|SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE BEAST MEN OF ATLANTIS by Milly “Mad Dog” McGuigan|
‘Doctor Watson was always a little slow on the uptake,’ Holmes observed drily in the silence that followed. ‘It is precisely this quality that transforms his accounts of my investigations from scientific reports into melodramatic mysteries worthy of Edgar Allan Poe.’ He turned to me. ‘It should be clear to you that her majesty and Miss Marency are half-sisters. What is more important is the impending sacrifice of the white prisoners to appease the hunger of the volcano god. Justice shall not be served so, rather in and English court of law!’
I barely heard the latter. ‘Sisters?’ I asked.
‘Half-sisters,’ Holmes said patiently. ‘They share a father. A father we have met. Who has been murdered, and whose murderer we intend to bring to justice.’ He turned to the queen. ‘May we be restored to our liberty? You must wish your father’s killer to receive justice just as much as your sister does.’
Miss Marency looked up. ‘Of course,’ she said. ‘That’s why we’re here.’
‘I understand this,’ said the queen. ‘But I cannot restore your freedom, Mr Holmes, or any of you. It is too dangerous.’
‘You say that two white men came here,’ Holmes said. ‘That they are prisoners of the priests.’
She inclined her head. ‘And so they will remain until the sign is given, and interpreted by the Archpriest, that the god of the volcano must be fed.’
Holmes shook his head. ‘That will not be satisfactory,’ he said. ‘Miss Marency retained my services to see that her father’s killer be brought to justice in an English court. Not murdered by savages in an unholy ritual of human sacrifice. We must go to the priests and speak with them.’
He turned as if to go. Keobula clapped his hands and men entered through the doors, carrying muskets primed and ready to fire. Holmes looked back at the queen.
‘This is absurd,’ he said. ‘We came here for one purpose and one purpose only. Once that purpose is prosecuted we shall leave your land and return to our own, never to trouble you again.’
She shook her head. ‘If you go to the priests,’ she said sadly, ‘you will be killed. Even if you attempt the return journey, the likelihood is that the priests or their creatures will hunt you down. Safety lies in remaining with us in Nkume. I will not see any of you sacrificed to He Beneath The Fire Mountain.’ Her gaze flickered over to Miss Marency. ‘Particularly not my long lost sister.’
The queen rose to her feet gracefully. ‘You will remain with me as honoured guests,’ she said. ‘I will ensure that no word of your presence here reaches the priests. You will be my guests, but you can never leave.’ As Miss Marency opened her mouth to speak, her half-sister raised a hand for quiet. ‘It was foolish of you to enter this land. White men have done so in the past, but only one ever escaped; my father. And now he is dead, I will not see you killed.’
She gestured to the guards, and uttered a harsh phrase in her own tongue. The guards marched us away.
Sitting in our own hut with sunlight filtering in through the walls, we held a council of war.
‘This sister of mine has us well guarded,’ Miss Marency said bitterly, peering out of the doorway at the two guards on duty outside. ‘Considering we are honoured guests.’
‘She’s in a difficult political situation,’ Holmes said wryly. ‘I should think that she has trouble trusting her people. Informers amongst them may pass on news of our arrival to the priests. As long as she keeps us hidden, she can be sure that we will not fall into the wrong hands. But it makes completing our task here problematic, to say the least.’
‘Can’t we make a break for it?’ I said. ‘Is that the correct phrase amongst the criminal fraternity? Make an escape attempt, I mean?’
Holmes rubbed his chin thoughtfully. He glanced out at the two guards. ‘Working together we might be able to overpower them,’ he said. ‘But then we would have the rest of the settlement to get through. And then what?’
‘Go to the temple,’ Miss Marency said.
‘The temple?’ I asked.
She looked pityingly at me. ‘That’s where McAllister will be.’
‘Yes,’ said Sherlock Holmes, ‘and this mysterious other white man will be imprisoned there too, no doubt. But we know so little about the situation. The entire temple area will be dangerous. There will be priests, perhaps temple guards. We have no firearms, no weapons at all, unless we can obtain some during our escape from this hut. And then we have no clear idea of where the prisoners are kept. This, my friends, is a three pipe problem.’
