floors unmarked
by any footprint, he decided that either the passages were unknown to
the people of Negari or else for some reason were never used.

He kept a close lookout for secret doors, and at last found one, made
fast on the inner side with a rusty bolt set in a groove of the wall.
This he manipulated cautiously, and presently with a creaking which
seemed terrifically loud in the stillness the door swung inward.
Looking out he saw no one, and stepping warily through the opening, he
drew the door to behind him, noting that it assumed the part of a
fantastic picture painted on the wall. He scraped a mark with his
dagger at the point where he believed the hidden spring to be on the
outer side, for he knew not when he might need to use the passage
again.

He was in a great hall, through which ran a maze of giant pillars much
like those of the throne chamber. Among them he felt like a child in
some great forest, yet they gave him some slight sense of security
since he believed that, gliding among them like a ghost through a
jungle, he could elude the warriors in spite of their craft.

He set off, choosing his direction at random and going carefully. Once
he heard a mutter of voices, and leaping upon the base of a column,
clung there while two women passed directly beneath him, but besides
these he encountered no one. It was an uncanny sensation, passing
through this vast hall which seemed empty of human life, but in some
other part of which Kane knew there might be throngs of people, hidden
from sight by the pillars.

At last, after what seemed an eternity of following these monstrous
mazes, he came upon a huge wall which seemed to be either a side of
the hall, or a partition, and continuing along this, he saw in front
of him a doorway before which two spearmen stood like black statues.

Kane, peering about the corner of a column base, made out two windows
high in the wall, one on each side of the door, and noting the ornate
carvings which covered the walls, determined on a desperate plan.

He felt it imperative that he should see what lay within that room.
The fact that it was guarded suggested that the room beyond the door
was either a treasure chamber or a dungeon, and he felt sure that his
ultimate goal would prove to be a dungeon.

Kane retreated to a point out of sight of the guards and began to
scale the wall, using the deep carvings for hand and foot holds. It
proved even easier than he had hoped, and having climbed to a point
level with the windows, he crawled cautiously along a horizontal line,
feeling like an ant on a wall. The guards far below him never looked
up, and finally he reached the nearer window and drew himself up over
the sill. He looked down into a large room, empty of life, but
equipped in a manner sensuous and barbaric. Silken couches and velvet
cushions dotted the floor in profusion, and tapestries heavy with gold
work hung upon tile walls. The ceiling too was worked in gold.

Strangely incongruous, crude trinkets of ivory and ironwood,
unmistakably savage in workmanship, littered the place, symbolic
enough of this strange kingdom where signs of barbarism vied with a
strange culture. The outer door was shut and in the wall opposite was
another door, also closed.

Kane descended from the window, sliding down the edge of a tapestry as
a sailor slides down a sail-rope, and crossed the room. His feet sank
noiselessly into the deep fabric of the rug which covered the floor,
and which, like all the other furnishings, seemed ancient to the point
of decay.

At the door he hesitated. To step into the next room might be a
desperately hazardous thing to do; should it prove to be filled with
warriors, his escape was cut off by the spearman outside the other
door. Still, he was used to taking all sorts of wild chances, and now,
sword in hand, he flung the door open with a suddenness intended to
numb with surprise for an instant any foe who might be on the other
side. Kane took a swift step within, ready for anything--then halted
suddenly, struck speechless and motionless for a second. He had come
thousands of miles in search of something, and there before him lay
the object of his search.



CHAPTER III. LILITH

A couch stood in the middle of the room, and its silken surface lay a
woman--a woman whose skin was fair and whose reddish gold hair fell
about her bare shoulders. She now sprang erect, fright flooding her
fine grey eyes, lips parted to utter a cry which she as suddenly
checked.

"You!" she exclaimed. "How did you--?"

Solomon Kane closed the door behind him and came toward her, a rare
smile on his dark face.

"You remember me, do you not, Marylin?"

The fear had already faded from her eyes even before he spoke, to be
replaced by a look of incredible wonder and dazed bewilderment.

"Captain Kane! I can not understand--it seemed no one would ever
come--"

She drew a small hand wearily across her brow, swaying suddenly.

Kane caught her in his arms--she was only a child--and laid her gently
on the couch. There, chafing her wrists gently, he talked in a low
hurried monotone, keeping an eye on the door all the time--which door,
by the way, seemed to be the only entrance or egress from the room.
While he talked he mechanically took in the chamber, noting that it
was almost a duplicate of the outer room as regards hangings and
"general furnishings.

"First," said he, "before we go into any other matters, tell me, are
you closely guarded?"

"Very closely, sir," she murmured hopelessly, "I know not how you came
here, but we can never escape."

"Let me tell you swiftly how I came to be here, and mayhap you will be
more hopeful when I tell you of the difficulties already overcome. Lie
still now, Marylin. and I will tell you how I came to seek an English
heiress in the devil city of Negari.

"I killed Sir John Taferel in a duel. As to the reason, 'tis neither
here nor there, but slander and a black lie lay behind it. Ere he died
he confessed that he had committed a foul crime some years agone. You
remember, of course, the affection cherished for you by your cousin,
old Lord Hildred Taferal, Sir John's uncle? Sir John feared that the
old lord, dying without issue, might leave the great Taferal estates
to you.

"Years ago you disappeared and Sir John spread the rumour that you
had drowned. Yet when he lay dying with my rapier through his body, he
gasped out that he had kidnapped you and sold you to a Barbary rover,
whom he named--a bloody pirate whose name has not been unknown on
England's coasts aforetime. So I came seeking you, and a long weary
trail it has been, stretching into long leagues and bitter years.

"First I sailed the seas searching for El Gar, the Barbary corsair
named by Sir John. I found him in the crash and roar of an ocean
battle; he died, but even as he lay dying he told me that he had sold
you in turn to a merchant out of Stamboul. So to the Levant I went and
there by chance came upon a Greek sailor whom the Moors had crucified
on the shore for piracy. I cut him down and asked him the question I
asked all men--if he had in his wanderings seen a captive English
girl-child with yellow curls. I learned that he had been one of the
crew of the Stamboul merchants, and that she had, on her homeward
voyage, been set upon by a Portuguese slaver and sunk--this renegade
Greek and the child being among the few who were taken aboard the
slaver.

"This slaver then, cruising south for black ivory, had been ambushed
in a small bay on the African West Coast, and of your further fate the
Greek knew nothing, for he had escaped the general massacre, and
taking to sea in an open boat, had been taken up by a ship of Genoese
freebooters.

"To the West Coast, then, I came, on the slim chance that you still
lived, and there heard among the natives that some years ago a white
child had been taken from a ship whose crew had been slain, and sent
inland as a part of the tribute the shore tribes paid to the upper
river chiefs.

"Then all traces ceased. For months I wandered without a clue as to
your whereabouts, nay, without a hint that you even lived. Then I
chanced to hear among the river tribes of the demon city Negari and
the evil queen who kept a foreign woman for a slave. I came here."

Kane's matter-of-fact tone, his unfurbished narration, gave no hint of
the full meaning of that tale--of what lay behind those calm and
measured words--the sea-fights and the land fights--the years of
privation and heart-breaking toil, the ceaseless danger, the
everlasting wandering through hostile and unknown lands, the tedious
and deadening labour of ferreting out the information he wished from
ignorant, sullen and unfriendly savages.

"I came here," said Kane simply, but what a world of courage and
effort was symbolized by that phrase! A long red trail, black shadows
and crimson shadows weaving a devil's dance--marked by flashing swords
and the smoke of battle--by faltering words falling like drops of
blood from the lips of dying men.

Not a consciously dramatic man, certainly, was Solomon Kane. He told
his tale in the same manner in which he had overcome terrific
obstacles --coldly, briefly and without heroics.

"You see, Marylin," he concluded gently, "I have not come this far and
done this much, to now meet with defeat. Take heart, child. We will
find a way out of this fearful place."

"Sir John took me on his saddlebow," the girl said dazedly, and
speaking slowly as if her native language came strangely to her from
years of unuse, as she framed in halting words an English evening of
long ago: "He carried me to the seashore where a galley's boat waited,
filled with fierce men, dark and moustached and having scimitars, and
great rings to the fingers. The captain, a Moslem with a face like a
hawk, took me, I a-weeping with fear, and bore me to his galley. Yet
he was kind to me in his way. I being little more than a baby, and at
last sold me to a Turkish merchant, as he told you. This merchant he
met off the southern coast of France, after many days of sea travel.

