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The Flaming Mouth







From: The Great White Queen

WE stood rooted to the spot. The hideous colossus, the intensely white
light streaming from its gigantic eyes, seemed to tower above us to an
enormous height, its outstretched wings threatening to enclose the great
swaying crowd of fanatical worshippers. With monotonous regularity the
long jaws, worked by hidden levers, fell apart, disclosing the terrible
pointed teeth against a roaring background of smoke and flame, and so
frenzied had the people now become, that each time the mouth of the
monster idol opened, numbers of wild-haired men and women rushed up the
incline that led to the blazing furnace, and with loud cries of adoration
of their deity, lifted their arms above their heads and cast themselves
into the flames. Some fell clear of the double row of pointed teeth into
the furnace, while others not leaping sufficiently far were impaled upon
the great spikes of steel, and in full view of their companions writhed
in frightful agonies, as slowly they were consumed by the tongue of fire
lapping about them.

The scene was awful, yet the Naya, surrounded by priestly dwarfs, stood
regarding it with satisfaction. Such voluntary sacrifices to Zomara,
were, to them, gratifying in the highest degree.

Suddenly the light in the eyes of the giant figure changed from white to
a deep blood-red, illuminating the strange place with a ruddy glow that
increased its weirdness, and was a signal for a large number of
sacrifices. Indeed, the worshippers now lost their self-control
absolutely, and when the horrible mouth, dripping with blood, again
unclosed, there was such a press of those anxious to immolate themselves,
that many could not struggle forward to cast their bodies into the flames
before the teeth again snapped together.

It was horrible. Nauseated by the sickening sight of men impaled and
absolutely crushed to a pulp by the ascending jaw which must have weighed
many tons, and the sharp teeth of which cut the unfortunate wretch to
pieces, we turned away. We had emerged from the shadow that had concealed
us and stood in the full white light shed by one of the monster's eyes,
hesitating how to seek some means of escape, when two of the dwarfs,
suddenly turning a corner, came full upon me. In an instant I remembered
that on account of the suffocating atmosphere I had unwrapped my haick
from about my mouth, thus allowing my features to remain uncovered. But
ere this thought flashed across my mind the uncanny-looking imps had
detected my features as those of a stranger.

For a second they paused, starting and glancing keenly at me, then they
turned and gazed earnestly at my companions. There was, I knew, no
mistaking Kona's sable yet good-humoured face.

"Lo!" they cried, shouting to the group of their priestly tribe standing
rigid and silent around the bejewelled Naya. "See! There are strangers
present! One is a black savage like those thou hast given unto Zomara,
and the other white, like the people dwelling beyond the great black
water."

Their announcement produced an effect almost electrical. In an instant a
silence fell, and at the same moment the voice of the Naya was heard
commanding:

"If they are strangers who have dared to descend to this our Temple of
Zomara, bring them forth, and let them be given unto the great god whose
maw still remaineth unsatisfied. Hasten, ye priests, do my bidding
quickly; let them not escape, or the curse of the King of the Crocodiles
be upon you."

The two dwarfs sprang forward to seize us, while the group of priests,
fleet of foot, accompanied by the great mob of worshippers, sped in our
direction. The people, having worked themselves up to such a pitch of
excitement, were eager to assist in the immolation of any intruders. They
were bent upon obeying the law of their queen.

But in an instant Kona felled both the dwarfs with two well-directed
blows with his huge black fist, and without hesitation we all three
turned and fled in the direction we had come. My companions had
apparently forgotten where the steps descended, but fortunately I had
fixed the spot in case any untoward incident occurred. They were over
against a great pillar of rock, rudely fashioned to represent a woman
with an eagle's head.

"This way," I shouted. "Follow me!" and with a bound sped in its
direction as fast as my legs could carry me.

We had nearly gained the spot when to my dismay I saw a dozen of the
worshippers, divining our intention, approaching from the opposite
direction in order to cut off our retreat.

It was an exciting moment. Behind, was a mad, fanatical mob of five
hundred men and women led by the dwarfs shrieking vengeance against us;
before us were a dozen determined men ready to seize us and convey us to
a horrible death in the throat of the gigantic representation of their
sacred reptile. Even if we safely descended the steps, we knew not the
secret means by which we might reach the earth's surface, nor did either
of us remember the exact point where the long dark tunnel joined the
wonderful cavern.

None, however, knew that Omar himself was one of my fellow fugitives, for
the dwarfs, being consigned to a subterranean life perpetually, had never
set eyes upon him, and therefore he had been unrecognized. Another
moment, and I knew he must be detected by some of the devotees. If so,
the hostile feeling against us would be intensified, and we should
probably be torn limb from limb.

