The floor, apparently, had been smoothed by human effort, but for the rest, the corridor was, to judge from the evidence, entirely natural for the walls of shiny black rock bore no marks of tools.
At intervals, other passages branched off from the main one we were following, at greater and less angles, but these were much narrower, and had very apparently been hewn in the solid rock. Like the central passage, they were utterly deserted.
"We'll be coming out on the other side, pretty soon," commented Correy after a steady descent of perhaps twenty minutes. "This tunnel must go all the way through. I--what's that?"
We paused and listened. From behind us came a soft, whispering sound, the nature of which we could not determine.
"Sounds like the shuffle of many feet, far behind," suggested Kincaide gravely.
"Or, more likely, the air rushing around the corners of those smaller passages," I suggested. "This is a drafty hole. Or it may be just the combined flarings of all these jets of flame."
"Maybe you're right, sir," nodded Correy. "Anyway, we won't worry about it until we have to. I guess we just keep on going?"
"That seems to be about all there is to do; we should enter one of the big subterranean chambers Fetters mentioned, before long."
As a matter of fact, it was but a minute or two later, that we turned a curve in the corridor and found ourselves looking into a vast open space, the roof supported by huge pillars of black stone, and the floor littered with rocky debris and mining tools thrown down by workmen.
"This is where they take out the temite ore, I imagine," said Kincaide, picking up a loose fragment of rock. He pointed to a smudge of soft, crumbly gray metal, greasy in appearance, showing on the surface of the specimen he had picked up. "That's the stuff, sir, that's causing us all this trouble: nearly pure metallic temite." He dropped the fragment, looking about curiously. "But where," he added, "are the miners?"
"I'm inclined to believe we'll find out before we get back to the Ertak," said Correy grimly. "Everything's moved along too sweetly; trouble's just piling up somewhere."
"That remains to be seen," I commented. "Let's move on, and see what's beyond. That looks like a door of some sort, on the far side. Perhaps it will lead us to something more interesting."
"I hope it does," growled Correy. "This underground business is getting on my nerves!"
It was a door I had seen, a huge slab of light yellow-green metal. I paused, my hand on the simple latch.
"Stand to one side," I said softly. "Let's see what happens."
I lifted the latch, and the heavy door opened inward. Cautiously, I stared through the portal. Inside was blackness and silence; somewhere, in the far distance, I could see two or three tiny pin-pricks of green light.
"We'll take a look around, anyway," I said. "Follow me carefully and be ready for action. It seems all right, but somehow, I don't like the looks of things."
In single file, we passed beyond the massive door, the light from the large room outside streaming ahead of us, our shadows long and grotesque, moving on the rocky floor ahead of us.
Then, suddenly, I became aware that the path of light ahead of us was narrowing. I turned swiftly; the door must be closing!
As I turned, lights roared up all around us, intense light which struck at our eyes with almost tangible force. A great shout rose, echoing, to a vaulted ceiling. Before we could move or cry out, a score of men on either side had pinioned us.
"Damnation!" roared Correy. "If I only had the use of my fists--just for a second!"
We were in a great cavern, the largest I have ever beheld. A huge bubble, blown in the molten rock by powerful gases from the seething interior of the world.
The roof was invisible above our heads, and the floor sloped down gently in every direction, toward a central dais, so far away that its details were lost to us. From the center of the dais a mighty pillar of green flame mounted into the air nearly twenty times the height of a man. All around the dais, seated on the sloping floor of the cavern, were Lakonians.
There were hundreds of them, thousands of them, and they were as silent and motionless as death. They paid no heed to us; they crouched, each in his place, and stared at the column of greenish flame.
"It was a trap," muttered Kincaide as our captors marched us rapidly toward the dais in the center of the huge amphitheater. "They were waiting for us; I imagine we have been watched all the time. And we walked into the trap exactly like a bunch of schoolboys."
"True--but we've found, I believe, what we wished to find," I told him. "This is the meeting place of the Worshipers of the Flame. There, I imagine is the Flame itself. And unless I'm badly mistaken, that's Liane waiting up there in the center!"
It was Liane. She was seated on a massive, simple throne of the greenish-yellow metal, the column of fire rising directly behind her like an impossible plume. In a semicircle at her feet, in massive chairs made of the odd metal, were perhaps twenty old men, their heads crowned with great, unkempt manes of white hair.
And standing beside Liane's throne, at her right hand, was--Hendricks!
His shoulders drooped, his chin rested upon his breast. He was wearing, not the blue-and-silver uniform of the Service, but a simple tunic of pale green, with buskins of dark green leather, laced with black. He did not look up as we were ushered before this impressive group, but Liane watched us with smiling interest.
Liane, seated there upon her throne, was not the Liane of those days in the Ertak. There, she had been scarcely more than a peculiarly fascinating young woman with a regal bearing and commanding eyes. Here, she was a goddess, terrifyingly beautiful, smiling with her lips, yet holding the power of death in the white hands which hung gracefully from the massive arms of the throne.