"This man did not use me badly, yet I feared him, for he was a man of
cruel countenance and made me understand that I was to be sold to a
black sultan of the Moors. However, in the Gates of Hercules his ship
was set upon by a Cadiz slaver and things came about as you have said.

"The captain of the slaver believed me to be the child of some wealthy
English family and intended holding me for ransom, but in a grim
darksome bay on the African coast he perished with all his men except
the Greek you have mentioned, and I was taken captive by a savage
chieftain.

"I was terribly afraid and thought he would slay me, but he did me no
harm and sent me upcountry with an escort, who also bore much loot
taken from the ship. This loot, together with myself, was, as you
know, intended for a powerful king of the river peoples. But it never
reached him, for a roving band of Negari fell upon the beach warriors
and slew them all. Then I was taken to this city, and have since
remained, slave to Queen Nakari.

"How I have lived through all those terrible scenes of battle and
cruelty and murder, I know not."

"A providence has watched over you, child," said Kane, "the power
which doth care for weak women and helpless children; which led me to
you in spite of all hindrances, and which shall yet lead us forth from
this place, God willing."

"My people!" she exclaimed suddenly like one awaking from a dream;
"what of them?"

"All in good health and fortune, child, save that they have sorrowed
for you through the long years. Nay, old Sir Mildred hath the gout and
doth so swear thereat that I fear for his soul at times. Yet methinks
that the sight of you, little Marylin, would mend him."

"Still, Captain Kane," said the girl, "I can not understand why you
came alone."

"Your brothers would have come with me, child, but it was not sure
that you lived, and I was loth that any other Taferal should die in a
land far from good English soil. I rid the country of an evil
Taferal-- 'twas but just I should restore in his place a good Taferal,
if so be she still lived--I, and I alone."

This explanation Kane himself believed. He never sought to analyse his
motives and he never wavered once his mind was made up. Though he
always acted on impulse, he firmly believed that all his actions were
governed by cold and logical reasonings. He was a man born out of his
time--a strange blending of Puritan and Cavalier, with a touch of the
ancient philosopher, and more than a touch of the pagan, though the
last assertion would have shocked him unspeakably. An atavist of the
days of blind chivalry he was, a knight errant in the sombre clothes of
a fanatic. A hunger in his soul drove him on and on, an urge to right
all wrongs, protect all weaker things, avenge all crimes against right
and justice. Wayward and restless as the wind, he was consistent in
only one respect--he was true to his ideals of justice and right. Such
was Solomon Kane.

"Marylin," he now said kindly, taking her small hands in his
sword-calloused fingers, "methinks you have changed greatly in the years.
You were a rosy and chubby little maid when I used to dandle you on
my knee in old England. Now you seem drawn and pale of face, though
you are beautiful as the nymphs of the heathen books. There are
haunting ghosts in your eyes, child--do they misuse you here?"

She lay back on the couch and the blood drained slowly from her
already pallid features until she was deathly white. Kane bent over
her, startled. Her voice came in a whisper.

"Ask me not. There are deeds better hidden in the darkness of night
and forgetfulness. There are sights which blast the eyes and leave
their burning mark forever on the brain. The walls of ancient cities,
recked not of by men, have looked upon scenes not to be spoken of,
even in whispers."

Her eyes closed wearily and Kane's troubled, sombre eyes
unconsciously traced the thin blue lines of her veins, prominent
against the unnatural whiteness of her skin.

"Here is some demoniacal thing," he muttered. "A mystery--"

"Aye," murmured the girl, "a mystery that was old when Egypt was
young! And nameless evil more ancient than dark Babylon--that spawned
in terrible black cities when the world was young and strange."

Kane frowned, troubled. At the girl's strange words he felt an eery
crawling fear at the back of his brain, as if dim racial memories
stirred in the eon-deep gulfs, conjuring up grim chaotic visions,
illusive and nightmarish.

Suddenly Marylin sat erect, her eyes flaring wide with fright. Kane
heard a door open somewhere.

"Nakari!" whispered the girl urgently.

"Swift! She must not find you here! Hide quickly, and"--as Kane
turned--"keep silent, whatever may chance!"

She lay back on the couch, feigning slumber as Kane crossed the room
and concealed himself behind some tapestries which, hanging upon the
wall, hid a niche that might have once held a statue of some sort.

He had scarcely done so when the single door of the room opened and a
strange barbaric figure stood framed in it. Nakari, queen of Negari,
had come to her slave.

The woman was clad as she had been when he had seen her on the throne,
and the coloured armlets and anklets clanked as she closed the door
behind her and came into the room. She moved with the easy sinuousness
of a she-leopard and in spite of himself the watcher was struck with
admiration for her lithe beauty. Yet at the same time a shudder of
repulsion shook him, for her eyes gleamed with vibrant and magnetic
evil, older than the world.

"Lilith!" thought Kane. "She is beautiful and terrible as Purgatory.
She is Lilith--that foul, lovely woman of ancient legend."

Nakari halted by the couch, stood looking down upon her captive for a
moment, then with an enigmatic smile, bent and shook her. Marylin
opened her eyes, sat up, then slipped from her couch and knelt before
her savage mistress--an act which caused Kane to curse beneath his
breath. The queen laughed and seating herself upon the couch, motioned
the girl to rise, and then put an arm about her waist and drew her
upon her lap. Kane watched, puzzled, while Nakari caressed the girl in
a lazy, amused manner. This might be affection, but to Kane it seemed
more like a sated leopard teasing its victim. There was an air of
mockery and studied cruelty about the whole affair.

"You are very soft and pretty, Mara," Nakari murmured lazily, "much
prettier than the other girls who serve me. The time approaches, little
one, for your nuptial. And a fairer bride has never been borne up the
Black Stairs."

Marylin began to tremble and Kane thought she was going to faint.
Nakari's eyes gleamed strangely beneath her long-lashed drooping lids,
and her full red lips curved in a faint tantalizing smile. Her every
action seemed fraught with some sinister meaning. Kane began to sweat
profusely.

"Mara," said the queen, "you are honoured above all other girls, and
yet you are not content. Think how the girls of Negari will envy you,
Mara, when the priests sing the nuptial song and the Moon of Skulls
looks over the black crest of the Tower of Death. Think, little
bride, of the Master, how many girls have given their lives to be his
bride!"

And Nakari laughed in her hateful, musical way as at a rare jest. And
then suddenly she stopped short. Her eyes narrowed to slits as they
swept the room, and her whole body tensed. Her hand went to her girdle
and came away with a long thin dagger. Kane sighted along the barrel
of his pistol, finger against the trigger. Only a natural hesitancy
against shooting a woman kept him from sending death into the savage
heart of Nakari, for he believed that she was about to murder the
girl.

Then, with a lithe, cat-like motion, she thrust the girl from her
knees and bounded back across the room, her eyes fixed with blazing
intensity on the tapestry behind which Kane stood. Had those keen eyes
discovered him? He quickly learned.

"Who is there?" she rapped out fiercely.

"Who hides behind those hangings? I do not see you nor hear you, but I
know someone is there!" Kane remained silent. Nakari's wild beast
instinct had betrayed him, and he was uncertain as to what course to
follow. His next actions depended on the queen.

"Mara!" Nakari's voice slashed like a whip, "who is behind those
hangings? Answer me! Shall I give you a taste of the whip
again?" The girl seemed incapable of speech. She cowered where she had
fallen, her beautiful eyes full of terror. Nakari, her blazing gaze
never wavering, reached behind her with her free hand and gripped a
cord hanging from the wall. She jerked viciously. Kane felt the
tapestries whip back on either side of him and he stood revealed. For
a moment the strange tableau held--the gaunt adventurer in the
blood-stained, tattered garments, the long pistol gripped in his right
hand--across the room the savage queen in her barbaric finery, one arm
still lifted to the cord, the other hand holding the dagger in front
of her--the imprisoned girl cowering on the floor. Then Kane spoke:
"Keep silent, Nakari, or you die!" The queen seemed numbed and struck
speechless by the sudden apparition. Kane stepped from among the
tapestries and slowly approached her.