I had retained the lead in this race for life, and seeing retreat cut off
by the group of men gaining the top of the steps before us I turned
quickly, and, although fearing the worst, made a long detour. Determined
to sell my life dearly, I drew my long knife from its velvet sheath, and
gripped it, ready to strike a deadly blow in self-defence. Luckily I
armed myself in time, for almost next moment a man of huge stature sprang
forward from behind one of the columns of rock where he had been secreted
and threw himself upon me, clutching me by the throat.

Scarce had his sinewy fingers gripped me, when, by dint of frantic
effort, I freed my right arm, and with a movement quick as lightning
flash, I buried my knife full in his breast. One short, despairing cry
escaped him, and as he staggered back I dashed forward again, without
turning to look at the result of the swift blow I had delivered. But I
was desperate, and being compelled to defend my life, I do not doubt that
my blow was unerring, and that my blade penetrated his heart.

Hindered thus in my flight my two companions had reached the edge of the
precipice ahead of me, and were skirting it, when suddenly I saw a body
of our pursuers approaching, and cried to them in warning. In dismay I
noticed they took no heed of my words, but continued their swift flight
right in the direction of those who sought our destruction.

"Take care, Omar!" I shouted, in English. "Can't you see those devils in
front?"

But he answered not, and I was about to halt and give up all thought of
escape, when I saw them both suddenly throw themselves on their knees on
the edge of the abyss, and almost instantly disappear over the
precipice.

They had found another flight of steps!

Eagerly I sprang forward, and in a few seconds found myself descending
the rough face of the rock, scrambling desperately down into the yawning
chasm with a wild horde of excited fanatics shrieking and yelling above.

Half a dozen of the more adventurous swung themselves over and commenced
to follow us, but those above, determined that we should not escape,
fetched huge stones and lumps of rock, which they hurled upon us. But
their excess of zeal only wrought destruction upon their companions, who,
being above us, received blows from the great stones which sent them
flying one after another to the base of the rock, killed or stunned ere
they reached it. Twice we had narrow escapes on account of the
unconscious bodies of our pursuers or their companions' missiles falling
against us, but while all those who had followed us, save one, fell
victims to the merciless frenzy of their companions, we were fortunate
enough to be enabled to descend to the base of the rock, where once again
the impenetrable darkness hid, although at the same time it hampered, our
movements.

For a few moments at least we were safe, and paused to recover breath. My
arm was bleeding profusely where it had been severely grazed by a sharp
edge of rock in our headlong flight, and the white garments of all three
of us were soiled and torn. But our halt was not of long duration, for
suddenly we heard whispers and the sound of stealthy footsteps in the
darkness.

We listened breathlessly.

"Hark!" cried Omar. "Our pursuers are here also, and are looking for
us!"

"Let us hide behind yonder rock," Kona suggested, in a half-whisper.

"No, let us creep forward," answered the son of the Great White Queen.
"They will search every crevice and hiding-place now the hue-and-cry has
been raised," and glancing up I saw a black stream of excited
worshippers, many with torches that in the distance shone like moving
stars, already pouring down over the rock in our direction like a line of
ants descending a wall.

Every moment brought them nearer upon us; every instant increased our
peril. Even though we were in the great chasm, the true extent of which
we could not distinguish, we knew not by what means we could escape
upward to the blessed light of day.

Forward we crept cautiously, in obedience to Omar's instructions, but ere
a couple of minutes had elapsed it was evident that the watchful ones who
had heard the shouting from above and noticed the pursuit had discovered
our whereabouts, for just as we had noiselessly passed a huge boulder, a
man in white robe and turban sprang upon us from behind.

"Look out, Kona!" cried Omar, his quick eyes discerning the man's cloak
in the darkness ere I noticed his presence.

Next second, however, the head-man of the Dagombas and the stranger were
locked in deadly embrace, notwithstanding that the man who had approached
cried aloud to us for mercy.

Kona with drawn sword had gripped the man's throat with his long black
fingers, when suddenly we heard a gasping cry: "Stay thine hand! Dost
thou not recognize thy benefactor?"

"Hold!" shouted Omar, the words causing him to turn and run back to
where the pair were struggling. "Knowest thou not the voice? Why, it is
Goliba!"

And it was Goliba! Instantly the black giant released the man who he
believed intended to arrest our progress, and with a word of apology we
all four sped forward. How our aged host had escaped after being thrown
from the frame in which we had made the descent from the city we knew not
until later, when he explained that on recovering consciousness and
finding himself on his back in the tunnel with a slight injury to his
shoulder, he had scrambled down the perilous descent, fearing each moment
that he might slip in the impenetrable darkness and be dashed to pieces
ere he gained the bottom. Intensely anxious as to our fate, he had at
last descended in safety, but on emerging from the tunnel found
proceeding above all the commotion the discovery of our presence had
caused. He watched our descent into the chasm and stood below awaiting
us, but we had rushed past ere he could make himself known, and he had
therefore dashed across to a corner and thus come up with us.