He reached in his tobacco pouch to fill the bowl of his meerschaum only to find that it was empty. Miss Marency laughed bitterly.
‘Is the finest criminological mind in Europe baffled?’ she asked. she folded her arms and sat back against the wall. ‘Well, at least we can count ourselves safe for now. We will be sheltered and fed at my sister’s expense, until we can find some way to escape.’
‘But in the meanwhile,’ I said shrewdly, ‘McAllister is a prisoner of these savage priests, destined for sacrifice to their unholy god. We cannot allow it, in all conscience, even if the hangman’s noose awaits the fellow on return to England. It is our duty to ensure he is rescued from the priests, and taken back Home to face trial for murder.’
Miss Marency turned her face away. Holmes was staring abstractedly at the empty bowl of his pipe. Both seemed nonplussed. I glanced out of the door and saw the two blacks on guard, and wished I had at the very least my old service revolver. The only way out of this situation, I told myself sternly, would entail fighting.
However, the remainder of that day was spent in idleness and futility. Holmes was sunk in a black mood, or one of contemplation— at times the two seemed indistinguishable. Miss Marency was also silent and scowling. After a while, I lay down in one corner and sought sleep.
On that hard packed earth floor, slumber evaded me for a long time, but just as I was thinking of giving up the effort I must have fallen asleep, since the next thing I knew my eyes snapped open to reveal total blackness. For a moment I had no notion of where I was. Only a distant lowing sound from far off, and the iron hard ground beneath me, gave me any sense that I was still in the hut. It must be night.
I lay there for some time, trying to discern what had awoken me. I was hungry. Perhaps that was it. The queen had said she would feed us as well as keep us sheltered. Had food been brought while I was insensible?
I rolled over onto my side. Dim shafts of moonlight filtered in through the walls, and I saw on the ground before me a large banana leaf on which were heaped mealies, boiled yams, and beef preserved in honey, all of which I had encountered since coming to Africa. A jug of the sour sweet native beer lay beside it. Some of the food was untouched, but I could see much of it had already been eaten. No doubt my fellow prisoners had left it beside my sleeping form for me to eat when I awoke. But where were they? I could see no sign of them. But it was dark, pitch black except the moonlight.
Just as I reached out toward the food, the moonlight cut out briefly, and I heard a rustle of movement. In the utter darkness, I felt a cold hand of irrational fear. Who or what was it, moving in the gloom? All those long forgotten childish fears of the dark returned to me then.
The moonlight flooded in again, and I heard more movement, receding towards the doorway. Was Holmes making a breakout without me? Aggrieved, I got to my knees, aching in every limb, then to my feet. Clutching to a roof pillar for support, I tiptoed after.
The figure passed out of the doorway—I saw it momentarily silhouetted against the stars as it pushed back the hide curtain that covered the door—then vanished outside. There was a grunt, a sound of scuffling, then silence. My heart in my mouth, I crossed to the doorway. Just as I was reaching out to twitch back the curtain, which had fallen back into place after being disturbed, a hand shot out of the darkness and closed on my wrist.
‘Are you sure you want to go out there, Watson?’ Holmes’ voice was the merest whisper.
‘Holmes!’ I said. ‘It wasn’t you who went outside. Then…’
‘It was Miss Kate Marency,’ Holmes completed my sentence for me. ‘Grown weary of durance vile.’
‘Where has she gone?’ I hissed, peering blindly at the darkness from whence came his voice. ‘The guards… surely…’
‘I think she has dealt with that little difficulty,’ Holmes said. His hand appeared again in the moonlight and twitched back the hide curtain.
I peered out. All around us the conical roofs of the African huts stood against the stars of the night sky. The moon sailed high overhead, casting a silvery light on our surroundings, limning the two motionless black hulks that lay beside the doorway. I slipped out into the cold night air and crouched beside one. It was one of the guards, his head at a strange angle. My cursory examination proved that he was dead from a broken neck. Scrambling over to his companion I saw that it was the same here.
Holmes joined me. I looked up. ‘Both dead,’ I hissed. ‘Their necks broken.’
‘Miss Marency moves swiftly,’ he murmured. ‘But she may still be in the area.’