"You!" she found her voice at last. "You must be he of whom the
guardsmen spake! There are not two other white men in Negari! They
said you fell to your death! How then--"

"Silence!" Kane's voice cut in harshly on her amazed babblings; he
knew that the pistol meant nothing to her, but she sensed the threat
of the long blade in his left hand. "Marylin," still unconsciously
speaking in the river tribes' language, "take cords from the hangings
and bind her--" He was about the middle of the chamber now. Nakari's
face had lost much of its helpless bewilderment and into her blazing
eyes stole a crafty gleam. She deliberately let her dagger fall as in
token of surrender, then suddenly her hands shot high above her head
and gripped another thick cord. Kane heard Marylin scream, but before
he could pull the trigger or even think, the floor fell beneath his
feet and he shot down into abysmal blackness. He did not fall far and
he landed on his feet; but the force of the fall sent him to his knees
and even as he went down, sensing a presence in the darkness beside
him, something crashed against his skull and he dropped into a yet
blacker abyss of unconsciousness.



CHAPTER IV. DREAMS OF EMPIRE

Slowly Kane drifted back from the dim realms where the unseen
assailant's bludgeon had hurled him. Something hindered the motion of
his hands, and there was a metallic clanking when he sought to raise
them to his aching, throbbing head. He lay in utter darkness, but he
could not determine whether this was absence of light, or whether he
was still blinded by the blow. He dazedly collected his scattered
faculties and realized that he was lying on a damp stone floor,
shackled by wrist and ankle with heavy iron chains which were rough
and rusty to the touch.

How long he lay there, he never knew. The silence was broken only by
the drumming pulse in his own aching head and the scamper and
chattering of rats. At last a red glow sprang up in the darkness and
grew before his eyes. Framed in the grisly radiance rose the sinister
and sardonic face of Nakari. Kane shook his head, striving to rid
himself of the illusion. But the light grew and as his eyes accustomed
themselves to it, he saw that it emanated from a torch borne in the
hand of the queen.

In the illumination he now saw that he lay in a small dank cell whose
walls, ceiling and floor were of stone. The heavy chains which held
him captive were made fast to metal rings set deep in the wall. There
was but one door, which was apparently of bronze.

Nakari set the torch in a niche near the door, and coming forward,
stood over her captive, gazing down at him in a manner rather
speculating than mocking.

"You are he who fought the men on the cliff." The remark was an
assertion rather than a question. "They said you fell into the abyss--did
they lie? Did you bribe them to lie? Or how did you escape?
Are you a magician and did you fly to the bottom of the chasm and then
fly to my palace? Speak!"

Kane remained silent. Nakari cursed.

"Speak or I will have your eyes torn out! I will cut your fingers off
and burn your feet!" She kicked him viciously, but Kane lay silent,
his deep sombre eyes boring up into her face, until the feral gleam
faded from her eyes to be replaced by an avid interest and wonder.

She seated herself on a stone bench, resting her elbows on her knees
and her chin on her hands.

"I never saw a white man before," she said.

"Are all white men like you? Bah! That cannot be! Most men are fools,
black or white. I know that white men are not gods as the river tribes
say--they are only men. I, who know all the ancient mysteries, say
they are only men.

"But white men have strange mysteries too, they tell me--the wanderers
of the river tribes and Mara. They have war clubs that make a noise
like thunder and kill afar off--that thing which you held in your
right hand, was that one of those clubs?"

Kane permitted himself a grim smile.

"Nakari, if you know all mysteries, how can I tell you aught that you
know not already?"

"How deep and cold and strange your eyes are!" the queen said as if he
had not spoken.

"How strange your whole appearance is--and you have the bearing of a
king! You do not fear me--I never met a man who neither loved nor
feared me. You would never fear me, but you could learn to love me.
Look at me, bold one--am I not beautiful?"

"You are beautiful," answered Kane.

Nakari smiled and then frowned. "The way you say that. it is no
compliment. You hate me, do you not?"

"As a man hates a serpent," Kane replied bluntly.

Nakari's eyes blazed with almost insane fury. Her hands clenched until
the long nails sank into the palms; then as quickly as her anger had
arisen, it ebbed away.

"You have the heart of a king," she said calmly, "else you would fear
me. Are you a king your land?"

"I am only a landless wanderer."

"You might be a king here," Nakari said slowly. Kane laughed grimly.
"Do you offer me my life?"

"I offer you more than that!" Kane's eyes narrowed as the queen leaned
toward him, vibrant with suppressed excitement.

"Kane, what is it that you want more than anything else in the
world? "

"To take the white girl you call Mara, and go." Nakari sank back with
an impatient exclamation.

"You can not have her; she is the promised bride of the Master. Even I
could not save her. I even if I wished. Forget her. I will help you
forget her. Listen, listen to the words of Nakari, queen of Negari!
You say you are a landless man--I will make you a king! I will give
you the world for a toy! "No, no keep silent until I have finished."
she rushed on, her words tumbling over each other in her eagerness.
Her eyes blazed, her whole body quivered with dynamic intensity. "I
have talked to travellers, to captives and slaves, men from far
countries. I know that this land of mountains and rivers and jungle is
not all the world. There are far-off nations and cities, and kings and
queens to be crushed and broken.

"Negari is fading, her might is crumbling, but a strong man beside her
queen might build it up again--might restore all her vanishing glory.
Listen, Kane! Sit by me on the throne of Negari! Send afar to your
people for the thunder-clubs to arm my warriors! My nation is still
lord of central Africa. Together we will band the conquered tribes--call
back the days when the realm of ancient Negari spanned the land
from sea to sea! We will subjugate all the tribes of the river, the
plain and the sea-shore, and instead of slaying them all, we will make
one mighty army of them! And then, when all Africa is under our heel,
we will sweep forth upon the world like a hungry lion to rend and tear
and destroy!"

Solomon's brain reeled. Perhaps it was the woman's fierce magnetic
personality, the dynamic power she instilled in her fiery words, but
at the moment her wild plan seemed not at all wild and impossible.
Lurid and chaotic visions flamed through the Puritan's brain--Europe
torn by civil and religious strife, divided against herself, betrayed
by her rulers, tottering--aye, Europe was in desperate straits now,
and might prove an easy victim for some strong savage race of
conquerors. What man can say truthfully that in his heart there lurks
not a yearning for power and conquest?

For a moment the Devil sorely tempted Solomon Kane. Then before his
mind's eye rose the wistful, sad face of Marylin Taferal, and Solomon
cursed.

"Out on ye, daughter of Satan! Avaunt! Am I a beast of the forest to
lead your savage devils against mine own people? Nay, no beast ever
did so. Begone! If you wish my friendship, set me free and let me go
with the girl."

Nakari leaped like a tiger-cat to her feet, her eyes flaming now with
passionate fury. A dagger gleamed in her hand and she raised it high
above Kane's breast with a feline scream of hate. A moment she hovered
like a shadow of death above him; then her arm sank and she laughed.
Freedom? She will find her freedom when the Moon of Skulls leers down
on the black altar. As for you, you shall rot in this dungeon. You are
a fool; Africa's greatest queen has offered you her love and the
empire of the world--and you revile her! You love the slave girl,
perhaps? Until the Moon of Skulls she is mine and I leave you to think
about this: that she shall be punished as I have punished her before--hung
up by her wrists, naked, and whipped until she swoons!"

Nakari laughed as Kane tore savagely at his shackles. She crossed to
the door, opened it, then hesitated and turned back for another word.

"This is a foul place, bold one, and maybe you hate me the more for
chaining you here. Maybe in Nakari's beautiful throne room, with
wealth and luxury spread before you, you will look upon her with more
favour. Very soon I shall send for you, but first I will leave you
here awhile to reflect. Remember--love Nakari and the kingdom of the
world is yours; hate her--this cell is your realm."

The bronze door clanged sullenly, but more hateful to the imprisoned
Englishman was the venomous, silvery laugh of Nakari.

Time passed slowly in the darkness. After what seemed a long time the
door opened again, this time to admit a huge warrior who brought food
and a sort of thin wine. Kane ate and drank ravenously and afterward
slept. The strain of the last few days had worn him greatly, mentally
and physically, but when he awoke he felt fresh and strong.

Again the door opened and two great savage warriors entered. In the
light of the torches they bore, Kane saw that they were giants, clad
in loin-cloths and ostrich plume headgear, and bearing long spears in
their hands.

"Nakari wishes you to come to her, white man," was all they said, as
they took off his shackles. He arose, exultant in even brief freedom,
his keen brain working fiercely for a way of escape.

