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   Chapter 10 No.10

The Land of the Changing Sun By Will N. Harben Characters: 10464

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04

To Thorndyke the dark corridor seemed endless. The king's last words had now a sinister meaning, and Bernardino's whispered warning filled him with dread. "Keep your presence of mind," she urged; was it then, some frightful mental ordeal he was about to pass through?

Presently they came to a door. Thorndyke heard his guide feeling for the bolt and key-hole. The rattling of the keys sounded like a ghostly threat in the empty corridors. The air was as damp as a fog, and the stones were cold and slimy. After a moment the guard succeeded in unlocking the door and roughly pushed the Englishman forward. The door closed with a little puff, and Thorndyke felt about him for the guide; but he was alone. For a moment there was no sound. With the closing of the door it seemed to him that he was cut off from every living creature. In the awful silence he could hear his own heart beating like a drum.

"Stand where you are!" came in a hissing whisper from the darkness near by, and then the invisible whisperer moved away, making a weird sound as he slid his hand along a wall, till it died away in the distance.

A cold thrill ran over him. He was a brave man and feared no living man or beast, but the superstitious fears of his childhood now came upon him with redoubled force. For several minutes he did not stir; presently he put out his hand to the door and his blood ran cold. There was no knob, latch, or key-hole, and he could feel the soft padding into which the door closed to keep out sound. Then he remembered the warning of the princess, and strove with all his might to fight down his apprehensions. "For your life keep your presence of mind," he repeated over and over, but try as he would his terror over-powered him. He laughed out loud, but in the dreadful silence and darkness his laugh sounded unearthly.

A cold perspiration broke out on him. It seemed as if hours passed before he again heard the sliding noise on the wall. Some one was coming to him. The sound grew louder and nearer, till a firm hand was laid on his arm; it felt as cold as ice through his clothing.

"Come," a voice whispered, and the Englishman was led forward. Presently another door opened-a door that closed after them without any sound. Here the silence was more intensified, the darkness thicker as if compressed like air.

Hands were placed on the shoulders of Thorndyke and he was gently forced into a chair. As soon as he was seated two metal clamps grasped like a vise his arms between the elbows and the shoulders, and two more fastened round his ankles.

There was a faint puff of air from the door and the prisoner felt that he was alone. Terror held him in bondage. He tried to think of Bernardino, but in vain. Did they intend to drive him to madness? He began to suspect that the king had discovered his natural superstition and had decided to put it to a test. What he had undergone so far he felt was but the introduction to greater terrors in store for him.

There was a sigh far away in the darkness-then a groan that seemed to flit about in space, as if seeking to escape the dark, and then died away in a low moan of despair. Before him the blackness seemed to hang like a dark curtain about ten yards in front of him, and in it shone a tiny speck of light no larger than the head of a pin, and which was so bright that he could not look at it steadily. It increased to the size of a pea, and then he discovered that, at times, it would seem miles away in space and then again to draw quite near to hand. Glancing down, he noticed that it cast a bright round spot about an inch in diameter on the floor, and that the spot was slowly revolving in a circle so small that its motion was hardly observable. Surely the mind of a superstitious man was never so punished! When Thorndyke looked steadily at the spot, the black floor seemed to recede, and the spot to sink far down into the empty darkness below like a solitary star; So realistic was this that the Englishman could not keep from fancying that this chair was poised in some way over fathomless space. Presently he noticed that the spot had ceased its circular movement and was slowly-almost as slowly as the movement of the hand of a clock-advancing in a straight line toward him.

No such terror had ever before possessed the stout heart of the Englishman. As the uncanny spot, ever growing brighter, advanced toward him, he thought his heart had stopped beating; his brain was in a whirl. After a long while the spot reached his feet and began to climb up his legs. With a shudder and a smothered cry, he tried to draw his feet away, but they were too firmly manacled.

"It is searching for my heart," thought Thorndyke. "My God, when it reaches it, I shall die!" As the strange spot, gleaming like a burning diamond in whose heart leaped a thousand different colored flames, and which seemed possessed of some strange hellish purpose, crossed his thighs and began to climb up his body, the brain of the prisoner seemed on fire. He tried to close his eyes, but, horror of horrors! his eyelids were paralyzed. It was almost over his heart, and Thorndyke was fainting through sheer mental exhaustion when it stopped, began to descend slowly

, and, then, with a rapid, wavering motion, it fell to the floor, flashed about in the darkness, and vanished.