I stared at him. ‘Miss Marency did this?’
He nodded. ‘Of course. Did you not see her slip out only moments ago, and hear the sounds of a brief scuffle? This is her doing.’
I had seen Miss Marency—Leopard Lady—at work in the jungle. I knew that she was something other than the respectable nineteenth century miss she seemed on first encounter. I knew she had grown up in the bush, learnt to fend for herself in a hostile environment. She could kill without compunction. But to think that she had broken the necks of two stalwart Negro warriors before vanishing into the darkness was simply too much.
‘And if we move as swiftly,’ Holmes added, ‘we may find out where she is going.’
‘Where she is going?’ I echoed, still unable to comprehend what was happening.
Holmes examined the ground. After a few seconds, he rose again and beckoned. ‘Follow me,’ he murmured. ‘And keep quiet. Miss Marency has solved the problem of the guards. But there may be other Nkume about, and they will be sure to raise the alarm.’
Bewildered by the astonishing turn of events, I followed Holmes through the shadows of the settlement. Rank smells hung in the air, smoke, stale cooking, of cattle and goats and unwashed bodies, but it was chill with night, and the very stars as they peered down at our fugitive forms were cold. As we crept through the gloom, my stomach rumbled, and I wished that I had had the foresight to snatch up a mealie or two before departing the hut.
At last we came to the gap in the boma where we had entered. Holmes had followed Miss Marency’s trail this far across the broken ground of the settlement. I wondered where she was heading. Did she intend to escape by going down the river again? Surely the great apes would still be on the prowl. Keobula’s man had led them away from our trail, but it would only be a matter of time before the murderous beasts picked it up again. And fearful as they might be of entering a settlement like Nkume, they might well be lurking in the jungle.
But to my surprise, the trail of Miss Marency’s bare feet led not towards the walls, but instead the other way, towards the volcano slopes, and the temple buildings amid the trees beyond the boma of Nkume. As I followed my friend I wondered darkly what spirit of self-destruction could have possessed Miss Marency.
But as we made our way towards the jungle, I saw lights far off. Not moonlight or starlight but the ruddy glow of torches. It was coming from the direction of the temple, or the chasm that lay before it. And drifting towards us on the night breeze came a susurrus of guttural chanting.
A longer incantation drifted through the night, in no tongue of my understanding. I tried to quiz Holmes on it, but he held up a hand for silence and motioned for us to make haste. In darkness without so much as a glimmer of starlight we forced our way through that jungle where the scent of tropic blooms overlay the stink of decay. Up ahead, through the trees, the torchlight grew stronger. But that journey was like Satan’s ascent from the Abyss. Tree branches whipped at our faces, unseen slithering hinted at dangerous reptilian life, monkeys shrieked their mockery from the jungle canopy. It was one of the most arduous journeys of my life.
At last we came out into the open. On every hand the jungle stretched away, and rising from that wall of vegetation were the stone walls of the Atlantean temples. Torches and fires blazed amidst the blackness, bringing more images of Pandemonium to my mind, of Chaos and Old Night. Before us was a large clearing where nothing grew—for the simple reason that most of it was taken up by a deep abyss, half spanned by a spur of rock upon which stood a throng, dominated by one tall, robed, masked figure, arms lifted in invocation, beside a rock pillar from which depended a brassy gong. It was from this figure that the unrelenting catechism came.
Behind it, ranked along the edges of the chasm, was a capering multitude of robed and masked forms, and it was they who were chanting. Behind them rose the megalithic edifice of the main temple building, with a high gateway leading into the blackness inside.
As Holmes and I crouched on the edge of the jungle, watching this diabolical scene, a clot of deeper darkness detached itself from the shadows at our side, and I heard a familiar voice speak my name.
‘Watson? Holmes? You fools, did you follow me? You have no idea of how you are risking your lives!’
But before either Holmes or I could reply to Miss Marency, there was a roar of noise from the priests, then silence. We turned as one to see a small, shuffling procession leading a bound, struggling man up the spur towards the tall figure of the Archpriest. A hood was whipped away from the prisoner’s head. Even at that distance I recognised the auburn hair of Mr McAllister.