Evidently the fame of his prowess had spread, for the two warriors
showed great respect for him. They motioned him to precede them, and
walked carefully behind him, the points of their spears boring into
his back. Though they were two to one, and he was unarmed, they were
taking no chances. The gazes they directed at him were full of awe and
suspicion.

Down a long, dark corridor they went, his captors guiding him with
light prods of their spears, up a narrow winding stair, down another
passageway, up another stair, and then they emerged into the vast maze
of gigantic pillars into which Kane had first come. As they started
down this huge hall, Kane's eyes suddenly fell on a strange and
fantastic picture painted on the wall ahead of him. His heart gave a
sudden leap as he recognized it. It was some distance in front of him
and he edged imperceptibly toward the wall until he and his guards
were walking along very close to it. Now he was almost abreast of the
picture and could even make out the mark his dagger had made upon it.

The warriors following Kane were amazed to hear him gasp suddenly
like a man struck by a spear. He wavered in his stride and began
clutching at the air for support.

They eyed each other doubtfully and prodded him, but he cried out like
a dying man and slowly crumpled to the floor, where he lay in a
strange, unnatural position, one leg doubled back under him and one
arm half supporting his lolling body.

The guards looked at him fearfully. To all appearances he was dying,
but there was no wound upon him. They threatened him with their spears,
but he paid no heed. Then they lowered their weapons uncertainly and
one of them bent over him.

Then it happened. The instant the guard stooped forward. Kane came up
like a steel spring released. His right fist following his motion
curved up from the hip in a whistling half-circle and crashed against
the warrior's jaw. Delivered with all the power of arm and shoulder,
propelled by the upthrust of the powerful legs as Kane straightened,
the blow was like that of a sling-shot. The guard slumped to the
floor, unconscious before his knees gave way.

The other warrior plunged forward with a bellow, but even as his
victim fell, Kane twisted aside and his frantic hand found the secret
spring in the painting and pressed.

All happened in the breath of a second. Quick, as the warrior was,
Kane was quicker, for he moved with the dynamic speed of a famished
wolf. For an instant the falling body of the senseless guard hindered
the other warrior's thrust, and in that instant Kane felt the hidden
door give way. From the corner of his eye he saw a long gleam of steel
shooting for his heart. He twisted about and hurled himself against
the door, vanishing through it even as the stabbing spear slit the
skin on his shoulder.

To the dazed and bewildered warrior, standing there with weapon
upraised for another thrust, it seemed as if his prisoner had simply
vanished through a solid wall, for only a fantastic picture met his
gaze and this did not give to his efforts.



CHAPTER V. "FOR A THOUSAND YEARS--"

Kane slammed the hidden door shut behind him, jammed down the spring
and for a moment leaned against it, every muscle tensed, expecting to
hold it against the efforts of a horde of spearmen. But nothing of the
sort materialized. He heard his guard fumbling outside for a time;
then that sound, too, ceased. It seemed impossible that these people
should have lived in this palace as long as they had without
discovering the secret doors and passages, but it was a conclusion
which forced itself upon Kane's mind. At last he decided that he was
safe from pursuit for the time being, and turning, started down the
long, narrow corridor with its eon-old dust and its dim grey light. He
felt baffled and furious, though he was free from Nakari's shackles.
He had no idea how long he had been in the palace; it seemed ages. It
must be day now, for it was light in the outer halls, and he had seen
no torches after they had left the subterranean dungeons. He wondered
if Nakari had carried out her threat of vengeance on the helpless
girl, and swore passionately. Free for the time being, yes; but
unarmed and hunted through this infernal palace like a rat. How could
he aid either himself or Marylin? But his confidence never faltered.
He was in the right and some way would present itself. Suddenly a
narrow stairway branched off the main passageway, and up this he went,
the light growing stronger and stronger until he stood in the full
glare of the African sunlight. The stair terminated in a sort of small
landing directly in front of which was a tiny window, heavily barred.
Through this he saw the blue sky tinted gold with the blazing
sunlight, the sight was like wine to him and he drew in deep breaths
of fresh, untainted air, breathing deep as if to rid his lungs of the
aura of dust and decayed grandeur through which he had been passing.

He was looking out over a weird and bizarre landscape. Far to the
right and the left loomed up great black crags and beneath them there
reared castles and towers of stone, of strange architecture--it was as
if giants from some other planet had thrown them up in a wild and
chaotic debauch of creation. These buildings were backed solidly
against the cliffs, and Kane knew that Nakari's palace also must be
built into the wall of the crag behind it. He seemed to be in the
front of that palace in a sort of minaret built on the outer wall. But
there was only one window in it and his view was limited.

Far below him through the winding and narrow streets of that strange
city, swarms of people went to and fro, seeming like black ants to the
watcher above. East, north and south, the cliffs formed a natural
bulwark; only to the west was a built wall.

The sun was sinking west. Kane turned reluctantly from the barred
window and went down the stairs again. Again he paced down the narrow
grey corridor, aimlessly and planlessly, for what seemed miles and
miles. He descended lower and lower into passages that lay below
passages. The light grew dimmer, and a dank slime appeared on the
walls. Then Kane halted, a faint sound from beyond the wall arresting
him. What was that? A faint rattle--the rattle of chains.

Kane leaned close to the wall, and in the semi-darkness his hand
encountered a rusty spring. He worked at it cautiously and presently
felt the hidden door it betokened swing inward. He gazed out warily.

He was looking into a cell, the counterpart of the one in which he had
been confined. A smouldering torch was thrust into a niche on the
wall, and by its lurid and flickering light he made out a form on the
floor, shackled wrist and ankle as he had been shackled.

A man; at first Kane thought him to be a native, but a second glance
made him doubt. His skin was dark, but his features were finely
chiselled, and he possessed a high, magnificent forehead, hard vibrant
eyes, and straight dark hair.

The man spoke in an-unfamiliar dialect, one which was strangely
distinct and clear-cut in contrast to the guttural jargon of the
natives with whom Kane was familiar. The Englishman spoke in English,
and then in the language of the river tribes.

"You who come through the ancient door," said the other in the latter
dialect, "who are you? You are no savage--at first I thought you one
of the Old Race, but now I see you are not as they. Whence come you?"

"I am Solomon Kane," said the Puritan, "a prisoner in this devil-city.
I come from far across the blue salt sea."

The man's eyes lighted at the word.

"The sea. The ancient and everlasting! The sea which I have never
seen, but which cradled the glory of my ancestors! Tell me, stranger,
have you, like they, sailed across the breast of the great blue
monster, and have your eyes looked on the golden spires of Atlantis
and the crimson walls of Mu?"

"Truly," answered Solomon uncertainly. "I have sailed the seas, even
to Hindostan and Cathay, but of the countries you mention I know
nothing."

"Nay," the other sighed. "I dream--I dream. Already the shadow of the
great night falls across my brain and my words wander. Stranger, there
have been times when these cold walls and floor have seemed to melt
into green, surging deeps and my soul was filled with the deep booming
of the everlasting sea. I who have never seen the sea!"

Kane shuddered involuntarily. Surely this man was insane. Suddenly the
other shot out a withered, claw-like hand and gripped his arm, despite
the hampering chain,

"You whose skin is so strangely fair. Have you seen Nakari, the she-fiend
who rules this crumbling city?"

"I have seen her," said Kane grimly, "and now I flee like a hunted rat
from her murderers."

"You hate her!" the other cried. "Ha, I know! You seek Mara, the
white girl who is her slave?"

"Aye."

"Listen," the shackled one spoke with strange solemnity; "I am dying.
Nakari's rack has done its work. I die and with me dies the shadow of
the glory that was my nation's. For I am the last of my race. In all
the world there is none like me. Hark now, to the voice of a dying
race."

And Kane leaning there in the flickering semi-darkness of the cell
heard the strangest tale to which man has ever listened, brought out
of the mist of the dim dawn ages by the lips of delirium. Clear and
distinct the words fell from the dying man and Kane alternately burned
and froze as vista after gigantic vista of time and space swept up
before him.

"Long eons ago--ages, ages ago--the empire of my race rose proudly
above the waves. So long ago was it that no man remembers an ancestor
who remembered it. In a great land to the west our cities rose. Our
golden spires split the stars; our purple-prowed galleys broke the
waves around the world, looting the sunset for its treasure and the
sunrise for its wealth.