An hour dragged slowly by. What would happen next? The Englishman felt that his frightful ordeal was not over. To his surprise the darkness began to lighten till he could see dimly the outlines of the chamber. It was bare save for the chair he occupied against a wall, and a couch on the opposite side of the room. The couch held something which looked like a human body covered with a white cloth. He could see where the sheet rounded over the head and rose sharply at the feet.

Something told him that it was a corpse and a new terror possessed him. For several minutes he gazed at the couch in dreadful suspense, then his heart stopped pulsing as the figure on the couch began to move. Slowly the sheet fell from the head and the figure sat up stiffly. There was a faint hum of hidden machinery at the couch, and a flashing blue and green line running from the couch to the wall betrayed the presence of an electric wire.

Slowly the figure rose, and with creaking, rattling joints stood erect. Pale lights shone in the orbits of the eyes and the sound of harsh automatic breathing came from the mouth and nostrils. Slowly and haltingly the figure advanced toward Thorndyke. The poor fellow tried to wrench himself free from the chair, but he could not stir an inch. On came the figure, its long arms swinging mechanically, and its feet slurring over the stone pavement.

When within ten feet of the Englishman it stopped, nodded its head three or four times, and slowly opened its mouth. There was a sharp, whirring noise, such as comes from a phonograph, and a voice spoke:

"My voice shall sound on earth for a million years after my spirit has left my body; and I shall wander about my dark dungeon as a warning to men not to do as I have done."

The voice ceased, but the whirring sound in the creature's breast went on. The figure shambled nearer to Thorndyke and the voice began again:

"I disobeyed the laws of great Alpha and her imperial king and am to die. Beware of the temptation to search into the royal motives or attempt to escape. The fate of all the inhabitants of Alpha, the wonderful Land of the Changing Sun, is in the hands of its ruler. Beware! My death-torture is to be lingering and horrible. I sink into deepest dejection. I was eager to return to my native land and tried to escape. Behold my punishment! Even my bones and flesh will not be allowed to rest or decay. Beware, the king is just and good, but he will be obeyed!"

Slowly the figure retreated toward the couch and lay down on it. The whirring sound ceased, the light along the wire went out, and the darkness thickened till the couch and the outlines of the chamber were obscured. Then Thorndyke's chair was lifted, as if by unseen hands, and he was borne backward. In a moment he felt the cool, damp air of the corridor, and some one raised him to his feet and led him back to the throne-room.

In the bright light which burst on him as the door opened, the beautiful women and handsome men moving about the throne were to him like a glimpse of Paradise. The attendant left him at the door and he walked in, so dazed and weak that he hardly knew what to do. No one seemed to notice him and the king was engaged in an animated conversation with several ladies who were sitting at his feet.

In a bevy of women Thorndyke noticed Bernardino. She gave him a quick, sympathetic glance of recognition and then looked down discreetly. Presently she left the others and moved on till she had disappeared behind a great carved wine-cistern which stood on the backs of four crouching golden leopards in a retired part of the room. Something in her sudden movement made the Englishman think she wanted to speak to him, and he went to her. He was not mistaken, for she smiled as he approached.

"I am glad," she whispered, touching his arm impulsively, and then quickly removing her hand as if afraid of detection.

"Glad of what?" he asked.

"Glad that you stood that-that torture so well; several men have died in that chair and some went mad."

"I remembered your advice; that saved me."

"I have a plan for us to try to rescue your friend."

"Ah, I had forgotten him! what is it?"

"Captain Tradmos likes you and has consented to aid us. We shall need an air-ship and he has one at his disposal which is used only for governmental purposes."

"What do you want with the air-ship?"

"To go beyond and over the great wall."

"But can we get away from here without being seen?"

"Under ordinary circumstances, neither by day nor night, but tomorrow the king has planned to let his people witness a 'War of the Elements.'"

"A War of the Elements?"

"Yes, the grandest fete of Alpha. There will be a frightful storm in the sky; no light for hours; the thunder will be musical and the lightning will seem to set the world on fire. That will be our chance. When it is darkest we shall try to get away unseen. We may fail. Such a daring thing has never been attempted by any one. If we are detected we shall suffer death as the penalty, the king could never pardon such a bold violation of law."

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