Miss Marency gasped. I too was horrified, though it was not entirely unexpected. After all, we knew that McAllister must have reached the plateau ahead of us, that white men had been taken prisoner by the priests, and that they were to be sacrificed. I could only see one white man—it seemed that a single sacrifice was enough to appease their god.
‘What will they do?’ I murmured uneasily. ‘Fling him into the chasm?’
No one answered. One of the lesser priests on the spur of rock picked up a beater and began to bang the gong. Dull iron peals rang out across the clearing. The Archpriest had ceased his incantation now, and everything was silent except the incessant clang of the gong.
McAllister began to struggle again in his captors’ hands, but their grips must have been like iron, and eventually he relented hopelessly, and stood there in their grasp, peering in numb horror into the chasm. Still the gong rang out into the night. Clang. Clang. Clang.
From where we were crouching, the chasm itself was out of sight. Only the very lip was visible, thronged with silent priests. I received a sense of substantial depth. The priests’ robes were being wafted in some kind of breeze that came from the chasm. What was down there?
Still the gong rang, and rang, and rang.
‘What are they waiting for?’ Miss Marency muttered.
‘The god,’ Holmes whispered. ‘They are waiting for their god.’
I turned to look at him. He seemed as calm as ever, and showed no physical signs that the remorseless, logical brain was suffering some kind of fever.
‘Do you truly expect some kind of deity to manifest itself?’ I asked. When he did not reply, I looked back at the sinister assembly. There was no idol, I noted, no kind of fetish as might be expected in such a heathen gathering. Only the priests. And the chasm.
I was beginning to develop cramp. I shifted a little to ease myself.
‘These ceremonies are chiefly designed to instil fear into the audience,’ Holmes murmured. ‘Fear, and awe. Awe for the Archpriest and the hierarchy he represents. The sense of fear is built up by repetition of chanting and by anticipation.’
‘Anticipation of what?’ Miss Marency muttered. ‘Of the appearance of their god? Can we expect something to… materialise? A devil in a magic circle?’
‘I wish I had a gun,’ I muttered, glaring at the Archpriest, who stood by the edge of the rocky spur, peering down expectantly into those sinister depths, that abyss that was out of my own sight. ‘If I had that Express rifle I left behind, I’d shoot him dead, the filthy heathen.’
Mockingly, Miss Marency began whistling The Girl I Left Behind Me between her teeth. I gave her a hurt look. I remembered the dead guards. Just who was this Leopard Lady?
‘Hist!’ said Holmes suddenly, raising a hand for silence. ‘Something… something comes!’
‘Mr Holmes is right,’ said Miss Marency, placing her ear to the hard earth. ‘Something is moving…underground.’
I strained my own ears. I could hear nothing. From out of the chasm echoed a distant thudding boom, growing in volume, a pounding as of titanic feet. My eyes widened in horror, although still I could see nothing. Was this the god? Was it truly coming?
‘I thought they were going to fling him to his doom,’ I said. ‘They will, unless we do something. But…’
The gong range out into the night. The ground pounded with the fall of titan feet beneath the earth. Slowly the two sounds—the only ones audible, even the beast cries of the jungle had stilled—the two sounds seemed to merge into one discordant symphony, the clang of metal and the pounding of the ground. Clang. Boom. Clang. Boom. Boom. Boom.
‘We must do something,’ said Miss Marency, rising. I craned my neck to stare at her magnificent figure, limned by the distant torchlight. I was frozen to the spot, but Leopard Lady showed no signs of fear.
Holmes also rose. ‘I agree. We cannot leave McAllister to be sacrificed to this god, whatever it is,’ he said. ‘We must find some way to snatch him from the priests.’
‘And then take him back to England?’ I asked. The courage of my two companions emboldened me, and the paralysis that had gripped my limbs like lockjaw loosened.
‘Take him back to face justice,’ Holmes said, ‘if he is the murderer. Even if he is not, we cannot stand idly by as a fellow Englishman is sacrificed to a heathen god.’
He strode away, and Miss Marency slipped after him.