But our meeting, too hurried and full of peril to admit of explanation at
that moment, was at any rate gratifying--for we all three had believed
him dead. Our pursuers were now behind us in full cry. A number of them
had gained the base of the rock and, yelling furiously, were fast gaining
upon us.

"Come, let us hasten," cried the old sage, speeding along with a
fleetness of foot equal to our own, skirting the base of the great rock
for a short distance until we came to a portion that jutted out over the
uneven ground, then suddenly turning aside, we crossed a great open space
where mud and water splashed beneath our feet at every step. The further
we went the deeper sank our feet into the quagmire, until our progress
was so far arrested that we could not run, but only wade slowly through
the chill black slime.

Even across here our progress was traced, for the lights in the eyes of
the giant god were turned upon us, and our path lit by a stream of white
light which guided the footsteps of those who sought our death.

At last, when we had crossed the boggy patch, the ground became quite dry
again, but after running some distance further, which showed me that the
natural chamber must have been of huge proportions, Goliba shouted to us
to halt and remain there. We obeyed him, puzzled and wondering, but we
saw him dashing hither and thither as if in search of something. At first
it was apparent that he could not discover what he sought, but in a few
minutes when our pursuers had crossed the quagmire and were quite close
upon us he shouted to us to come forward. Together we obeyed instantly,
speeding as fast as our legs could carry us to where Goliba was standing
before a small fissure in the side of the cavern on a level with the
ground, and so narrow that it did not appear as if Kona would be able to
squeeze his big body through.

"Follow me," the old sage said in a low tone as, throwing himself down
before the mysterious hole, he crept forward, being compelled to lie
almost flat on his stomach, so small was the fissure.

His example we all quietly followed, finding ourselves groping forward in
the darkness, but discovering to our satisfaction that the further we
proceeded the wider the crack in the rock became, so that before long we
were enabled to walk upright, although we deemed it best to hold our
hands above our heads lest we should strike them against any projecting
stones.

Without light, and in air that was decidedly close and oppressive, we
proceeded. At least we were safe from the howling mob, for since leaving
the great cavern all was silence, and it was now evident from the
confident manner in which Goliba went forward that he was assured of the
way. Soon we negotiated a steep ascent, now and then so difficult that we
were compelled to clamber up on all fours, and for a long time this
continued until our hands and feet were sore with scrambling upward. A
spring shed its icy drippings upon us for some little distance, soaking
us to the skin and rendering us chilly and uncomfortable, but at length
we reached what seemed to be a ponderous door that barred our passage.

Goliba groped about for a few minutes without speaking, when quickly it
opened to his touch and we found ourselves in a long stone passage lit
here and there by evil-smelling oil lamps that flickered in the rush of
air from the great fissure through which we had ascended.

"This is amazing," cried Omar dumbfounded, as the old sage struggled to
close the heavy iron door behind us. "Why, we are in the vaults beneath
the palace!"

"True, O Master," Goliba answered, breathless after his exertions. "There
is but one entrance and one exit to this labyrinth of vaults and foul
chambers wherein the Naya confineth her prisoners. The entrance is, as
thou knowest, immediately beneath the Emerald Throne; the exit is this
door, which can only be opened by those possessed of the secret. Thirty
years ago, when Keeper of the Prison, this door puzzled me considerably,
for all attempts to open it on the part of the men I employed failed. It
is of such construction and mechanism that nothing short of explosives
could make it yield, and these I feared to use. But years afterwards a
gaoler who had obtained the secret from his father, also a gaoler, but
who was dead, imparted it to me on his death-bed in return for some
good-will I had shown him. I believe therefore that I am the only person
who has knowledge of the means by which to open it."

"The knowledge hath, in any case, saved our lives, Goliba," Omar
answered. "But the great cavern and all those horrible rites introduced
into the worship of Zomara, are not they new?"

"No," replied the sage. "They are as old as the foundation of the Kingdom
of Mo. Strangely enough, however, the great cave with its colossus and
its race of sacred dwarfs who live away in a small dark forest that can
only be gained from the opposite side of the cave, were for centuries
forgotten. The way to the Temple of Zomara was unknown and the dwarfs
remained in undisputed possession of the place until three years ago, one
more adventurous than the rest, succeeded in ascending to Mo, when his
capture resulted in the cavern with its great wonderful image being
re-discovered. Since that time the place has never been devoid of
votaries, and the great fire has constantly been fed by those anxious to
immolate themselves to appease the Crocodile-god."

"Ah! he is a great god," Omar observed earnestly.

"Yea, O Master, he is indeed all-powerful," answered the aged councillor.
"He giveth us life, preserveth us from death, and shieldeth us from
evil."

And as they uttered these words both fingered their amulets piously.





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