She wore a simple garment of thin, shimmering stuff, diaphanous as finest silk. It was black, caught at one shoulder with a flashing green stone. The other shoulder was bared, and the black garment was a perfect foil for the whiteness of her perfect skin, her amazing blue eyes, and the pale gold of her hair.
She lifted one hand in a slight gesture as our conductors paused before the dais; they fell away and formed a close cordon behind us.
"We have awaited your coming," she said in her sibilant voice. "And you are here."
"We are here," I said sternly, "representing, through our Service, the Supreme Council of the universe. What word shall we take back to those who sent us?"
Liane smiled, a slow, cruel smile. The pink fingers of one hand tapped gently on the carven arm of her throne. The eyes of the semicircle of old men watched us with unwavering hatred.
"The word you carry will be a good word," she said slowly. "Liane has decided to be gracious--and yet it is well that you have full understanding of Liane's power. For while the word Liane shall give you to bear back is a good word, still, Liane is but a woman, and women have been known to change their minds. Is that not so, Commander Hanson?"
"That is so, Liane," I nodded. "And we are glad to hear that your wisdom has led you to be gracious."
She leaned forward suddenly, her eyes flashing with anger.
"Mark you, it is not wisdom but a whim of mine which causes me to be graciously minded!" she cried. "Think you that Liane is afraid? Look about you!"
We turned slowly and cast our eyes about that great gathering. As far as the eye could reach, in every direction, was a sea of faces. And as we looked, the door through which we had entered this great hall was flung open, and a crowd of tiny specks came surging in.
"And still they come, at Liane's command," she laughed. "They are those who played, to disarm your suspicions, at blocking your entry to this place. They did but follow you, a safe distance behind."
"I thought so," murmured Correy. "Things were going too smoothly. That was what we heard, sir."
I nodded, and looked up at Liane.
"You have many followers," I said. "Yet this is but a small world, and behind the Council are all the worlds of the universe."
Liane threw back her head and laughed, a soft, tinkling sound that rose clearly above the hollow roar of the mighty flame behind her throne.
"You speak bravely," she said, "knowing that Liane holds the upper hand. Did your Council take armed action against us, we would blow up these caverns which are the source of your precious temite, and bury it so deeply no force that could live here could extract it in the quantities in which the universe needs it.
"But enough of this exchange of sharp words. Liane has already said that she is disposed to be gracious. Does that not content you?"
"I will bear back to those who sent me whatever word you have to offer; it is not for me to judge its graciousness," I said coolly.
"Then--but first, let me show you how well I rule here," she said. She spoke to one of the old men seated at her feet; he arose and disappeared in a passage leading from directly beneath the dais.
"You will see, presently, the punishment of Liane," she said smilingly. "Liane, Chief Priestess of the Flame, Mother of Life, Giver of Death, Most Worshiped of the Worshipers.
"Perhaps you wonder how it came that Liane sits here in judgment upon a whole people? Let me tell you, while we await the execution of Liane's judgment.
"The father of Liane, and his father before him, back unto those remote days of which we have no knowledge, were Chief Priests of the Worshipers of the Flame. But they were lacking in ambition, in knowledge, and in power. Their followers were but few, and their hands were held out in benediction and not in command.
"But the father of Liane had no son; instead he had a daughter, in whom was all the wisdom of those who had been the Chief Priests. She gathered about her a group of old men, shrewd and cunning, the lesser priests and those who would know the feel of power, who were not priests. You see them here at the feet of Liane.
"And under Liane's guidance, the ranks of the Worshipers grew, and as this power grew, so grew the power of Liane, until the time came when no man, no woman, on the face of Lakos, dared question the command of the Chief Priestess. And those who would have rebelled, were made to feel the power of Liane--as these you see here now."
The old man had reappeared, and behind him were two miserable wretches, closely guarded by a dozen armed men. Liane spoke briefly to the old man, and then turned to us.
"The first of these is one who has dared to disobey," she explained. "He brought out more of the ore than Liane had ordered. Do you hear the multitude? They know already what his fate will be."
A long, shuddering whisper had arisen from the thousands of beings crouched there in the amphitheater, as the uncouth figure of the prisoner was led up a flight of steep, narrow steps to the very base of the flame.
Hendricks, still hiding his face from us, bent over Liane and whispered something in her ear; she caressed his arm softly, and shook her head. Hendricks leaned more heavily against the throne, shuddering.
Slowly, the flame was dying, until we could see that it was not a solid pillar of fire, but a hollow circle of flame, fed by innumerable jets set at the base of a circle of a trifle more than the length of a man across.
Into those deadly circles the condemned man was led. His legs were bound swiftly, so that he could not move, and the old man stepped back quickly.
As though his movement had been a signal, the flames shot up with a roar, until they lost themselves far over our heads. As one man, the three of us started forward, but the guards hemmed us in instantly.
"Fools!" cried Liane. "Be still! The power of Liane is absolute here."
