“By heaven, Dick!” whispered Juan Mitzakis at my elbow. “It’s here. I believe we’ve found it!”
I saw him throw down the pick and face me, a tall, olive-skinned giant of a man, dark-eyed, dark-haired, as handsome as Adonis, his strong white teeth as he smiled flashing in the light of a tremendous moon that threw dense shadows on the hilltop from the tangled thorn through which we had cut our way, from the crumbled ruins of a civilization that had flourished before Cortes and his legions had cast anchor at Vera Cruz. Let flat into the solid rock at our feet, laid bare by the efforts of a dusky labor party of eleven and our two selves, lay a heavy, iron door, rusted and pitted with age.
“The temple of Huitzilopochtli!” I muttered aloud.
With sweeping movements of his long arms, he drove the bearers back along the narrow path through which they had come, snatching a crowbar from one of them as he went. Presently we were alone—two gaunt figures in sun-hats, singlets and shorts, oblivious of the host of greedy blood-suckers that whined around us in clouds, staring down at the door behind which, for all we knew, lay the dread secrets of ancient Mexico.
My companion shook his head at me. “Not Huitzilopochtli,” he corrected softly. “He was the war-god of the Aztecs, Dick, before whose altars the priests hacked out the hearts of living victims. Unless I am badly at sea, we stand on the threshold of a grimmer deity, the worship of which involved practices before which those of the Inquisition paled into insignificance. The hieroglyphics I found in Guatemala show that this deity came to earth in fantastic shape in 1527, encountered some Spanish troops near this spot and was eventually driven into a cavern by the presence of mind of a Spanish priest and a crucifix.”
I sat down on a boulder and filled my pipe.
“A legend, of course,” I remarked.
Mitzakis dropped a hand on my shoulder.
“I wonder!” he said.
I stared up at him in astonishment.
“Juan!” I ejaculated. “Surely you don’t believe—?”
For answer he removed the leather top from a quaint scabbard he carried at his belt and drew a slender object into the moonlight. I caught the flash of steel as he passed it me—six inches of tapering blade, flexible and incredibly keen, surmounted by a handle of some hard white substance I did not recognize, carved to represent an owl.
“I have never shown you this before,” he murmured, staring towards the big stars that bejeweled the violet canopy of heaven. “It’s a beast of a thing, Dick. I picked it up in the tomb of a priest of the cult and it was there that I saw the writings. I’ve tried to lose it, to destroy it, to throw it away—but I can’t. It haunts me in my sleep and with it come pictures of a vast temple, of sacrificial stones weltering in blood and a woman of extraordinary beauty, whom ghostly voices call Naia, which apparently means ‘The Nameless.’ ” His mood changed quite suddenly and he broke off with the boyish laugh that had sealed our bond of friendship when we first met at Cambridge. “Unutterable tosh, eh, Dick! Imaginative idiocy! Perhaps you’re right. You know my origin. My father was a Greek merchant. That’s where all the filthy lucre comes from! My mother was a Castilian who always claimed to have Toltec blood in her veins. Perhaps that accounts for my restless spirit of adventure!—What about prizing up this confounded door? We ought to manage it between us.”
He had secured the crowbar as he spoke and, as he dropped it on to the metal plate, a deep booming noise reverberated over the entire hillside like the sounding of a great gong.
I rose somewhat wearily and reached for the pick.
“Stop a bit,” I said, “the cement isn’t all chipped away yet—What was the name of this deity, Juan?”
Mitzakis fixed me with his dark eyes.
“The White Owl,” he answered in a low voice. For half an hour we worked in silence, struggling until our muscles ached, to undo the efforts of Spanish masons sweating on that same spot centuries before. Suddenly it gave an inch and dropped back again and my companion emitted a sigh of relief.
“It’s coming, Dick! Shove the point in here. There! That’s right. Put all your weight on the thing when I tell you . . . Now . . .!”
It came up, slowly at first, but gradually yielding. Six inches of dark aperture showed and Mitzakis wedged a stone under one end with his foot. The next instant we had dropped our tools and retreated hastily into the bush, driven there by an odor indescribable that came in hot waves from the bowels of the earth, a ghastly, nauseating smell that hung on the hot air of night, bathing the maze of cactus and thorn, wild olive and crumbling ruins, in a faint yellow fog . . . Mitzakis clutched at his throat, and the silver crucifix that he wore there snapped from its slender chain and fell into the undergrowth. I picked it up, intending to give it him, but he had fastened a handkerchief around his nose and mouth and was back again to the site of his beloved exploration. I tucked the thing in a pocket and joined him, securing the rope we had brought to the iron trap. We pulled on it together and it tilted clear quite suddenly, sending us both sitting heavily in a thornbush. Mitzakis reached the aperture first—a gaping hole fully six feet square, still throwing off fumes.
