The Treasure of Atlantis, by J. Allan Dunn, , at sacred-texts.com
Morse was the new idol of the populace. Whenever he appeared, crowds made way for him with cries of admiration; while the maidens, who perpetually wore wreaths of heavy-scented blossoms, cast them before him so that his existence out of doors was almost a continued triumphal procession. And since the games, Rana had increased her attentions. She showered him with gifts and invitations, and all but openly declared herself willing to accept him as lover and husband.
Morse could admire her from a distance for she was unquestionably a beautiful woman. But his fascination for her was gone; she held no spell for him now. And he avoided her as much as possible. Finally, as the month drew to its close, he spoke to Laidlaw.
"Look," he said. "I can't take much more of this. I have to work at avoiding her. How soon are you going to be ready to leave?"
Laidlaw looked at him in bewildered surprise. "Leave! I haven't even begun my work here. Next
week is the start of the month of Pasiphae; the month of Demeter follows. I must observe the festivals and their ritual. They may be close to those of three thousand years ago. This is an expedition into the past; you can't be serious about leaving at this time. I have six months’ work in front of me—a year's."
So enamored was Laidlaw of his subject that he forgot Morse's appeal. "The only thing that bothers me is the lack of film for the camera. We should have brought a motion picture outfit, Morse. Think of it—tangible proof, the scientific value. Why didn't we bring one?"
"I don't want to interrupt your researches," said Morse in a tone that secured the scientist's wandering attention, "but we may have to get away from here in a hurry. You know what Rana's attitude is. I don't think I can be diplomatic toward her much longer without insulting her. Our affairs are going to come to a crisis some day soon, and when I break with her there's going to be trouble.
"I dodged her last week by staying across the lake, and at that she sent me a letter each day and a jewel which she claims is a vital part of my costume. Rana is as clever as she is beautiful, Laidlaw. Ambitious, too, but she holds nothing for me. She spins a web of circumstance that puts us together, and she may want to make me her consort. But somewhere along the line she's going to try and do away with Kiron, and if this happens Ru is going to be right there. He's either going to control her, or failing that he's going to eliminate her just as she intends to eliminate Kiron."
Laidlaw nodded gravely, his work forgotten for the moment.
"You may be right. If Ru can assert himself while we're still here, we're going to find ourselves out on the ledge with the vultures some morning, and there won't be any rescue party."
The scientist went on slowly. "I've often wondered how genuine her interest in you really is. In the beginning I thought it was feigned—completely so; that she and Ru were working hand in hand against Kiron and against us as well. Now, I'm not so sure about Rana. You're too strong of mind for her, and you baffle her. She's still power-hungry beyond belief, but she can't
conquer you and I believe that this fascinates her.
"You know Kiron has been anxious to honor us by giving us the full citizenship he promised when we rescued him. Now, I think Rana has come over to this idea as well, while Ru has been quietly working against it all along. You see, if they initiate us to the level of nobles as Kiron intends, it would afford us a little more protection against anything that the old priest might have planned for us. Anyway, I think we have some sort of a conflict growing between Rana and Ru, and you may very well be the cause of it."
"Laidlaw, if you can see that much, you can see the problems facing us if we stay here."
Laidlaw nodded his head sadly. "You're right, of course. But I've got to have a month for my work. Somehow, you've got to smooth things over for that long. Morse, I implore you…"
Morse had to laugh at the other's seriousness. "All right, then. One month. It's not going to be easy. And don't say anything about our intention to depart. We'll have to fly at the last moment—with Kiron's aid if we can get it."
As the days passed, Rana took up the cause to ennoble Morse and Laidlaw. Since the former had defeated Aulus in the arena, her interest was—as Laidlaw sensed—more genuine. And when she finally, in a public speech, championed the honor due the visitors, Ruts powerful opposition fell silently away with the applause of the populace.
Morse was to receive the second degree of epoptae, and Laidlaw, by reason of his dwarfed and misshapen legs, was to receive the slightly lesser degree of mystae. (Morse wondered how much was due to his companion's imperfections and how much was due to Rana's interest in him.)
The initiation took place in the underground chambers of the Temple of the Double Ax, dedicated to the sun and moon gods, Minos and Pasiphae. It was midnight on the last day of the month of Minos when Morse and Laidlaw, clad in ceremonial robes, blindfolded, their ears muffled by a light bandage, another across their mouth and nostrils, were escorted by winding ways to
the council chamber. Thirty silent forms wearing long-sleeved robes of gray that fell over their feet were grouped about a central figure occupying a throne carved from the rock wall. Oil lamps cast a flickering light upon the mute assembly. The silent figures all wore masks representing jaguars, human skulls, and the heads of great beaked birds.
The man on the throne was distinguished by a headgear representing a bull. Frescoes dimly showed upon the walls. In the semicircle formed by the initiates stood a glowing brazier supported upon upreared and intertwisting snakes. Incense rose from the green flames of a burning liquid. Morse and Laidlaw were led to a point directly behind it.
"Neophytes!" The voice, despite its resonance, had a strident quality that assured the Americans that Ru was speaking through a megaphone-like object in his mask. "You have been instructed in your behavior. Courage conquers all things. Fear breeds. weakness. This is the wedding night of Minos, son of Zeus, and god of the sun, and Pasiphae, the all-shining, goddess of the moon, deities of the double ax, founders of Atlantis."
As he spoke the altar flame changed first to orange, then to a vivid blue at the mention of the honored names.
"May you be found worthy in their sight to become as their children. Your sight—" (the bandages were removed from their eyes) "—your hearing and your speech—" (the other mufflings followed) "—have been taken from you to be restored as the trials shall prove you fit. Through darkness, danger, and through death the way shall lead back to light and life. Do not step from the trail or those who lurk close by will seize and destroy you."
The light in the brazier died down as the words ceased, flickering to a' creeping silver flame that suddenly leaped up and vanished, leaving the chamber in stygian darkness. By its last lambent effort the Americans could see that the chamber had emptied itself of other occupants in some mysterious fashion. The frescoes wavered on the solid walls as if they shook with the passing of the initiates. They caught a glimpse of the vacant throne before blackness enveloped them.
A liquid substance began to drip—spat, spat—upon the pavement with a regularity that timed their pulses to its beat. The darkness thickened; the air grew oppressive with a salty tang—half scent, half flavor; the subtle essence of newly-spilled blood. There were whisperings about them, inarticulate chuckles, grotesque cacklings, and cold blasts of wind passed over them with the beat of invisible wings.
Suddenly eyes appeared in the darkness. They glowed weirdly, green and crimson, moved about them at various heights, and finally settled in two immovable rows, baleful and hypnotic. More ghoulish chuckling and laughter, and the eyes began to whirl. Finally, with an animal chorus of gnashing of teeth, scraping of claws, and fearful howls, silence came to the chamber.
"If we could work anything like that in the States," whispered Morse in English, "we'd have the Psychological Research Society at our feet."
"They've been working at it for thousands of years," replied Laidlaw. "Damned effective."
The dark slowly became less intense, the air laden with the delicate fragrance of spring blossoms. Black turned into purple, and purple became gray, and finally they could see the walls in front of them dissolving in whirls of mist.
Upon a couch lay the exquisite form of a sleeping woman, rounded breasts lifting with her gentle breathing, skin rosy with youth and health. As they gazed, a subtle change occurred. The curves lost their roundness, the flesh shriveled and became blue, the air grew rank with the smell of death.
Before their eyes the infinitely fair creature was falling away, disintegrating. The face became a skull as the flesh withered. The hair, bleached white, fell out in huge chunks; ribs and pelvis bones stood out in horrible distinction; the chamber reeked with the stench of a house. The bones fell away and crumbled, leaving only a little pile of dust from which a snake writhed away.
The wall resumed shape behind the gray veil, and a dazzling light enveloped them. From its center a voice sounded:
"The Eye of Minos witnesses and approves. Behind them another took up the ritual:
"It is recorded. Turn and enter."
A narrow opening appeared to their vision. They crossed the threshold and a door clanged violently behind them. The room was filled with a tremulous blue radiance. At the farther end stood a statue of a woman wearing a helmet crested with the new moon. Hands were raised above its finely carved head, a twisted snake in each. About the statue's body was entwined the scaly coils of an enormous serpent, with its head resting upon the shoulder. Dull eyes gleamed like uncut emeralds. A sound of chanting came from beyond the walls:
"Serpents?" said Morse, a question in his voice.
"Pasiphae in her chthonian representation as 'Goddess of the Underworld,'" came the reply.
The light brightened with a brilliance that came in waves like the rays of the aurora borealis. In its shimmer the carven snakes seemed to quiver and the eyes of the great serpent grew brighter.
"Look out, Laidlaw!" cried Morse suddenly. "The brute's alive!"
The head of the ophidian raised from the shoulder of the statue and disappeared, to glide out from beneath the arm in a swift undulation, its jaws open, its tongue vibrating. A whisper of movement was heard as scales scraped over pavement.
The blood of the initiates ran cold as they waited for the reptile's attack. The obscene slithering was the only sound to be heard in the chamber, and they could only guess at its position.
"Ru!" snarled Morse.
Laidlaw kept silent. He had thought from the first
glance that the snake was alive, but he believed it had been coiled about the statue in a sluggish state of coma. There was no question of its identity. More than thirty feet in length, it was the most powerful and ill-tempered of all the big serpents, the anaconda.
Suddenly Morse felt a coil encircle his lower leg in a lightning loop and mount to the thigh, compressing it until it seemed that the bone must break. He set his hands on the writhing, clammy body, trying to reach the head, but encountered only a continually thickening coil. He let out an exclamation and it was echoed by Laidlaw. The anaconda had attacked both Americans at the same time, using Morse as a support on which to base the leverage of its constriction.
The firm, unyielding body of the snake offered no hold. The coil about Morse's waist was as thick as his thigh, hard as a hempen cable, resistless, inexorable. His case was desperate, and both men were without weapons. A choking cry came from Laidlaw as Morse strove again to loosen the deadly twist that was slowly squeezing his leg into jelly, at the same time holding him powerless from moving.
"Laidlaw!" he cried.
The choking sound changed to a great sob of relief.
"Ah!" sounded Laidlaw, strength emanating from his voice. "I've got him! He had me about the waist. Now then!"
The long length of the snake whipped into wild action. Morse was thrown violently to the ground, and he felt Laidlaw close beside him. Between them, the infuriated reptile writhed and thrashed, dragging them over the hard stone floor. Laidlaw's breath came in great gasps as he exerted all his strength. Morse felt the coil about his thigh relax, and dragged at it until he freed himself. He tried to rise, but his leg refused to carry his weight. He half crawled toward Laidlaw.
"How can I help you?" he cried.
A grunt answered him. The snake's body lay across that of his friend, writhing more and more feebly. Laidlaw rolled over on top of it.
"I've choked the hellish thing," he gasped. "I think it's dead, but I don't dare let go of it."
A series of dull thuds came to their ears from outside
the chamber. The chanting was taken up again:
"I think we were intended to be the gifts," said Laidlaw. "That could well have been our funeral ode."
The flickering radiance was gradually returning, and Morse, now with his own weight on the lower half of the anaconda, saw Laidlaw battering its head, already a shapeless bloody stump, against the stone floor. One loose coil was about his middle, and Morse tugged until it came limply away. The two sat up and looked at each other as Laidlaw flung away the battered head, and Morse kicked at the convulsively twitching mass with his sound leg while he tried to rub the other back to sensibility.
"Cheerful little trick," he said angrily. "The snake of the goddess resenting the intrusion of strangers. That would have been the verdict, I suppose. Ru full of regrets and the snake full of us. Ugh! How did you manage to get hold of its neck?"
"Good luck! The devil has ruined my digestion forever, though."
Morse started to laugh, and Laidlaw found himself echoing him. In the reaction to their danger, they laughed half-hysterically until they could force themselves to their feet. The scientist rubbed his stomach. My diaphragm is jellied. How's your leg?"
Morse prodded it and winced. "It's sound, but it's sore as the devil."
"Well, if Ru planned this," said Laidlaw, "he did a good job. He had an alibi ready."
The mystic voice broke into the chamber:
"Advance, O neophytes!"
A section of the wall slid downward and they passed through the opening into natural light, leaving the dying snake behind. At a junction of the low corridor, a gray and shapeless figure with a skull mask stood beckoning to them. Had this proved to be Ru, Morse felt that he could have done away with him then and there. But the voice of this sentinel quickly betrayed the presence as Kiron.
"The mystae to the right," he said, "your test has ended. Yours, epoptae, to the left," adding in a lower tone: "And courage, brother, even in darkness."
Laidlaw held back a moment, but Morse urged him on.
"If they plan to do us harm we can't escape it," he said, and took the left-hand passage. It ended almost before it had begun in another gloomy chamber that grew totally dark when the door closed behind his entrance. A voice like that of a ventriloquist, its source indeterminate, accosted him.
"Now comes the final choice, epoptae. Perhaps it lies with you. Who knows? Perhaps the gods direct. Yet it is on your action that the issue hangs. Gaze and ponder before your body answers to your settled will."
With a clang, a door slid back, and a gush of heat surged into the room. A fire glared in a passage beyond the door, pulsing with swift plays of molten orange and vermilion. The portal closed, and a second door revealed four leaping, maneless cat-creatures. Large as full-grown lions, they were skin-clad in ebony velvet, with topaz eyes, crimson mouths, and sabered ivory fangs. The beasts sprang at him and roared in frenzy as a barred gate rose up before them.