"Our legions swept forth to the north and to the south, to the west
and the east, and none could stand before them. Our cities banded the
world; we sent our colonies to all lands to subdue all savages, men of
all colours, and enslave them. They toiled for us in the mines and at
the galley's oars. All over the world the people of Atlantis reigned
supreme. We were a sea-people, and we delved the deeps of all the
oceans. The mysteries were known to us, and the secret things of land
and sea and sky. We read the stars and were wise. Sons of the sea, we
exalted him above all others.

"We worshipped Valka and Hotah, Honen and Golgor. Many virgins, many
strong youths, died on their altars and the smoke of the shrines
blotted out the sun. Then the sea rose and shook himself. He thundered
from his abyss and the thrones of the world fell before him! New lands
rose from the deep and Atlantis and Mu were swallowed up by the gulf.
The green sea roared through the fanes and the castles, and the sea- weed
encrusted the golden spires and the topaz towers. The empire of
Atlantis vanished and was forgotten, passing into the everlasting gulf
of time and oblivion. Likewise the colony cities in barbaric lands,
cut off from their mother kingdom, perished. The savage barbarians
rose and burned and destroyed until in all the world only the colony
city of Negari remained as a symbol of the lost empire.

"Here my ancestors ruled as kings, and the ancestors of Nakari--the
she-cat!--bent the knee of slavery to them. Years passed, stretching
into centuries. The empire of Negari dwindled. Tribe after tribe rose
and flung off the chains, pressing the lines back from the sea, until
at last the sons of Atlantis gave way entirely and retreated into the
city itself--the last stronghold of the race. Conquerors no longer,
hemmed in by ferocious tribes, yet they held those tribes at bay for a
thousand years. Negari was invincible from without; her walls held
firm; but within evil influences were at work.

"The sons of Atlantis had brought their slaves into the city with them.
The rulers were warriors, scholars, priests, artisans; they did no menial
work. For that they depended upon the slaves. There were more of these
slaves than there were masters. And they increased while the sons of
Atlantis dwindled.

"They mixed with each other more and more as the race degenerated
until at last only the priestcraft was free of the taint of savage
blood. Rulers sat on the throne of Negari who possessed little of the
blood of Atlantis, and these allowed more and more wild tribesmen to
enter the city in the guise of servants, mercenaries and friends.

"Then came a day when these fierce slaves revolted and slew all who
bore a trace of the blood of Atlantis, except the priests and their
families. These they imprisoned as 'fetish people'. For a thousand
years savages have ruled in Negari, their kings guided by the captive
priests, who though prisoners, were yet the masters of kings." Kane
listened enthralled. To his imaginative mind, the tale burned and
lived with strange fire from cosmic time and space.

"After all the sons of Atlantis, save the priests, were dead, there
rose a great king to the defiled throne of ancient Negari. He was a
tiger and his warriors were like leopards. They called themselves
Negari, ravishing even the name of their former masters, and none
could stand before them. They swept the land from sea to sea, and the
smoke of destruction put out the stars. The great river ran red and
the new lords of Negari strode above the corpses of their tribal foes.
Then the great king died and the empire crumbled, even as the
Atlantean kingdom of Negari had crumbled.

"They were skilled in war. The dead sons of Atlantis, their former
masters, had trained them well in the ways of battle, and against the
wild tribesmen they were invincible. But only the ways of war had they
learned, and the empire was torn with civil strife. Murder and
intrigue stalked redhanded through the palaces and the streets, and
the boundaries of the empire dwindled and dwindled. All the while,
savage kings with red, frenzied brains sat on the throne, and behind
the curtains, unseen but greatly feared, the Atlantean priests guided
the nation, holding it together, keeping it from absolute destruction.

"Prisoners in the city were we, for there was nowhere else in the
world to go. We moved like ghosts through the secret passages in the
walls and under the earth, spying on intrigue and doing secret magic.
We upheld the cause of the royal family--the descendants of that
tiger-like king of long ago--against all plotting chiefs, and grim are
the tales which these silent walls could tell.

"These savages are not like the other natives of the region. A latent
insanity lurks in the brains of every one. They have tasted so deeply
and so long of slaughter and victory that they are as human leopards,
forever thirsting for blood. On their myriad wretched slaves they have
sated all lusts and desires until they have become foul and terrible
beasts, forever seeking some new sensation, forever quenching their
fearful thirsts in blood.

"Like a lion have they lurked in these crags for a thousand years, to
rush forth and ravage the jungle and river people, enslaving and
destroying. They are still invincible from without, though their
possessions have dwindled to the very walls of this city, and their
former great conquests and invasions have dwindled to raids for
slaves.

"But as they faded, so too faded their secret masters, the Atlantean
priests. One by one they died, until only I remained. In the last
century they too have mixed with their rulers and slaves, and now--oh,
the shame upon me!--I, the last son of Atlantis, bear in my veins the
taint of barbarian blood. They died; I remained, doing magic and
guiding the savage kings, I the last priest of Negari. Then the she-fiend,
Nakari, arose."

Kane leaned forward with quickened interest. New life surged into the
tale as it touched upon his own time.

"Nakari!" the name was spat as a snake hisses; "slave and the daughter
of a slave! Yet she prevailed when her hour came and all the royal
family died.

"And me, the last son of Atlantis, me she prisoned and chained. She
feared not the silent Atlantean priests, for she was the daughter of a
Satellite--one of the lesser, native priests. They were men who did
the menial work of the masters--performing the lesser sacrifices,
divining from the livers of fowls and serpents and keeping the holy
fires for ever burning. Much she knew of us and our ways, and evil
ambition burned in her.

"As a child she danced in the March of the New Moon, and as a young
girl she was one of the Starmaidens. Much of the lesser mysteries was
known to her, and more she learned, spying upon the secret rites of
the priests who enacted hidden rituals that were old when the earth
was young.

"For the remnants of Atlantis secretly kept alive the old worships of
Valka and Hotah, Honen and Golgor, long forgotten and not to be
understood by these savage people whose ancestors died screaming on
their altars. Alone of all the savage Negari, she feared us not.
Nakari not only overthrew the king and set herself on the throne, but
she dominated the priests--the Satellites and the few Atlantean
masters who were left. All these last, save me, died beneath the
daggers of her assassins or on her racks. She alone of all the myriad
savage thousands who have lived and died between these walls guessed
at the hidden passages and subterranean corridors, secrets which we
of the priestcraft had guarded jealously from the people for a
thousand years.

"Ha! Ha! Blind, savage fools! To pass an ageless age in this city, yet
never to learn of the secrets thereof! Apes--fools! Not even the
lesser priests know of the long grey corridors, lit by phosphorescent
ceilings, through which in bygone ages strange forms have glided
silently. For our ancestors built Negari as they built Atlantis on a
mighty scale and with an unknown art. Not for men alone did we build,
but for the gods who moved unseen among us. And deep the secrets these
ancient walls hold!

"Torture could not wring these secrets from our lips, but shackled in
her dungeons, we trod our hidden corridors no more. For years the dust
has gathered there, untouched by human foot, while we, and finally I
alone, lay chained in these foul cells. And among the temples and the
dark, mysterious shrines of old, move vile Satellites, elevated by
Nakari to glories that were once mine--for I am the last Atlantean
high priest.

"Their doom is ascertained, and red will be their ruin. Valka and
Golgor, gods lost and forgotten, whose memory shall die with me,
strike down their walls and humble them unto the dust! Break the
altars of their blind pagan gods--"

Kane realized that the man was wandering in his mind. The keen brain
had begun to crumble at last.

"Tell me," said he; "you mentioned the fair girl. Mara. What do you
know of her?"

"She was brought to Negari years ago by raiders," the other answered,
"only a few years after the rise of the savage queen, whose slave she
is. Little of her I know, for shortly after her arrival, Nakari turned
on me--and the years that lie between have been grim dark years, shot
red with torture and agony. Here I have lain, hampered by my chains
from escape which lay in that door through which you entered--and for
the knowledge of which Nakari has torn me on racks and suspended me
over slow fires."

Kane shuddered. "You know not if they have so misused the white girl?
Her eyes are haunted, and she has wasted away."