I rose and stood looking after them, astounded. This was the first time Holmes had expressed any doubt that McAllister was the murderer. If he wasn’t, then who was? Had we come to Africa on the wildest of goose chases? The thought that we had endured so much horror on the journey upcountry, seen so many faithful companions murdered, and yet were following the wrong man… I could not believe it. If not McAllister, who?
Still the ground pounded. still the gong rang out harshly across the chasm. The eyes of the masked priests were intent on the depths below them, which were still hidden from me by perspective. I hurried after my two companions.
I caught up with them closer to the chasm, crouching behind a boulder. We were out in the open now, and only the darkness saved us from being seen. The light of the torches was not enough to betray our presence. Now we could see more of the chasm. It vanished into the depths, seemingly bottomless even now. I could see at least forty feet down. The spur of rock on which the Archpriest and his fellows stood, on which McAllister also stood, arched out above it.
McAllister’s expression was clear. His eyes were wide with horror and despair. He showed no sign of struggling; he had accepted his horrible fate. But I had not. And neither had Sherlock Holmes.
‘What do we do?’ I asked Holmes. His eyes were fixed on the horrific scene, but he did not answer. Again I wished for a gun, a repeating rifle. Better still, a Maxim. My thoughts were as bloodthirsty as any pagan priest’s.
To reach McAllister, unless we were able to grow wings, would be impossible without fighting our way through the priests that lined the far side of the chasm, then up onto the spur where more priests stood, the Archpriest among them. And even if we, in our weaponless state, were to chance it—after all, Miss Leopard Lady had already killed twice tonight without any weapons other than her slim, well-manicured young hands—if we were to attempt it, the Archpriest and his guards would fling McAllister into the chasm long before we reached them.
From here, the priests were better discernible, having been little more than a wall of swaying bodies clad in voluminous robes and hideous devil masks. I could see them fully, and smell them too—cleanliness was not close to Godliness in the Atlantean religion, that much was clear. The long robes were dyed in bright, vivid colours as gaudy as anything aniline dye might produce; purples and indigos and mauves and scarlets and pinks and many other hues offended the eye. Their robes glittered with uncut diamonds. Many also carried spears or double headed axes. All wore masks or masked helmets.
Nothing could be seen of their bodies or faces, but from their postures many were deformed in some way, seeming to shamble or hop rather than walk in any conventional manner. It seemed that this isolated, inward-looking lost colony of High Atlantis—for even I was coming around to Sir Digory’s theory by now—had degenerated over the aeons, descending from the highest pinnacle of evolution, comparable even to the finest products of nineteenth century England, into bestiality and barbarism.
Still the gong clanged monotonously. But the booming of the ground beneath our feet had grown ever louder, and now it almost drowned out the clanging. At once, the priest at the gong ceased his peals, to my immense relief, and the last clang echoed back from the dark jungle wall. The thunder from below did not end immediately, however.
The rank smell from the unwashed bodies of the priests was almost overpowering, but now something else reached my nostrils. A musky odour that reminded me a little of snakes and crocodiles that I had encountered on the journey. But it was far stronger than the odour of any reptile I had smelt before. This smell wafted up from the dark chasm, drowning out the scent of jungle blooms, the stench of rot, the stink of the unwashed priests. At last, something in the chasm moved into sight.
I caught a glimpse of a vast, reptilian back, its emerald scales glimmering in the ruddy torchlight. Then the priest at the gong struck a final time, and two other priests shambled forward, hauling McAllister with them. Before the Scot could do more than cry out in unmanned terror, they flung him over the side.
He cartwheeled in the air, limbs flailing, in a parabola of shrieking terror. The huge scaly back vanished abruptly from sight even as he passed from view. The screaming was cut off. I heard a series of grisly chewing noises, then silence.
A pounding of feet receded back into the earth below us.
‘Justice has been served,’ Miss Marency observed.
‘We’ve failed,’ I said bleakly. ‘This must be the first instance in my time with my friend that Sherlock Holmes has failed to bring a murderer to justice.’
‘Balderdash, Watson,’ said Holmes without rancour. ‘I have had my failures. However, I am not at all certain that in this case I have yet failed to bring the murderer to justice.’
I was about to ask what my friend meant when another smell made me gag, now that the reptilian odour had returned into the earth from which it had come. Miss Marency turned her head sharply.
