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“I would gladly volunteer,” rejoined Kearns easily. “But the circumstances no longer, I think, demand it.” He grabbed the lamp from the doctor’s hand and strode away, his boots squishing in the muddy ground, the heels sinking a good half inch before popping free. When he reached the wall, he turned and gestured for us to join him.
He placed a finger to his lips, then pointed down. A small opening, about twice the width of my shoulders, lay at the base of the wall. He held the lamp close to its jagged mouth while we peered down its murky throat. The passage ran downward at a forty-five-degree angle from the chamber floor. With little jabs of his finger Kearns pointed out the footprints clustered around the wall and the shallow cuts and gouges caused by their nails along the first few feet of the tunnel.
We withdrew to a safe distance, and Kearns said in a soft voice, “Two distinct sets-yes, Pellinore?” The doctor nodded, and Kearns went on. “A cub and a mature female. Two going in and none coming out again. Why she took one and left the others is a curiosity, but undeniably that is what she did. Perhaps these two”-he jerked his head toward the dead Anthropophagi-“wandered back up here for some reason, though the prints don’t substantiate that scenario. There are only two possibilities as I see it: It may lead to another, deeper chamber or it may be an escape route that eventually returns to the surface; there’s only way to find out. Agreed, Pellinore?”
The doctor nodded reluctantly. “Agreed.”
“And if they haven’t escaped to the surface, the ruckus up here will have alerted her to our proximity. She is, no doubt, expecting us.”
“That’s fine with me,” said Malachi, grimly gripping his gun. “I won’t disappoint her.”
“You are staying here,” said Kearns.
“I don’t take orders from you,” Malachi sneered.
“All right,” Kearns said mildly. “Take them from Pellinore if you wish. We need someone to stay here and guard the exit-and keep an eye on Will Henry, of course.”
“I didn’t come all this way to be a nursemaid!” cried Malachi. He appealed to Warthrop, “Please. It is my right.”
“Really? How do you mean?” interjected Kearns. “It wasn’t personal, you know. They were hungry and needed to eat. What do you do when you’re hungry?”
Warthrop laid a hand upon Malachi’s shoulder. “ Kearns must go; he is the expert tracker. And I must go, for if anyone has earned the “right,” it is I.” I remembered the haunting question posed in the basement as he considered her mate hanging before him. I wonder if she would be satisfied with his son. “Another must stay, in the event she somehow escapes and returns here. Would you have it be Will Henry? Look at him, Malachi; he’s just a boy.”
His startlingly blue eyes fell upon my face, and I turned away from the unbearable torment I saw within them.
“I can do it,” I offered. “I’ll guard the exit. Take Malachi with you.”
I was ignored, of course. Malachi watched glumly as the doctor and Kearns doubled-checked their ammunition and supplies. Kearns took two flares and several of the paper sacks used for trail marking from the doctor’s bag and dropped them into his, and examined their grenades to be certain they were in working order. The doctor took me aside and said, “There is something that feels wrong about this, Will Henry, though I can’t put my finger on it. She wouldn’t back herself into a corner-she is far too clever for that. Neither would she willingly abandon two of her young to our mercy. It is exceedingly curious. Keep a sharp eye and call out at once should you see or hear anything out of the ordinary.”
He squeezed my arm and added sternly, “And for God’s sake, don’t wander off this time! I expect you to be here when I return, Will Henry.”
“Yes, sir,” I said, trying my best to sound brave.
“I will try to be, sir.”
With heavy heart I watched him walk with Kearns to the narrow aperture. Something nagged at me. There was something I needed to ask him, something important, something I should remember but was forgetting.
“How long should we wait?” called Malachi.
“Wait for what?” Kearns asked.
“How long should we wait before coming after you?”
Kearns shook his head. “Don’t come after us.”
At the wall Kearns made a grand, sweeping gesture, extending the honor of going first to the monstrumologist. A moment later they were gone, the gentle glow of their lamp fading quickly as they slid out of sight in pursuit of the matriarch and the last of her brood.
Malachi did not speak for several moments. He walked over to the felled Anthropophagi and poked the one shot twice in the back with the muzzle of his rifle. “That’s mine there,” he said, pointing to the blackened hole in the middle of its back. “The second shot-the killing shot.”
“Then you saved my life,” I said.
“Do you think it works that way, Will? Now I have only five more for which to atone?”
“You couldn’t help them,” I offered. “You were trapped in your room. And you couldn’t help Elizabeth, either, not really. How could you have saved her, Malachi?”
He didn’t answer. “It feels like a dream,” he said instead, after a pensive pause. He was looking at the body lying at his feet. “Not this. My life before this, before them. You would think the opposite would be true. It’s very strange, Will.”