"She has danced with the Starmaidens at Nakari's command, and has
looked on the bloody and terrible rites of the Black Temple. She has
lived for years among a people with whom blood is cheaper than water,
who delight in slaughter and foul torture, and such sights as she has
looked upon would blast the eyes and wither the flesh of strong men.
She has seen the victims of Nakura die amid horrid torments, and the
sight is burned forever in the brain of the beholder. The rites of the
Atlanteans the savages took whereby to honour their own crude gods,
and though the essence of those rites is lost in the wasting years,
yet even Nakari's minions perform them, they are not such as men can
look on, unshaken."

Kane was thinking: "A fair day for the world when this Atlantis sank,
for most certainly it bred a race of strange and unknown evil." Aloud
he said; "Who Is this Master of whom Nakari spake, and what meant she
by calling Mara his bride?"

"Nakura--Nakura. The skull of evil, the symbol of Death that they
worship. What know these savages of the gods of sea-girt Atlantis?
What know they of the dread and unseen gods whom their masters
worshipped with majestic and mysterious rites? They understand
not of the un-seen essence, the invisible deity that reigns in the air
and the elements; they must worship a material object, endowed with
human shape. Nakura was the last great wizard of Atlantean Negari. A
renegade he was, who conspired against his own people and aided the
revolt of the savages. In life they followed him and in death they
deified him. High in the Tower of Death his fleshless skull is set,
and on that skull hinge the brains of all the people of Negari.

"Nay, we of Atlantis worshipped Death, but we likewise worshipped
Life. These people worship only Death and call themselves Sons of
Death. And the skull of Nakura has been to them for a thousand years
the symbol of their power, the evidence of their greatness.

"Do you mean," Kane broke in impatiently on these ramblings, "that
they will sacrifice the girl to their god?"

"In the Moon of Skulls she will die on the Black Altar."

"What in God's name is this Moon of Skulls?" Kane cried passionately.

"The full moon. At the full of each moon, which we name the Moon of
Skulls, a virgin dies on the Black Altar before the Tower of Death,
where centuries ago, virgins died in honour of Golgor, the god of
Atlantis. Now from the face of the tower that once housed the glory of
Golgor, leers down the skull of the renegade wizard, and the people
believe that his brain still lives therein to guide the star of the
city. For look ye, stranger, when the full moon gleams over the rim of
the tower and the chant of the priests falls silent, then from the
skull of Nakura thunders a great voice, raised in an ancient Atlantean
chant, and the people fall on their faces before it.

"But hark, there is a secret way, a stair leading up to a hidden niche
behind the skull, and there a priest lurks and chants. In days gone by
one of the sons of Atlantis had this office, and by all rights of men
and gods it should be mine this day. For though we sons of Atlantis
worshipped our ancient gods in secret, these savages would have none
of them. To hold our power we were devotees to their foul gods and we
sang and sacrificed to him whose memory we cursed.

"But Nakari discovered the secret, known before only to the Atlantean
priests, and now one of her Satellites mounts the hidden stair and
yammers forth the strange and terrible chant which is but meaningless
gibberish to him, as to those who hear it. I, and only I, know its
grim and fearful meaning."

Kane's brain whirled in his efforts to formulate some plan of action.
For the first time during the whole search for the girl, he felt
himself against a blank wall. The palace was a labyrinth, a maze in
which he could decide no direction. The corridors seemed to run
without plan or purpose, and how could he find Marylin, prisoned as
she doubtless was in one of the myriad chambers or cells? Or had she
already passed over the borderline of life, or succumbed to the brutal
torture-lust of Nakari?

He scarcely heard the ravings and mutterings of the dying man.

"Stranger, do you indeed live or are you but one of the ghosts which
have haunted me of late, stealing through the darkness of my cell?
Nay, you are flesh and blood--but you are a savage, even as Nakari's
race are savages. Eons ago when your ancestors were defending their
caves against the tiger and the mammoth, with crude spears of flint,
the gold spires of my people split the stars! They are gone and
forgotten, and the world is a waste of barbarians. Let me, too, pass
as a dream that is forgotten in the mists of the ages--" Kane rose and
paced the cell. His fingers closed like steel talons as on a sword
hilt and a blind red wave of fury surged through his brain. Oh God! to
get his foes before the keen blade that had been taken from him--to
face the whole city, one man against them all.

Kane pressed his hands against his temples.

"The moon was nearly full when last I saw it. But I know not how long
ago that was. I know not how long I have been in this accursed
palace, or how long I lay in that dungeon where Nakari threw me. The
time of full moon may be past, and--oh merciful God!--Marylin may be
dead already."

"Tonight is the Moon of Skulls," muttered the other; "I heard one of
my jailers speak of it."

Kane gripped the dying man's shoulder with unconscious force.

"If you hate Nakari or love mankind, in God's name tell me how to save
the child."

"Love mankind?" the priest laughed insanely.

"What has a son of Atlantis and a priest of forgotten Golgor to do
with love? What are mortals but food for the jaws of the
gods? Softer girls than your Mara have died screaming beneath
these hands and my heart was as iron to their cries . Yet hate"--the
strange eyes flamed with fearful light--"for hate I will tell you what
you wish to know!

"Go to the Tower of Death when the moon is risen. Slay the false
priest who lurks behind the skull of Nakura, and then when the
chanting of the worshippers below ceases, and the masked slayer beside
the Black Altar raises the sacrificial dagger, speak in a loud voice
that the people can understand, bidding them set free the victim and
offer up instead, Nakari, queen of Negari!

"As for the rest, afterward you must rely on your own craft and
prowess if you come free."

Kane shook him.

"Swift! Tell me how I am to reach this tower!"

"Go back through the door whence you came." The man was sinking fast,
his words dropped to whispers. "Turn to the left and go a hundred
paces. Mount the stair you come to, as high as it goes. In the
corridor where it ceases go straight for another hundred paces, and
when you come to what seems a blank wall, feel over it until you find
a projecting spring. Press this and enter the door which will open.
You will then be out of the palace and in the cliffs against which it
is built, and in the only one of the secret corridors known to the
people of Negari. Turn to your right and go straight down the passage
for five hundred paces. There you will come to a stair, which leads up
to the niche behind the skull. The Tower of Death is built into the
cliff and projects above it. There are two stairs--"

Suddenly the voice trailed out. Kane leaned forward and shook the man,
and the priest suddenly rose up with a great effort. His eyes blazed
with a wild and unearthly light and he flung his shackled arms wide.

"The sea!" he cried in a great voice. "The golden spires of Atlantis
and the sun on the deep blue waters! I come!"

And as Kane reached to lay him down again, he slumped back, dead.



CHAPTER VI. THE SHATTERING OF THE SKULL

Kane wiped the cold sweat from his pale brow as he hurried down the
shadowy passage. Outside this horrible palace it must be night. Even
now the full moon--the grim Moon of Skulls--might be rising above the
horizon. He paced off a hundred paces and came upon the stair the
dying priest had mentioned. This he mounted, and coming into the
corridor above, he measured off another hundred paces and brought up
short against what appeared to be a door-less wall. It seemed an age
before his frantic fingers found a piece of projecting metal. There
was a creak of rusty hinges as the hidden door swung open and Kane
looked into a passageway darker than the one in which he stood.

He entered, and when the door shut behind him he turned to his right
and groped his way along for five hundred paces. There the corridor
was lighter; light sifted in from without, and Kane discerned a
stairway. Up this he went for several steps, then halted, baffled. At
a sort of landing the stairway became two, one leading away to the
left, the other to the right. Kane cursed. He felt that he could not
afford to make a mistake--time was too precious--but how was he to
know which would lead him to the niche where the priest hid?

The Atlantean had been about to tell him of these stairs when struck
by the delirium which precedes death, and Kane wished fervently that
he had lived only a few moments longer.

At any rate, he had no time to waste; right or wrong, he must chance
it. He chose the right hand stair and ran swiftly up it. No time for
caution now.

He felt instinctively that the time of sacrifice was close at hand. He
came into another passage and discerned by the change in masonry that
he was out of the cliffs again and in some building--presumably the
Tower of Death. He expected any moment to come upon another stair, and
suddenly his expectations were realized--but instead of up, it led
down. From somewhere in front of him Kane heard a vague, rhythmic
murmur and a cold hand gripped his heart. The chanting of the
worshippers before--the Black Altar!

He raced forward recklessly, rounded a turn in the corridor, brought
up short against a door and looked through a tiny aperture. His heart
sank. He had chosen the wrong stair and had wandered into some other
building adjoining the Tower of Death.