‘Gentlemen!’ she said loudly.
I turned. We were surrounded by priests, or perhaps temple guards. They wore face covering Grecian helmets and clutched spears, cutlasses and axes and were bearing down on us. Holmes looked about on all sides. The guards had sneaked up on us while we were watching the ritual. Now they cut off our every escape route except the chasm.
‘No way out that way,’ Holmes muttered. He raised his fists as if ready to go down fighting, and I copied him though it seemed futile. Then he lowered his arms. ‘No,’ he said. ‘We will achieve nothing by flinging away our lives. Besides, this way we may find what we truly seek.’
Miss Marency paid him no heed. She sprang like the leopard for which the natives named her and seized the spear shaft of the closest temple guard. He roared like a beast as she flung him round, knocking several off their feet in her eagerness, then she let go of the spear. He went flying—straight over the lip of the chasm.
His wail receded into the depths.
But now more temple guards and priests, all robed and masked, were pouring down either side of the chasm. Miss Marency fought, and we had no option to stand at her side. Her spear was bloody a dozen times before the battle ended. Holmes seized a cutlass from a temple guard who he had despatched with a savage kick and wielded it to superb effect. I preferred to use my fists.
But it was indeed futile, whatever weapon we adopted. Miss Marency was seized and pinioned by sheer weight of numbers. I saw Holmes go down, clubbed from behind by a temple guard. Then I was surrounded. Two priests seized Miss Marency by her arms and legs and began to swing her back and forth on the brink of the chasm.
‘No!’ I shouted, and I lowered my fists.
At a snarl from another of their kind, the priests stopped, and held Miss Marency struggling in their iron grasp. I saw the Archpriest approach. He bent over Holmes’ prone figure and sniffed blindly at him. Then he did the same to Miss Marency. At last he came over to me and I distinctly heard him sniffing behind his mask as he seemed to examine me. Then he gestured with one gloved paw, in the direction of the temple complex on the far side of the chasm.
Two priests picked up Holmes. Two more jabbed at me with spears, urging me forwards. The two carrying Miss Marency started shambling towards the temple, followed by those with Holmes. Then I was forced to march after them.
The remainder of the priests, the Archpriest among them, followed us in a torchlit procession, hooting and wailing. Round the chasm we went, close enough for me to see down into it, and a great yawning cave wall leading to a tunnel that must be directly beneath our original position. I saw then that the chasm was not so deep that McAllister’s fall would have killed him. He must have died when the creature devoured him.
Then we were ascending the great broken stairs of the main temple building, a wide flight of steps so high I almost had to climb from one to the next. At last we stood in a broad plaza on the far side of which stood the crumbling, vine festooned temple itself. Moss grown pyramids of skulls dotted the wide pavement. Snakes slithered underfoot. But it was the temple itself that drew my horrified gaze.
In many ways it was reminiscent of the religious buildings of Greece and Rome, but there was a massiveness more like the edifices of the early Egyptians, and yet a strange crudeness about those roughhewn blocks that spoke of Stonehenge, or those mysterious stone forts I had once seen on the Aran Islands. Great, lofty pillars stretched up higher than the tallest trees of the jungle that enclosed us on all sides and almost swamped the surrounding buildings.
The priests and temple guards were dwarfed, as were we, their captives, as we crossed that plaza littered with fallen stones and carpeted with jungle moss. The arch gaped over us, revealing nothing within but impenetrable blackness. But we were not to be taken into the mysteries of the inner sanctum.
Instead the procession entered the temple through a less lofty side door, itself tall and as cyclopean as any Egyptian temple. Down a winding set of steps we were taken and along a stone passageway ornamented with a faded, peeling fresco that depicted an island kingdom vanishing beneath tidal waves. At last we were cast into a dark side room, where I lay panting on the floor. A stripe of light fell from the doorway. Then a grinding noise reached my ears.
I whirled round to see the temple guards were pushing closed a stone door. Miss Marency and I both leapt to our feet and ran to stop them.
But it was too late. The stone slab rumbled into place like the slab of a vertical tomb. Darkness fell, complete and absolute.
We were prisoners in the temple of the Atlanteans.
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK