THE MUTE GUARD still slumbered on the stair as Gordon glided past him. No lights glinted now as he descended into the lower corridor. He knew the cells were all empty, for the monks slept in chambers on a lower level. As he hesitated, he heard sandals shuffling down the passage in the pitch blackness.
Stepping into one of the cells he waited until the unseen traveler was opposite him, then he hissed softly. The tread halted and a voice muttered a query.
"Art thou Yatub?" asked Gordon in the gutturals of the Kirghiz. Many of the lower monks were pure Kirghiz in blood and speech.
"Nay," came the answer. "I am Ojuh. Who art thou?"
"No matter; call me Yogok's dog if thou wilt. I am a watcher. Have the white men come into the temple yet?"
"Aye. Yogok brought them by the secret way, lest the people suspect their presence. If thou art close to Yogok, tell me--what is his plan?"
"What is thine own opinion?" asked Gordon.
An evil laugh answered him, and he could feel the monk leaning closer in the darkness to rest an elbow on the jamb.
"Yogok is crafty," he murmured. "When the Tajik whom Yasmeena bribed to bear her letter showed it to Yogok, our master bade him do as she had instructed him. When the man for whom she sent came for her, Yogok planned to slay both him and her, making it seem to the people that the white man had slain their goddess."
"Yogok is not forgiving," said Gordon at a venture.
"A cobra is more so." The monk laughed. "Yasmeena has thwarted him too often in the matter of sacrifices for him to allow her to depart in peace."
"Yet such is now his plan!" asserted Gordon.
"Nay; thou art a simple man, for one who calls himself a watcher. The letter was meant for El Borak. But the Tajik was greedy and sold it to these sahibs and told them of Yogok. They will not take her to India. They will sell her to a prince in Kashmir who will have her beaten to death with a slipper. Yogok himself will guide them through the hills by the secret route. He is in terror of the people, but his hate for Yasmeena overcomes him."
Gordon had heard all he wished to know, and he was in a sudden rush to be gone. He had abandoned his tentative plan of letting Ormond get the girl outside the city before rescuing her. With Yogok guiding the Englishmen through hidden passes, he might find it impossible to overtake them.
The monk, however, was in no hurry to conclude the conversation. He began speaking again, and then Gordon saw a light moving like a glowworm in the blackness, and he heart a swift patter of bare feet and a man breathing heavily. He drew farther back into the cell.
It was another monk who came up the corridor, carrying a small brass lamp that lighted his broad, thin-lipped face and made him look something like a Mongolian devil.
As he saw the monk outside the cell, he began hastily: "Yogok and the white men have gone to Yasmeena's chamber. The girl, her servant who spied upon her, has told us that the white devil El Borak is in Yolgan. He talked with Yasmeena less than half an hour agone. The girl sped to Yogok as swiftly as she dared, but she dared not stir until he had left Yasmeena's chamber. He is somewhere in the temple. I gather men to search. Come with me, thou, and thou also--"
He swung the lamp about so that it shone full on Gordon, crouching in the cell. As the man blinked to see the garments of a shepherd instead of the familiar robes of a monk, Gordon lashed out for his jaw, quick and silent as the stroke of a python. The monk went down like a man shot in the head, and even as the lamp smashed on the floor, Gordon had leaped and grappled with the other man in the sudden darkness.
A single cry rang to the vaulted roof before it was strangled in the corded throat. The monk was hard to hold as a snake, and he kept groping for a knife, but as they crashed into the stone wall, Gordon smashed his opponent's head savagely against it. The man went limp and Gordon flung him down beside the other senseless shape.
The next instant Gordon was racing up the stairway. It was only a few steps from the cell where he had hidden, its upper portion dim in the subdued light of the upper corridor. He knew no one had gone up or down while he talked with the monk. Yet the man with the lamp had said that Yogok and the others had gone to Yasmeena's chamber, and that her treacherous servant girl had come to them.
He rounded the crook with reckless haste, his scimitar ready, but the slumping figure at the stairhead did not rise to oppose him. There was a new sag in the mute's shoulders as he huddled on the steps. He had been stabbed in the back, so fiercely that the spinal column had been severed with one stroke.
Gordon wondered why the priest should kill one of his own servants, but he did not pause; premonition gripping his heart, he hurled himself down the corridor and in through the arched doorway, which was unbolted. The chamber was empty. Cushions from the divan were strewn on the floor. Yasmeena was not to be seen.
Gordon stood like a statue in the center of the room, his scimitar in his hand. The blue sheen of the light on steel was no more deadly than the glitter on his black eyes. His gaze swept the room, lingering no longer on a slight bulge in the hangings on the rear wall than anywhere else.
He turned toward the door, took a step--then wheeled and raced across the chamber like a gust of wind, slashing and hacking at the tapestry before the man hiding there realized he was discovered. The keen edge ribboned the velvet arras and blood spurted; out of the tatters a figure toppled to the floor--a shaven monk, literally cut to pieces. He had dropped his knife and could only grovel and moan, clutching at his spurting arteries.
"Where is she?" snarled Gordon, panting with passion as he crouched over his hideous handiwork. "Where is she?"
But the man only whimpered and yammered and died without speaking.
Gordon ran to the walls and began ripping the hangings away. Somewhere he knew there must be a secret door. But the walls showed blank, resisting his most violent efforts. He could not follow Yasmeena by the route her abductors had obviously carried her. He must escape the city and hasten to the cave, where the servants were hidden, and to which the Englishmen would undoubtedly return. He was sweating with the violence of his rage, which almost submerged caution. He ripped off the camel's hair robe, feeling in his frenzy that it cramped and hampered him.
But the action brought a thought born of cold reason. The garments of the senseless monks in the corridor below would furnish him with a disguise which would aid him to pass unhindered through the temple, where he knew scores of shaven-headed murderers were hunting him.
He ran silently from the chamber, passed the sprawling corpse, rounded the turn of the stair--then he stopped short. The lower corridor was a blaze of light, and at the foot of the stairs stood a mass of monks, holding torches and swords. He saw rifles in the hands of a dozen.
Details sprang out in startling clarity in the instant that the monks yelled and raised their rifles. Beyond them he saw a round-faced slant-eyed girl crouching by the wall. She grasped a rope which hung down the wall and jerked, and Gordon felt the stairs give way beneath him. The rifles roared in a ragged volley as he shot down the black opening which gaped beneath his feet, and the bullets whined over his head. A fierce cry of triumph rose from the monks.