A third exit lifted, and a breath of night air, mingled with flower perfume and the clean smell of the lake, stole into his nostrils. The way lay open up a slight incline to a point where silver moonlight bathed an open causeway. As this was shut out, the voice came to him:
"Commend the prompting of your will unto the gods. As they judge you, so shall you go scatheless or to your doom."
The floor beneath him started to revolve slowly, not enough to disturb his balance, but acquiring speed enough to wipe out any lingering idea he might hold of
the location of the respective doors.
Morse had entered the ordeal in the belief that the initiation was calculated to break the nerves of a superstitious man. The fight with the snake had disturbed his confidence; but his wrath, somewhat calmed by Kiron's friendly message, was still dominant enough to wish to put a swift end to what he still believed to be a combination of masquerade and optical illusion.
Without hesitation, he moved to the wall. One hand encountered a projection; the other, sliding over the vertical surface, passed from coolness to heat, slight but distinctly noticeable. He moved along the contour of the chamber until he felt a second knob, and bent, listening intently. Did he hear the faint sound of muffled growls? Morse wondered if the tests might hold real quality.
Swiftly he sought the third latch, found it, clutched and pulled. It resisted, but then slid readily before a side thrust. Before him rose the incline to the moonlit causeway, and pure air met him as he ran up the rise.
Gulping the sweet air into his lungs, he reached the causeway. Behind him the egress had closed, and the carven facade of the temple showed in gray and purple silence. Morse crossed the causeway to a balustrade and leaned upon it. The crescent moon faintly outlined the temple on the isle of Sele. Here was the realm of Leola, sister of Rana, and her Dianae.
A breeze blew off the lake, and suddenly Morse wondered if this beautiful Leola could hold any of the magical enchantment that her island did, there in the moonlight. Below him, a galley with oars supplementing a silvered sail reached silently for a wharf. He straightened from his thoughts, his arms folded on the wide baluster rail, then turned reluctantly to move away. A soft, thudding rush of feet sounded behind him. A cloth was thrown over his head, and the gathered folds pinned his arms to his sides.
Morse fought against the arms that sought to hold him and lift him from his feet. Coarse oaths came to his ears, sounding dimly through the muffling linen. Then, still struggling, he was lifted from his feet and borne away.
A voice rang out. It was high pitched and as sweetly
clear as the sound of a silver trumpet. His captors paused and set him down.
"Who are you who dare to profane the bridal night of Pasiphae? Stand, before I turn you into stone!"
Morse heard the mumbling apologies of the men who had attacked him. The cloth was hastily removed, and he faced his rescuer.
It was a woman. She was slender and tall, clothed in garments that glittered, one arm raised forcibly. There was something strangely familiar about her face. It was clean-carven, imperious, set like a flower upon a neck that was as round and smooth as a column. Hair, piled high, glinted pale gold in the moonlight. Two eyes burned like azure stars.
The woman stood on the causeway. Behind her were a score of her fair sex, clad in white garments with ornaments that gleamed as they moved.
"Who are you?" she asked. "And why does this rabble molest you?"
The men who had seized him slunk away as Morse answered.
"I am one of the strangers to Atlantis." And as he spoke he knew that this was Leola. Her likeness to Rana could not be mistaken. But here was a refinement of feature, a majesty that the queen could not approach.
"I have no idea who these are who have attacked me," he continued, "though I might make a guess. The night has not been altogether fortunate for me—until now."
She surveyed him with a disdain that was tempered by a half-concealed curiosity.
"You are the one who conquered Aulus," she said, "and tonight you became an epoptae. Are you so enamored of Atlantis that you would forsake your own land?"
"I have never been enamored—until this moment," he answered truthfully, his eyes upon hers. Did her eyes waver?
"Your words are idle," she said.
"Yet I would thank you for my rescue."
"I would not willingly see even a man harmed," came the reply.
"Even a man!" Morse repeated the words out loud and smiled. "Still I thank you. And I thank the gods,
[paragraph continues] Leola, that I am a man—and that you are a woman." Again her eyes seemed to waver.
"I do not read the meaning of your words," she said, and some of her assurance was gone.
"They are not hard to understand," he answered. "But the key lies not in the mind, but in the heart."
A knot of men was hurrying toward them, and a voice called his name. It was Laidlaw.
"Here are my friends," said Morse. "Again I thank you, Leola. We will meet again."
She made no answer save for an uptilt of that haughty head, and stepped backward, still facing him, until her women surrounded her. Only then did Morse turn to greet his friends.
"Le-o-la!" he said, just above his breath, testing the liquid syllables. "Le-o-la! The name fits her. It is like the murmur of moonlit ripples upon a silver beach."