- Text Font:
- Text Size:
- Line Height:
- Line Break Height:
I spat several times, trying to clear the foul taste from my mouth. The memory of it was more overwhelming than the lingering flavor, and my stomach rolled. The palm of my right hand was slick with blood. I cautiously explored the bite with my fingertips, counting seven puncture wounds in all, three on top, four on the bottom. My first task was to control the bleeding: The doctor had said their sense of smell was acute. I shrugged out of my jacket, removed my shirt, and wrapped it several times around my arm. Then slowly and clumsily, like a child first learning to dress, I slipped the jacket back on.
So far so good, I told myself, to rally my flagging spirits. That’s two notches in your belt, and all in one night. Now up to the den. You’ll find some way back to the others. Courage, Will Henry, courage! You can stay here and bleed to death, or you can pick yourself up and find your way back. Now, which will it be, Will Henry?
I crawled forward until my hand touched the body of my victim. I hopped over it and then got to my feet and began the ascent, left arm pressed into my stomach, right outstretched to feel the wall. I stepped as lightly as I could, breathing shallowly, forcing myself to take it slow, stopping now and then to bend my ear to the dark, listening for any sound that might betray an Anthropophagus’s presence. I had no idea how far I had fallen down the shaft; it seemed, as I’ve said, that it had taken as long as Lucifer fell. Time passes differently when one of your senses is stripped from you, and all else is magnified by the other senses: every breath is thundering, every scraping, scratching step booms a cannonade. I could smell his blood, and my own. The pain in my arm was excruciating. The taste of his infection burned on my tongue.
On I trudged, on and on, ever upward, yet coming no closer to the goal. At times my right hand slipped into open space, a connecting tunnel or perhaps a natural cleft formed by a more benign force of nature. In the commotion of our fall, had we somehow ended up in a secondary branch of the main thoroughfare, and was I now off-course, blindly proceeding from darkness into darkness, hopelessly lost?
Surely, I thought, coming to a halt, leaning dizzily against the cool, moist rock, surely I would have reached the starting place by now. How much time had passed? How long had I been marching, and what now was I marching toward? The thought paralyzed me. Then I thought, Well, that might very well be the case, Will, but you’re still going up, and up is the direction you want to go. Perhaps that tunnel led straight to the surface. Was it still raining? I wondered. Oh, to feel the rain upon my face! To breathe the sweet draft of cool spring air to the very bottom of my lungs! The longing was nearly as unbearable as the pain.
So I soldiered on inside that lightless labyrinth, clinging to the logic of my choice-that moving up meant getting out-and to the memory of rain and sunlight and warm breeze and all such comforting things. Those memories seemed to belong to a different time, to an era long since passed, even to a different person; I felt as if I had absconded with the memories of another boy in another time and place, a boy who was not lost and fighting mindless panic and heart-stopping dread.
For now it was unmistakable: The floor had leveled off. I was no longer moving upward. I had somehow taken a wrong turn.
I stopped walking. I leaned against the wall. I cradled my wounded arm. It throbbed in time with my heartbeat. Besides my heightened respirations there was no sound. There was no light. Every instinct urged for me to cry for help, to scream at the top of my lungs. I had no idea how much time had passed since I had stumbled into the den, but surely the doctor and the others had dug their way through the barricade by now. They had to be somewhere, perhaps somewhere close by, around the next bend (if there was a next bend), their lights just outside my range of vision. It would be insanely risky-idiotic, really-to announce my presence, for the odds were just as good that she was around the next bend. Or were the odds that good? Kearns had said she would take her young to the deepest part of her lair, and it had been no illusion that, up to now, I had been climbing, not descending. Did not that mean the odds were better that I was closer to my companions than to her? And that the real risk lay in holding my silence, stumbling around in the dark for untold hours until dehydration and exhaustion overcame me, if I didn’t bleed to death first?
So the debate raged within, to call for help or to remain silent, and the seconds turned to minutes, and each minute tugged the straitjacket of indecision and paralysis tighter.
My fortitude gave way. I was but a boy, you’ll recall; a boy who had been in his share of tight spots and dire straits, to be sure, a boy who had seen things that would make a grown man blanch, but still a boy, still but a child. I slid down the wall and rested my forehead against my upraised knees. I closed my eyes and prayed. My father had not been a particularly religious man; aspects of the divine he had entrusted to my mother’s care. She had prayed with me every night and had taken me to church every Sunday, to instill a bit of piety in me, but I had inherited my father’s indifference to religion and had gone through the motions of devotion without much conviction. A prayer was mere words repeated by rote. When I arrived at the doctor’s house, of course, all churchgoing and prayer had come to an abrupt halt, and I did not pine over the loss.
But now I prayed. I prayed until I ran out of words, and then I prayed with my entire being, a prayer not composed of words but out of the profound, wordless longing of my soul.
It was while I was thus employed, my eyes clenched tightly shut, rocking back and forth in rhythm to the roiling of my harrowed mind, that a voice spoke out of the darkness. It was not, as I first assumed in my distress, the voice of the one to whom we pray. A million miles from it!
“Well, well. What have we here?”