“By gad! it’s deep!” he remarked, peering down through the yellow mist.
He dropped a chunk of Spanish cement into the hole and we both listened.
“Did you hear it fall?” he whispered at length.
I shook my head.
“Then it’s still dropping!—My hat!”
At that moment a noise came from the inner depths like the rushing of a tremendous wind, and a great white bird flew suddenly out and began circling in the darkness above, screeching mournfully. I stepped back, staring up at it in mute astonishment. It was stupendous . . . colossal . . .
“My God!” I heard Mitzakis shout. “The White Owl!”
It had perched on the branch of an olive tree not twenty paces from us—a queer, stunted growth whose twisted bark hung like the crumpled skin of some antediluvian reptile caught in the act of sloughing. Watching it through that pallid mist, I caught its evil eyes blinking at me. A sensation of utter loathing swept over me and I drew my automatic from its holster.
“Don’t be a fool!” Mitzakis shot at me. “You’ll never hit it.”
“What!” I retorted, “at twenty yards!”
The suddenness of its appearance had swept the legend of the Toltec god clean from my mind. In my excitement I had not bothered to consider the significance of the fumes. At the back of my head lurked the conviction that the cavern below had another entrance concealed by scrub through which this colossal specimen of horned owl made its nocturnal forays in search of food. The brute just sat there, its weird white lids closing and unclosing over those green lamps of eyes.
I fired at it—and nothing happened. The sound of my shot echoed and re-echoed over the moonlit range, rousing a snarling protest from some catlike monster that prowled the forests, and setting monkeys gibbering in the trees, but the white owl perched there motionless, unscathed.
I fired again—and still nothing happened.
“Dick!” Mitzakis called to me across the gap: “Better give it a miss. There’s something here you and I don’t understand. According to the writings, the temple of the White Owl held treasures of inestimable value, the vast hoardings of the priests that even Cortes’ legions never dared search for. A century later two consecutive expeditions came here from Mexico City, and not a living soul got back to tell the tale. Possibly those bones we struck yesterday were some of them.”
I folded my arms and stared at him.
“What are we going to do?” I asked.
He shrugged his shoulders.
“I don’t know. Cover the place up and go back, I suppose.”
His answer staggered me. Mitzakis had gone to prodigious lengths to persuade me to join him on this expedition. His private yacht Felicidad had cost him a small fortune in itself. Captain Lindsay and the crew were down at Tampico now, eating their heads off, while we—It was ludicrous!
“Go back!” I stammered. “Why, man alive, look what we’ve been through! Look at the privations, the weeks of forced marching, the publicity our adventure provoked at home! We can’t just crawl back—with nothing!”
He was still looking at the white owl. His handsome features, as fine and clean-cut against the night as any sculptor could fashion, showed strangely white.
“I’m scared, Dick,” he admitted quite frankly: “scared of the accursed brute on that branch and all that it stands for. You and I have been in tight corners together before this. You know I can hold my end up. You’ve never seen me show the white feather. But there’s a cold hand on my stomach tonight and I haven’t the courage of a louse left in me. It’s these ruins and that hole—and my accursed Toltec blood. This thing has haunted me for months—ever since I found the knife and the writings. I had to come here. Renée begged me not to, but I wouldn’t listen. You’ll tell her, Dick, what happened—”
I skirted the hole and shook him.
“Tell her be hanged!” I shouted. “You’ll tell her for yourself.”
His head came slowly round and I saw in his eyes an expression I had never noticed there before.
“If I get back.”
“If?—Of course you’ll get back. What’s to stop you?”
He pointed to the white owl, motionless where it had first rested, and the intense irritation this action aroused in me was immediately responsible for something I have bitterly regretted ever since.
I fired at it for a third time—and the brute came swooping straight for us, flapping clumsily. I remember stepping away from the gap instinctively, shielding my face with my left hand, giving it at close range a shot that should have told without question. Apparently I missed again, for it wheeled across to Mitzakis, now six feet from me, and knocked him clean from his stance. In a flash I saw the danger that threatened and leaped to save him, but a root caught my foot and I fell. I was up again in an instant, but it was too late. It was the most horrible yet most extraordinary spectacle I have ever witnessed: Mitzakis, clutching at a straw as the dark gap loomed beneath him, clung actually to the wing of the savage brute that had unbalanced him. For a second the two hung poised in space—and then the bird dived for the hidden cavern from which we had disturbed it, carrying my friend with it!
Loose earth and stones, brushed by the wings of the owl, scraped by Mitzakis’ boots as he went, disappeared noiselessly into the depths. Mitzakis was gone! Trembling, bewildered, my teeth chattering like castanets in the dread stillness that wrapped this desert of scrub and rocks and moldering walls, I crawled to the edge of the gap and peered down . . . And then a fresh phenomenon drove me back—forked tongues of pallid flame that scorched my cheeks and flickered there undeniable, inexplicable . . .
“Juan!” I called aloud. “Mitzakis!—Are you there? Can you hear me?”
But only the echo of my own voice came back, distorted in my frenzied imagination until it sounded like the mocking laughter of demons . . . I fastened our rope to a tree and to my waist, intending to descend in search of him, only to be confronted again and again by an impassable barrier of fire. Stumbling along the rough road to camp, I aroused the men and took some of them back with me. Leperos and Indians they were, unreliable at most times, useless in an emergency. We replaced the door, hoping to direct the fire to another quarter, left it and lifted it off, but the flames persisted. An Indian touched the ground with his hand and pointed there significantly. It was growing uncomfortably hot: I could feel it through my shoes. He slunk off into the shadows and I never saw him again. Others followed suit. I caught one in the act and pulled him back. He threatened me with a knife and I knocked him down, but I knew that the situation was hopeless. A vague, superstitious dread had seized the lot of them—and in any case there was nothing to be done.
Sick at heart, I crawled back to my tent and tried to sleep, comforting myself with the hope that Mitzakis had reached a ledge beyond the radius of the flames, and that we should find him through some other entrance that we would look for with the dawn. I may have dozed off for a couple of seconds; I cannot say. However that may be, I remember sitting up with a start, conscious of the sound of movement outside. The tent-flap drew softly aside and my hand slipped beneath my pillow, seeking the pistol I kept there.
“Who is it?” I called.
There was no answer.
Suddenly a woman came through the aperture and stood in the entrance, the pale light from the hurricane-lamp by my side playing in the myriad jewels at her fingers, her throat and her hair. She was short and slight and very beautiful. I have but a dim recollection of the details of her barbaric attire, for my gaze was concentrated on her face that was dusky-white, and on her eyes that were as dark as the night itself.
“Who are you?” I demanded testily, “and what do you want?”
She placed a finger to her lips and spoke to me in fair Spanish.
“Go away from here,” she whispered. “Go away while yet you are safe. He will come back to you—when he is ready!”
“When he is ready?” I echoed. “Who? Who do you mean?—Mitzakis?”
She inclined her head.
“Then—then you know all about him? You know where he is?”
“I know, white man,” she responded.
A wild hope throbbed in me and I swung my feet to the ground, feeling for my shoes. This was wonderful—amazing. There was some unknown tribe living in the neighborhood, possibly in the caves themselves. This girl had found Mitzakis . . .
“I’ll come with you,” I said. “Is he all right?”
Her sudden agitation puzzled me.
“Oh, no! You do not understand. You cannot see him yet. Presently—in a little while—in twenty moons perhaps!”
“What!” I cried. “In twenty moons! I don’t follow you. What on earth do you mean?”
She did not reply.
“Here! Come on!” I insisted. “Who sent you here?”
She crossed both hands over her breasts.
“The White Owl commands,” she retorted simply, “and I obey!”
I had laced one shoe by this time and was stooping over the other.
“I see,” I muttered. “Well, look here, young lady, I’m giving orders this morning and I fancy you’re going to obey me. If it’s reward your people are after, I can promise you anything you want, within reason—What’s your name—to start with?”
A low ripple of laughter filled the tent, and the flame of the hurricane-lamp flared up suddenly and went out. I grabbed at my pistol again, suspecting some trick—and a mocking voice trailed to me from a distance.
“I am Naia,”—it said—and my wild pursuit to the tent-door showed me nothing but huddled forms slumbering in the open and the first bright rays of a Mexican dawn . . .