He told me what had happened after I’d last seen him in the passage connecting the devil’s manger to the nesting chamber, confirming at least part of Kearns ’s rendition. They had indeed discovered two main arteries whose directions seemed to tend downward. He and the doctor had taken one and Kearns the other-apparently the one into which the abandoned Anthropophagus and I had tumbled. I suspected Kearns, the expert tracker, had noted the signs of our scuffle and knew-but did not tell the others-precisely where I had gone, choosing not to inform them of this intelligence.
The passage, Malachi related, connected to countless others, and at each branch or juncture they chose the downward path. Halfway to this final hiding place, he surmised, the doctor stumbled upon her trail, fresh tracks left in the moist soil, and they followed them until they reached the chamber in which we now waited for the doctor’s return.
“It came out over there,” he said, pointing to a spot in the shadows directly across from the bodies. “We knew Kearns must have found it first, for we saw the light within and heard the sound of gunfire. But I never expected you would be here, Will.”
“Neither did I.”
He leaned on his rifle, and his weight forced its butt to slowly sink into the soft soil. He lifted it out and watched water seep into the indenture.
“The ground here is very wet,” he observed. “And the walls weep. There must be an underground stream or river close by.”
He was right: There was a stream. It ran roughly perpendicular to the cave, twenty feet or so below us, and in the spring it swelled to nearly twice its normal size. Each season its swath widened, as the water cut and chewed its confining walls; every year the very floor upon which we stood became more saturated and unstable. The Anthropophagi had discovered it; it was their primary source for freshwater and why their young had no need to venture to the surface in search of that necessity. The path taken by Kearns and Warthrop led directly to a hollow by its banks, where the creatures went to drink and bathe-though they do not bathe in the way we think of bathing. They are not swimmers and are terrified of deep water, but they are compelled, like the raccoon, to wash the gore and offal from their long nails. They also enjoy (if “enjoy” might be used to describe it) sliding on their backs into the shallows, letting the water pour into their open mouths, and then spinning and twisting their bodies, chomping the frothing water like a crocodile in a death roll. The purpose of this odd ritual is not known, but might be, like the picking of one another’s teeth, part of their hygienic regimen.
It was to the protected banks of this subterranean stream that she had taken the one-year-old “toddler,” the youngest and most vulnerable of her brood. As the doctor had pointed out, her leaving its older siblings behind was exceedingly curious, but I suspect she had meant to return for them, or they, in their confusion and fear, had refused to follow her. Whatever the case, it was this sequestered youngster they found upon the final turn of their final descent, mewling and snarling at the edge of the life-giving water, unable to flee or defend itself. At that age Anthropophagi, like their prey of the same age, cannot walk with any efficiency. Kearns went right up to it and killed it with a single shot.
The shot echoed up to us, and Malachi stiffened at the sound, raising his rifle and turning toward the passage’s mouth. In the hollow below us the hunters waited, knowing she had to be hiding somewhere close, and certain she would come out.
And they were right; she did come out.
She had returned to fetch her other children. Kearns and the doctor had not encountered her on their way down because she had taken a different path, a path that ran directly beneath Malachi Stinnet’s feet.
Behind him the ground burst open in an explosion of water and mud. The floor gave way and he lost his balance, falling forward onto his knees, losing his rifle when he did, the canvas tote slipping from his shoulder as he caught himself from landing face-first in the mud. He slid backward in the muck toward the widening rent in the chamber floor, the expression in his beautiful eyes horribly familiar to me. I had seen it before, in the eyes of Erasmus Gray and in the eyes of my poor father: the grotesquely comical look of the doomed when their damnation is inescapably upon them.
His fingers cut furrows in the wet earth; his legs kicked helplessly. His ankles vanished into the swirling maelstrom in the middle of the muddy whirlpool behind him, and then something caught his boot and yanked him. In a trice he was sucked down to his knees.
He screamed my name. His body was spun round like a top, whipping his head about with such force I was certain he must have broken his neck. He was upright now, with only his writhing torso visible, stretching his arms beseechingly toward me as Erasmus had, as my father had, and this soundless supplication broke my paralysis. I lunged forward, reached for him. “Grab hold, Malachi! Grab hold!” He slapped my hand away and gestured violently toward the bag that lay beside me. He sank to his chest in the roiling surface, borne down by the same beast that had punched her fist through the chest of the navigator Burns aboard the Feronia, and blood gushed from his gaping mouth. She had rammed her claws into the small of his back and wrapped them around his spinal column, using it as a kind of handle to pull him down.
I had misread Malachi’s true desire, which had nothing to do with rescue. Unlike Erasmus and my father, Malachi did not want deliverance. He had never wanted it. It was too late for that.
Again he frantically jabbed his finger at the bag. I picked it up and flung it into his arms, and in mute dismay watched him pull out a grenade. He clutched it to his chest, hooked his finger through the pin, and then with bloodstained teeth Malachi Stinnet smiled triumphantly at me.