I raised my head and shielded my smarting eyes against the light in his hand. As bright as a thousand suns, it blinded me. He took my elbow and helped me to my feet.
“The little lost lamb is found,” whispered Kearns.
As it happened, I had succumbed to despair but a dozen yards from deliverance, a connecting passage that was, Kearns informed me, only a short hike from the Anthropophagi’s den.
“You’re a lucky assistant-apprentice monstrumologist, Will,” he informed me with his characteristic playfulness. “I almost shot you.”
“Where are the others?” I asked.
“There are two main arteries leading from their nesting chamber; Malachi and Warthrop took one, and I took the other, the same you took, obviously, but what has happened to your arm?”
I related my adventures since my precipitous fall into the heart of their lair. Kearns expressed admiration for my pluck in dispatching the wounded juvenile. He seemed surprised by my grace under pressure.
“Splendid. Absolutely splendid! Bloody good work, Will! Pellinore will be overjoyed. He was quite beside himself when you didn’t come back. Positively frantic. I’d never seen a man wield a shovel like that. Digging in another direction, he would have reached China in an hour! But here, let’s have a look at that arm.”
He unwrapped the makeshift bandage. Tacky with blood, the last bit of fabric stuck to my arm, and I winced from the pain. The bites still oozed blood. He draped the bloody shirt over my shoulder and said, “Best to let it breathe a bit, Will. We don’t want to risk an infection.”
With a hand on the small of my back, he urged me to the entrance of the tunnel leading out. “Look down,” he said. A powdery starburst glowed upon the floor in the light of his lamp.
“What is that?” I asked.
“Crumbs, Will Henry, marking the way home!”
It was the contents of the small paper packets he had packed into their canvas bags, a phosphorescent powder that shone like a tiny beacon in the lamplight.
“You’ll find one every twenty yards or so,” he instructed. “Keep to the path. Don’t turn back. If somehow you get lost, backtrack until you pick it up again. Here, take the lamp.”
“You’re not coming with me?” My heart began to flutter.
“I’ve monsters to hunt, remember?”
“But you’ll need the lamp.”
“Don’t worry about me. I have the flares in a pinch. Oh, and I believe you dropped this.”
It was the doctor’s revolver. He pressed it into my hand. “Don’t fire until you see the black of their eyes.” His gray eyes danced merrily at the joke. “Around seven hundred steps in all, Will.”
“Perhaps a bit more for you; your legs aren’t quite as long as mine. About four hundred steps, then turn right into the main passage. Don’t miss the turn-very important! The way tends downward for a bit, but don’t despair. It will start to go up again. When you get back up to the top, tell the constable I miss him terribly. That button nose. That winsome smile. If we haven’t come up in two hours, have him and his men come down. These beasties have been busy digging in the dark and we may need the other men’s help. Good luck to you, junior monstrumologist. Good luck and God bless!”
With that he turned on his heel and evaporated like a ghost from the lamplight, his footfalls fading fast. He did not seem fazed journeying on in without a light. Indeed, he gave the impression that the prospect delighted him: John Kearns was a man at home in the dark.
How quickly can despair turn to joy! My spirits were brighter than the little light aloft in my hand, my heart higher; I could already smell freedom’s sweet fragrance, taste its ambrosial flavor. In the ecstasy attending this answered prayer for deliverance, I forgot to count my steps, remembering too late for counting to do any good, but it hardly seemed important. The trail was well-marked with the glowing powder.
I reached the turn Kearns had marked, the tunnel that would lead me back to the abandoned nests of the Anthropophagi and from there to Morgan’s “winsome” smile. I paused for a moment in puzzlement, for two ways had been marked-one into the intersecting passage and another straight ahead, continuing along the path upon which I trod. Well, thought I, he must have turned right first, went a little ways, then backtracked, finding the way blocked, or perhaps hearing the forlorn cries of a wounded “junior monstrumologist.” His instructions had been explicit. Don’t miss the turn-very important! So with a shrug I ducked into the opening. If there were seven hundred steps in all and the first leg was four hundred, then this last stretch was three, and I began to count.
The tunnel was narrower, the ceiling much lower; several times I was forced to lower my head or shuffle forward doubled over, the bottom of the lamp scraping the floor. The passage was tortuously serpentine, twisting and turning this way and that, the way sloped and slippery, tending ever downward, as he had promised.
Upon the hundredth step I heard something make a sound behind me-or I thought it was behind me. In those cramped confines it was hard to tell. I stopped. I held my breath. Nothing. Just the falling of dirt and pebbles dislodged by my passing, I surmised, nothing more. I started forward again and resumed the count.
Seventy steps later I heard it again, definitely coming from behind me and almost certainly a portion of the tunnel giving way. I listened carefully, but all I could hear was the soft hissing of the lamp. I checked the safety on the revolver. My nerves were jangled, naturally, from the night’s ordeal, and my imagination afire with visions of pale, headless devils dwelling in the dark, yet my good sense was not entirely confounded. Either I was being followed or I wasn’t. If I was, confronting my stalker in this claustrophobic circumstance-the tunnel could not have been much more than four feet around by this point-would be folly. If I wasn’t, I gained nothing but delay by these fearful halts. Onward!