We stared, fascinated, at the terrible sight. The flame spouted, streaks of blue and yellow streaking up from its base. Mercifully, we could not see within that encircling wall of fire.
Slowly, the flame died down again. A trap-door opened in the circle, and some formless thing dropped out of sight. Liane questioned the old man again, her eyes resting upon the other prisoner. The old man answered briefly.
"This one spoke against the power of Liane," she explained smilingly. "He said Liane was cruel; that she was selfish. He also must feel the embrace of the sacred Flame."
I heard, rather than saw, the ghastly drama repeated, for I had bent my head, and would not look up. Liane was no woman; she was a fiend. And yet for her a trusted officer, a friend, had forsworn his service and his comrades. I wondered, as I stood there with bowed head, what were the thoughts which must have been passing through Hendricks' mind.
"You fear to look upon the punishment of Liane?" the voice of the unholy priestess broke in upon my shuddering reverie. "Then you understand why her power is absolute; why she is Mother of Life, and Giver of Death, throughout all Lakos. And now for the word I promised you, a gracious word from one who could be terrible and not gracious, were that her whim.
"It has been in the mind of Liane to extend her power, to make for herself a place in this Supreme Council of which you speak with so much awe and reverence, Commander Hanson. But, by happenchance, another whim has seized her."
Liane looked up at Hendricks, smilingly, and took one of his hands in hers. It was wonderful how her face softened as he returned, fiercely, the pressure of her soft hands.
"I know it will sound strange to your ears," she said in a voice almost tender, "but Liane is, after all, a woman, with many, if not all, a woman's many weaknesses. And while even in his presence Liane will say that her lover was at the beginning looked upon as no more than a tool which might further Liane's power, he has won now a place in her heart."
I saw Hendricks tremble as she admitted her love, and that portion of his face which we could see flushed hotly.
"And so, Liane has elected to give up, at least for the present, the place in the Council which she could command. For after all, that would be a remote power, lacking in the elements of physical power which Liane has over these, her people, and in which she has learned to delight.
"So, Commander Hanson, bear to your superiors this word: Liane will permit a production of whatever reasonable amount of temite is desired. She will remain here with her consort, brooking no interference, no changes, no commands from any person or organization. Go, now, and take with you the words of Liane!"
I looked up at her gravely, and shook my head.
"We shall go," I said, "and we shall take with us your words. But I warn you that the words you have spoken are treason to the universe, in that you have defied the Council!"
Liane leaped from her throne, her scarlet lips drawn back against her white and gleaming teeth. Her eyes, dilated with anger, blazed down upon us almost as hotly as the flame which rose behind her.
"Go! And quickly!" she fairly screamed. "If you have no desire to feel the embrace of the sacred Flame, then go!"
I bowed silently, and motioned to Correy and Kincaide. Swiftly, we made our way down a long aisle, surrounded by motionless figures staring unwinkingly at the column of fire, toward the door by which we had entered this great chamber.
Behind us, I could hear Liane's clear voice lifted in her own guttural language, as she addressed the multitude.
Safely within the Ertak, we discussed the morning's adventure over a late luncheon.
"I suppose," said Kincaide, "there's nothing left to do but tell Fetter as much as seems wise, to reassure him, and then return to Base to make our report."
"We'll come back, if we do," growled Correy. "And we'll come back to fight. The Council won't stand for her attitude."
"Undoubtedly that's true," I admitted. "Still, I believe we should put it up to Base, and through Base to the Council, before doing anything more. Much, if not all, of what she said was perfectly true."
"It was that," nodded Kincaide. "There were scores, if not hundreds of doors leading into that big chamber; I imagine it can be reached, underground, from any point on the continent. And those winding passages would be simple to defend from any form of invasion."
"But could these Lakonians fight?" asked Correy. "That's what I'd like to know. I doubt it. They look like a sleepy, ignorant lot."
"I think they'd fight, to the death, if Liane ordered them to," I replied thoughtfully. "Did you notice the way they stared at the flame, never moving, never even winking? My idea is that it exercises a sort of auto-hypnotic influence over them, which gives Liane just the right opportunity to impress her will upon them."
"I wondered about that," Kincaide commented. "I believe you're right, sir. Any idea as to when we'll shove off?"
"There's no particular hurry; Fetter will be busy until evening, I imagine, so we won't bother him until then. As soon as we've had a chat with him, we can start."
"And without Hendricks," said Kincaide, shaking his head sadly. "I wonder--"
"If you don't mind, Mr. Kincaide, we won't mention his name on the Ertak after this," I interrupted. "I, for one, would rather forget him. Wouldn't you?"
"I would, sir, if I could," said Kincaide softly. "But that's not easy, is it?"
It wasn't easy. As a matter of fact, it was impossible. I knew I would never forget my picture of him, standing there shaken and miserable, beside the woman for whom he had disgraced his uniform, hiding his head in shame from the eyes of the men he had called comrades, and who had called him friend. But to talk of him was morbid.