He looked upon a grim and terrible scene. In a wide open space before
a great black tower whose spire rose above the crags behind it, two
long lines of savage dancers swayed and writhed. Their voices rose in
a strange meaningless chant, and they did not move from their tracks.

From their knees upward their bodies swayed in fantastic rhythmical
motions, and in their hands torches tossed and whirled, shedding a
lurid shifting red light over the scene. Behind them were ranged a
vast concourse of people who stood silent.

The dancing torchlight gleamed on a sea of glittering eyes and eager
faces. In front of the dancers rose the Tower of Death, gigantically
tall, black and horrific. No door or window opened in its face, but
high on the wall in a sort of ornamented frame there leered a grim
symbol of death and decay. The skull of Nakura! A faint, eery glow
surrounded it, lit somehow from within the tower, Kane knew, and
wondered by what strange art the priests had kept the skull from decay
and dissolution so long.

But it was neither the skull nor the tower which gripped the Puritan's
horrified gaze and held it. Between the converging lines of yelling,
swaying worshippers there rose a great black altar. On this altar lay
a slim, white shape.

"Marylin!" the word burst from Kane's lips in a great sob.

For a moment he stood frozen, helpless, struck blind. No time now to
retrace his steps and find the niche where the skull priest lurked.

Even now a faint glow was apparent behind the spire of the tower,
etching that spire blackly against me sky. The moon had risen. The
chant of the dancers soared up to a frenzy of sound, and from the
silent watchers behind them began a sinister low rumble of drums. To
Kane's dazed mind it seemed that he looked on some red debauch of a
lower Hell.

What ghastly worship of past eons did these perverted and degenerate
rites symbolize? Kane knew that these people aped the rituals of their
former masters in their crude way, and even in his despair he found
time to shudder at the thought of what those original rites must have
been.

Now a fearful shape rose up beside the altar where lay the silent
girl. A tall figure, entirely naked save for a hideous painted mask on
his face and a great head-dress of waving plumes. The drone of the
chant sank low for an instant, then rose up again to wilder heights.
Was it the vibrations of their song that made the floor quiver beneath
Kane's feet?

Kane with shaking fingers began to unbar the door. Naught to do now
but to rush out barehanded and die beside the girl he could not save.
Then his gaze was blocked by a giant form which shouldered in front of
the door. A huge man, a chief by his bearing and apparel, leaned idly
against the wall as he watched the proceedings. Kane's heart gave a
great leap. This was too good to be true. Thrust in the chief's girdle
was the pistol that he himself had carried! He knew that his weapons
must have been divided among his captors. This pistol meant nothing to
the chief, but he must have been taken by its strange shape and was
carrying it as savages will wear useless trinkets. Or perhaps he
thought it a sort of war-club. At any rate, there it was. And again
floor and building seemed to tremble.

Kane pulled the door silently inward and crouched in the shadows
behind his victim like a great brooding tiger.

His brain worked swiftly and formulated his plan of action. There was
a dagger in the girdle beside the pistol; the chief's back was turned
squarely to him and he must strike from the left to reach the heart
and silence him quickly. All this passed through Solomon's brain in a
flash as he crouched.

The chief was not aware of his foe's presence until Kane's lean right
hand shot across his shoulder and clamped on his mouth, jerking him
backward. At the same instant the Puritan's left hand tore the dagger
from the girdle and with one desperate plunge sank the keen blade
home.

The warrior crumpled without a sound and in an instant Kane's pistol
was in its owner's hand. A second's investigation showed that it was
still loaded and the flint still in place. No one had seen the swift
murder. Those few who stood near the doorway were all facing the Black
Altar, enwrapped in the drama, which was there unfolding. As Kane
stepped across the corpse, the chanting of the dancers ceased
abruptly. In the instant of silence which followed, Kane heard, above
the pounding of his own pulse, the night wind rustle the death-like
plumes of the masked horror beside the altar. A rim of the moon glowed
above the spire. Then, from high up on the face of the Tower of Death,
a deep voice boomed out in a strange chant. Mayhap the priest who spoke
behind the skull knew not what his words meant, but Kane believed that
he at least mimicked the very intonation of those long-dead Atlantean
acolytes. Deep, mystic, resonant the voice sounded out, like the
endless flowing of long tides on the broad white beaches.

The masked one beside the altar drew himself up to his great height
and raised a long, glimmering blade. Kane recognized his own sword,
even as he levelled his pistol and fired--not at the masked priest but
full at the skull which gleamed in the face of the tower. For in one
blinding flash of intuition he remembered the dying Atlantean's words:
"Their brains hinge on the skull of Nakura!"

Simultaneously with the crack of the pistol came a shattering crash;
the dry skull flew into a thousand pieces and vanished, and behind it
the chant broke off short in a death shriek. The rapier fell from the
hand of the masked priest and many of the dancers crumpled to the
earth, the others halting short, spellbound. Through the deathly
silence which reigned for an instant, Kane rushed toward the altar;
then all Hell broke loose.

A babel of bestial screams rose to the shuddering stars. For centuries
only their faith in the dead Nakura had held together the
blooddrenched brains of the savage Negari. Now their symbol had
vanished, had been blasted into nothing before their eyes. It was to
them as if the skies had split, the moon fallen and the world ended.
All the red visions which lurked at the backs of their corroded brains
leaped into fearful life, all the latent insanity which was their
heritage rose to claim its own, and Kane looked upon a whole nation
turned to bellowing maniacs.

Screaming and roaring they turned on each other, men and women,
tearing with frenzied fingernails, stabbing with spears with daggers,
beating each other with the flaming torches, while over all rose the
roar of frantic human beasts.

With clubbed pistol Kane battered his way through the surging,
writhing ocean of flesh, to the foot of the altar stairs. Nails raked
him, knives slashed at him, torches scorched his garments, but he paid
no heed.

Then as he reached the altar, a terrible figure broke from the
struggling mass and charged him. Nakari, queen of Negari, crazed as
any of her subjects, rushed upon the Englishman with dagger bared and
eyes horribly aflame.

"You shall not escape this time!" she was screaming, but before she
reached him a great warrior, dripping blood and blind from a gash
across his eyes, reeled across her path and lurched into her. She
screamed like a wounded cat and struck her dagger into him, and then
groping hands closed on her. The blind giant whirled her on high with
one dying effort, and her last scream knifed the din of battle as
Nakari, last queen of Negari, crashed against the stones of the altar
and fell shattered and dead at Kane's feet. Kane sprang up the black
steps, worn deep by the feet of myriad priests and victims, and as he
came, the masked figure, who had stood like one turned to stone, came
suddenly to life. He bent swiftly, caught up the sword he had dropped
and thrust savagely at the charging Englishman. But the dynamic
quickness of Solomon Kane was such as few men could match. A twist and
sway of his steely body and he was inside the thrust, and as the blade
slid harmlessly between arm and chest, he brought down the heavy
pistol barrel among the waving plumes, crushing headdress, mask and
skull with one blow. Then ere he turned to the fainting girl who lay
bound on the altar, he flung aside the shattered pistol and snatched
his stolen sword from the nerveless hand which still grasped it,
feeling a fierce thrill of renewed confidence at the familiar feel of
the hilt. Marylin lay white and silent, her death-like face turned
blindly to the light of the moon which shone calmly down on the
frenzied scene. At first Kane thought her to be dead, but his
searching fingers detected a faint flutter of pulse. He cut her bonds
and lifted her tenderly--only to drop her again and whirl as a
hideous, blood-stained figure of insanity came leaping and gibbering
up the steps. Full upon Kane's outthrust blade the creature ran, and
toppled back into the red swirl below, clawing beast-like at its
mortal wound. Then beneath Kane's feet the altar rocked; a sudden
tremor hurled him to his knees and his horrified eyes beheld the Tower
of Death sway to and fro. Some horror of Nature was taking place, and
this fact pierced the crumbling brains of the fiends who fought and
screamed below. A new element entered into their shrieking, and then
the Tower of Death swayed far out with a terrible and awesome
majesty--broke from the rocking crags and--gave way with a thunder of
crashing worlds. Great stones and shards of masonry came raining down,
bringing death and destruction to hundreds of screaming humans below.
One of these stones crashed to pieces on the altar beside Kane,
showering him with dust.

