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BENEATH THE SACRIFICIAL STONE.

from The Lost City





Contrary to the expectations of Ixtli escape by way of the War
God's temple was barred throughout the remainder of that eventful
night. Tlacopa, the head priest, together with a number of his
acolytes, varying as to force, yet ever too powerful for any two
men to force a passage contrary to the will of their leader,
remained on duty each and every hour. And hence it came to pass
that those early hours found our fugitives still beneath the
temple, worn through loss of sleep and stress of anxiety, yet
firmly resolved not to permit that intended outrage without at
least striking one fair blow for the Children of the Sun.

Slowly enough the time passed, yet it could hardly be called
monotonous. Whenever wearied of their darksome waiting, the
young men would steal again into the hollow image of Huitzil',
there to utilise the cunningly arranged peepholes, now looking
out upon the priests, or listening to catch such words as fell
from the lips of those nearest the stone of sacrifice.

In this manner Ixtli contrived to pick up quite a little fund of
information, mainly through the confidences reposed in a certain
favoured few of the brotherhood by the chief paba. And this, in
turn, filtered through his lips after the chums once again
retreated to the lower regions for both safety and comfort.

And then Bruno learned how the adventurous young Aztec, far less
superstitious than the vast majority of his people, thanks to the
kindly teaching of Victo, Child of Quetzal', had in his
explorations discovered so many secrets of the temple and
priesthood, secrets which he now had no scruple in communicating
to another of a different race.

Ixtli told how, on various occasions, he had lurked behind the
scenes while the miraculous "oracle" was delivering fiat or
prophecy, and then he told his white brother how Tlacopa meant to
completely confound the Children of the Sun when once brought
before the gods.

"He tell slave what say. Slave come dis way. Hide in War God.
Wait for time, den tell Tlacopa's words!"

A most infernal scheme, yet the danger of which Bruno could
readily recognise, together with the serious difficulty of
refuting any such supernatural evidence.

"Surely your people will not suffer a few dirty curs to do such
horrible wrong to ladies like--Why, Ixtli, even the gods you
fellows bow the knee to in worship, ought to rise up in their
defence!"

But Ixtli merely sighed, then spoke in sad tones, explaining how
he alone had been taken wholly into the confidence of the Sun
Children. Even the captain of their guards knew Victo and Glady
as but descendants of the great Fair God whom the audacious
trickery of a rival sent far away from the land of his favoured
people, to find an abiding-place in the sun itself.

"He good brave. He die for dem,--easy! But he not know all. He
think drop from sun, to lead people back to light. If think not
so, dat make face turn black; dat make mad come--great big!"

As was ever the case when his feeling seemed deeply stirred,
Ixtli found it difficult to fully or fairly explain his
sentiments; but Bruno caught sufficient of his meaning to give a
fair guess at the rest.

He found a ray of hope in the belief that Aztotl at least would
defend the Children of the Sun, and Ixtli predicted with apparent
confidence that the members of the body-guard would stand firm
under the Red Heron's leadership.

Keeping thus upon the alert throughout the remainder of that
night, the young men were able to take prompt action when the
crisis drew nigh.

Ixtli caught the first inkling of what was coming, and hastily
sent Bruno away from the peepholes, dropping a word in his ear as
they both prepared for clean work.

Through a secret entrance, shaped amidst the drapery which
surrounded the pedestal of the mighty Huitzil', a slave of the
temple crept to play the part of echo to Tlacopa's evil will; and
scarcely had he secured what was to be a place of waiting and
watching than the attack was made from out the darkness.

Ixtli flung his tunic over the slave's head, twisting both ends
tightly about his throat, effectually smothering all attempt at
crying aloud for aid, while Bruno clasped arms about his middle,
holding hands powerless to strike or to draw weapon.

A brief struggle, which produced scarcely any noise, certainly
not sufficient to reach the ears of priest or helper, then the
trembling, unnerved slave was bundled down that narrow passage,
to be dumped in a remote corner, and there effectually bound and
gagged by the young men.

All this was performed without hitch or mishap, and then, nerved
to fighting pitch, Ixtli and Bruno went back beneath the stone of
sacrifice, resolved to play their part to the end in manful
fashion.

There was no further fear of intrusion, for, of course, Tlacopa
would never think of endangering his own evil scheme by risking
an exposure such as would follow discovery of his slave-oracle.
As Ixtli truly said, such discovery would end in the paba's being
slain by his befooled people.

Their patience was sorely tried, even then, though a goodly
portion of the blame belonged to their fears for the Sun
Children, rather than to the actual length of waiting. But then,
amidst the solemn invocations led by the high priest, the
body-guard marched into the Hall of Sacrifice, and Bruno caught
his breath sharply as he beheld--Gladys! Not her mother, just
then. For the first minute, only,--Gladys!

Then came the bitter denunciation by Tlacopa, followed by the
coldly dignified words of Victo, after which the innocent lamb
yielded up its life in order that the future might be predicted
through the still quivering heart.

With a fiercely exultant cry Tlacopa hurled the vital organ
towards the accused, it striking the mother upon an arm, then
glancing further to leave an ugly smear upon the daughter's
shoulder ere falling among the eager multitude, who fought and
struggled to secure at least a morsel of the hideous thing.

"Behold! the gods hath marked their own!" cried the high priest,
his harsh tones fairly filling the Hall of Sacrifice. "They are
guilty of all crimes laid at their door. They merit death, a
thousandfold. The Mother of Gods hath spoken!"

"To whom but thou, Tlacopa?" sternly cried the captain of the
guards, as he stood firm in spite of the ominous sounds which
were rising from the rear, as well as from either side.

"She hath spoken unto me, as her worthy representative on earth."

"And there are those who say much religion hath turned thy brain,
good Tlacopa," retorted Aztotl, holding his temper fairly well
under control, yet with blazing eyes and stiffening sinews. "Are
thy ears alone to receive such important communications as--"

"Silence, thou scoffer!" fiercely cried the high priest, lifting
quivering hands on high as though about to call down the thunders
of an outraged deity upon that impious head. "She who hath
spoken once may deign to speak again. Harken,--hear the oracle!"

Doubtless this was cue for the slave of the temple to repeat the
words placed within its mouth, but that slave was literally
unable to speak a word for himself, let alone others. Yet,--the
oracle was not wholly silenced!

"Talk out, or I will!" fiercely muttered Bruno, giving Ixtli a
violent punch in the side. "talk out for the Sun Children!"

The young Aztec needed no further prompting, loving Victo and
Glady as he did, hating and despising the high priest. And in
shrill, clear tones came the wondrous oracle:

"Tlacopa lies! Tlacopa is an evil dog! The Mother of the Gods
loves and will defend her friends, the Children of the great and
good Quetzal'."

How much more Ixtli might have said, had he been granted further
grace, will never be known. Tlacopa shrank away from the
speaking statue as from a living death, but then he rallied,
savagely thundering:

" 'Tis a lying oracle! 'Tis an evil impostor who has--An omen!
A true omen, my children! The evil ones hath been branded for
the knife! Seize them! To the sacrifice!"

That vicious cry was swiftly taken up, but the body-guard closed
in around the menaced women, presenting arms to all that maddened
horde, while their captain sternly warned all good people to fall
aside and make way for the Children of the Sun.

Then that secret entrance was flung wide, permitting two excited
young men to issue, Tlacopa reeling aside from a blow dealt him
by Bruno's clenched fist, as that worthy hastened to join forces
with the body-guard.





Next: AGAINST OVERWHELMING ODDS.

Previous: BROUGHT BEFORE THE GODS.



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