BENEATH THE SACRIFICIAL STONE.





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.





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