"Earthquake!" he gasped, and smitten by this new terror he caught up
the senseless girl and plunged recklessly down the cracking steps,
hacking and stabbing a way through the crimson whirlpools of bestial
humanity that still tore and ravened. The rest was a red nightmare in
which Kane's dazed brain refused to record all its horrors. It seemed
that for screaming crimson centuries he reeled through narrow winding
streets where bellowing, screeching demons battled and died, among
titanic walls and black columns that rocked against the sky and
crashed to ruin about him, while the earth heaved and trembled beneath
his staggering feet and the thunder of crashing towers filled the
world.

Gibbering fiends in human shape clutched and clawed at him, to fade
before his flailing sword, and falling stones bruised and battered
him. He crouched as he reeled along, covering the girl with his body
as best he could, sheltering her alike from blind stone and blinder
human.

At last, when it seemed mortal endurance had reached its limit, he saw
the great black outer wall of the city loom before him, rent from
earth; to parapet and tottering for its fall. He dashed through a
crevice, and gathering his efforts, made one last sprint. And scarce
was he out of reach than the wall crashed, falling inward like a great
black wave.

The night wind was in his face and behind him rose the clamour of the
doomed city as Kane staggered down the hill path that trembled beneath
his feet.



CHAPTER VII. THE FAITH OF SOLOMON

Dawn lay like a cool white hand on the brow of Solomon Kane. The
nightmares faded from his soul as he breathed deep of the morning wind
which blew up from the jungle far below his feet--a wind laden with
the musk of decaying vegetation. Yet it was like the breath of life to
him, for the scents were those of the clean natural disintegration of
outdoor things, not the loathsome aura of decadent antiquity that
lurks in the walls of eon-old cities--Kane shuddered involuntarily.

He bent over the sleeping girl who lay at his feet, arranged as
comfortably as possible with the few soft tree branches he had been
able to find for her bed. Now she opened her eyes and stared about
wildly for an instant; then as her gaze met the face of Solomon,
lighted by one of his rare smiles, she gave a little sob of
thankfulness and clung to him.

"Oh. Captain Kane! Have we in truth escaped from yon fearful city? Now
it seems all like a dream--after you fell through the secret door in
my chamber Nakari later went to your dungeon as she told me--and
returned in vile humour. She said you were a fool, for she had offered
you the kingdom of the world and you had but insulted her. She
screamed and raved and cursed like one insane and swore that she would
yet, alone, build a great empire of Negari.

"Then she turned on me and reviled me, saying that you held me--a
slave--in more esteem than a queen and all her glory. And in spite of
my pleas she took me across her knees and whipped me until I swooned.

"Afterward I lay half senseless for a long time, and was only dimly
aware that men came to Nakari and said that you had escaped. They said
you were a sorcerer, for you faded through a solid wall like a ghost.
But Nakari killed the men who had brought you from the cell, and for
hours she was like a wild beast.

"How long I lay thus I know not. In those terrible rooms and corridors
where no natural sunlight ever entered, one lost all track of time.
But from the time you were captured by Nakari and the time that I was
placed on the altar, at least a day and a night and another day must
have passed. It was only a few hours before the sacrifice that word
came you had escaped.

"Nakari and her Star-maidens came to prepare me for the rite." At the
bare memory of that fearful ordeal she whimpered and hid her face in
her hands. "I must have been drugged. I only know that they clothed
me in the white robe of the sacrifice and carried me into a great
black chamber filled with horrid statues.

"There I lay for a space like one in a trance, while the women
performed various strange and shameful rites according to their grim
religion. Then I fell into a swoon, and when I emerged I was lying
bound on the Black Altar--the torches were tossing and the devotees
chanting--behind the Tower of Death the rising moon was beginning to
glow--all this I knew faintly, as in a deep dream. And as in a dream I
saw the glowing skull high on the tower--and the gaunt, naked priest
holding a sword above my heart, then I knew no more. What happened? "

"At about that moment," Kane answered, "I emerged from a building
wherein I had wandered by mistake, and blasted their hellish skull to
atoms with a pistol ball. Whereupon, all these people, being cursed
from birth by demons, and being likewise possessed of devils, fell to
slaying one another, in the midst of the tumult an earthquake cometh
to pass which shakes the walls down. Then I snatch you up, and running
at random, come upon a rent in the outer wall and thereby escape,
carrying you, who seem in a swoon.

"Once only you awoke, after I had crossed the Bridge-Across-the-Sky,
as the people of Negari called it, which was crumbling beneath our
feet by reason of the earthquake. After I had come to these cliffs,
but dared not descend them in the darkness, the moon being nigh to
setting by that time, you awoke and screamed and clung to me,
whereupon I soothed you as best I might, and after a time you fell
into a natural sleep."

"And now what?" asked the girl.

"England!" Kane's deep eyes lighted at the word. "I find it hard to
remain in the land of my birth for more than a month at a time; yet
though I am cursed with the wanderlust, 'tis a name which ever rouses
a glow in my bosom. And how of you, child?"

"Oh heaven!" she cried, clasping her small hands. "Home! Something of
which to be dreamed--never attained, I fear. Oh Captain Kane, how
shall we gain through all the vast leagues of jungle which lie between
this place and the coast?"

"Marylin," said Kane gently, stroking her curly hair, "methinks you
lack somewhat in faith, both in Providence and in me. Nay, alone I am
a weak creature, having no strength or might in me; yet in times past
hath God made me a great vessel of wrath and a sword of deliverance.
And, I trust, shall do so again.

"Look you, little Marylin: in the last few hours as it were, we have
seen the passing of an evil race and the fall of a foul empire. Men
died by thousands about us, and the earth rose beneath our feet.
hurling down towers that broke the heavens; yea, death fell about us
in a red rain, yet we escaped unscathed.

"Therein is--more than the hand of man! Nay, a Power--the mightiest
Power! That which guided me across the world, straight to that demon
city--which led me to your chamber--which aided me to escape again and
led me to the one man in all the city who would give the information I
must have, the strange, evil priest of an elder race who lay dying in
a subterranean cell--and which guided me to the outer wall, as I ran
blindly and at random--for should I have come under the cliffs which
formed the rest of the wall, we had surely perished. That same Power
brought us safely out of the dying city, and safe across the rocking
bridge--which shattered and sundered down into the chasm just as my
feet touched solid earth!

"Think you that having led me this far, and accomplished such wonders,
the Power will strike us down now? Nay! Evil flourishes and rules in
the cities of men and the waste places of the world, but anon the
great giant that is God rises and smites for the righteous, and they
lay faith him.

"I say this: this cliff shall we descend in safety, and yon dank
jungle traverse in safety, and it is as sure that in old Devon your
people shall clasp you again to their bosom, as that you stand here."
And now for the first time Marylin smiled, with the quick eagerness of
a normal young girl, and Kane sighed in relief. Already the ghosts
were fading from her haunted eyes, and Kane looked to the day when her
horrible experiences should be as a dimming dream. One glance he flung
behind him, where beyond the scowling hills the lost city of Negari
lay shattered and silent, amid the ruins of her own walls and the
fallen crags which had kept her invincible so long, but which had at
last betrayed her to her doom.

A momentary pang smote him as he thought of the myriad of crushed,
still forms lying amid those ruins; then the blasting memory of their
evil crimes surged over him and his eyes hardened.

"And it shall come to pass, that he who fleeth from the noise of the
fear shall fall into the pit; and he that cometh up out of the midst
of the pit shall be taken in the snare; for the windows from on high
are open, and the foundations of the earth do shake.

"For Thou hast made of a city an heap; of a defended city a ruin; a
palace of strangers to be no city; it shall never be built.

"Moreover, the multitude of tiny strangers shall be like small dust and
the multitude of the terrible ones shall be as chaff that passeth
suddenly away; yea, it shall be at an instant suddenly.

"Stay yourselves and wonder; cry ye out and cry; they are drunken but
not with wine; they stagger but not with strong drink.

"Verily, Marylin," said Kane with a sigh, "with mine own eyes have I
seen the prophecies of Isaiah come to pass. They were drunken but not
with wine. Nay, blood was their drink and in that red flood they
dipped deep and terribly."

Then taking the girl by the hand he started toward the edge of the
cliff. At this very point had he ascended in the night--how long ago
it seemed.

Kane's clothing hung in tatters about him. He was torn, scratched and
bruised. But in his eyes shone the clear calm light of serenity as the
sun came up, flooding cliffs and jungle with a golden light that was
like a promise of joy and happiness.



THE END



This site is full of FREE ebooks - Project Gutenberg Australia