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The Thing in the Attic

5th October 2017
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Luckily, on the higher ground there was much more cover from low-growing shrubs and trees—palmetto, sassafras, several kinds of laurel, magnolia, and a great many sedges. Up here, too, the endless jungle began to break around the bases of the great pink cliffs. Overhead were welcome vistas of open sky, sketchily crossed by woven bridges leading from the vine-world to the cliffs themselves. In the intervening columns of blue air a whole hierarchy of flying creatures ranked themselves, layer by layer. First, the low-flying beetles, bees and two-winged insects. Next were the dragonflies which hunted them, some with wingspreads as wide as two feet. Then the lizard-birds, hunting the dragonflies and anything else that could he nipped without fighting back. And at last, far above, the great gliding reptiles coasting along the brows of the cliffs, riding the rising currents of air, their long-jawed hunger stalking anything that flew—as they sometimes stalked the birds of the attic world, and the flying fish along the breast of the distant sea.

The party halted in an especially thick clump of sedges. Though the rain continued to fall, harder than ever, they were all desperately thirsty. They had yet to find a single bromelaid: evidently the tank-plants did not grow in Hell. Cupping their hands to the weeping sky accumulated surprisingly little water; and no puddles large enough to drink from accumulated on the sand. But at least, here under the open sky, there was too much fierce struggle in the air to allow the lizard-birds to congregate and squall about their hiding place.

The white sun had already set and the red sun’s vast arc still bulged above the horizon. In the lurid glow the rain looked like blood, and the seamed faces of the pink cliffs had all but vanished. Honath peered dubiously out from under the sedges at the still distant escarpments.

“I don’t see how we can hope to climb those,” he said, in a low voice. “That kind of limestone crumbles as soon as you touch it, otherwise we’d have had better luck with our war against the cliff tribe.”

“We could go around the cliffs,” Charl said. “The foothills of the Great Range aren’t very steep. If we could last until we get to them, we could go on up into the Range itself.”

“To the volcanoes!” Mathild protested. “But nothing can live up there, nothing but the white fire-things. And there are the lava-flows, too, and the choking smoke—”

“Well, we can’t climb these cliffs. Honath’s quite right,” Alaskon said. “And we can’t climb the Basalt Steppes, either—there’s nothing to eat along them, let alone any water or cover. I don’t see what else we can do but try to get up into the foothills.”

“Can’t we stay here?” Mathild said plaintively.

“No,” Honath said, even more gently than he had intended. Mathild’s four words were, he knew, the most dangerous words in Hell—he knew it quite surely, because of the imprisoned creature inside him that cried out to say “Yes” instead. “We have to get out of the country of the demons. And maybe—just maybe—if we can cross the Great Range, we can join a tribe that hasn’t heard about our being condemned to Hell. There are supposed to be tribes on the other side of the Range, but the cliff people would never let our folk get through to them. That’s on our side now.”

“That’s true,” Alaskon said, brightening a little. “And from the top of the Range, we could come down into another tribe—instead of trying to climb up into their village out of Hell. Honath, I think it might work.”

“Then we’d better try to sleep right here and now,” Charl said. “It seems safe enough. If we’re going to skirt the cliffs and climb those foothills, we’ll need all the strength we’ve got left.”

Honath was about to protest, but he was suddenly too tired to care. Why not sleep it over? And if in the night they were found and taken—well, that would at least put an end to the struggle.

It was a cheerless and bone-damp bed to sleep in, but there was no alternative. They curled up as best they could. Just before he was about to drop off at last, Honath heard Mathild whimpering to herself and, on impulse, crawled over to her and began to smooth down her fur with his tongue. To his astonishment each separate, silky hair was loaded with dew. Long before the girl had curled herself more tightly and her complaints had dwindled into sleepy murmurs, Honath’s thirst was assuaged. He reminded himself to mention the method in the morning.

But when the white sun finally came up, there was no time to think of thirst. Charl the Reader was gone. Something had plucked him from their huddled midst as neatly as a fallen breadfruit—and had dropped his cleaned ivory skull just as negligently, some two hundred feet farther on up the slope which led toward the pink cliffs.

Late that afternoon, the three found the blue, turbulent stream flowing out of the foothills of the Great Range. Not even Alaskon knew quite what to make of it. It looked like water, but it flowed like the rivers of lava that crept downward from the volcanoes. Whatever else it could be, obviously it wasn’t water; water stood, it never flowed. It was possible to imagine a still body of water as big as this, but only in a moment of fancy, an exaggeration derived from the known bodies of water in the tank-plants. But this much water in motion? It suggested pythons; it was probably poisonous. It did not occur to any of them to drink from it. They were afraid even to touch it, let alone cross it, for it was almost surely as hot as the other kinds of lava-rivers. They followed its course cautiously into the foothills, their throats as dry and gritty as the hollow stems of horsetails.

Except for the thirst—which was in an inverted sense their friend, insofar as it overrode the hunger—the climbing was not difficult. It was only circuitous, because of the need to stay under cover, to reconnoiter every few yards, to choose the most sheltered course rather than the most direct. By an unspoken consent, none of the three mentioned Charl, but their eyes were constantly darting from side to side, searching for a glimpse of the thing that had taken him.

That was perhaps the worst, the most terrifying part of the tragedy: not once, since they had been in Hell, had they actually seen a demon—or even any animal as large as a man. The enormous, three-taloned footprint they had found in the sand beside their previous night’s bed—the spot where the thing had stood, looking down at the four sleepers from above, coldly deciding which of them to seize—was the only evidence they had that they were now really in the same world with the demons. The world of the demons they had sometimes looked down upon from the remote vine-webs.

The footprint—and the skull.

By nightfall, they had ascended perhaps a hundred and fifty feet. It was difficult to judge distances in the twilight, and the token vine bridges from the attic world to the pink cliffs were now cut off from sight by the intervening masses of the cliffs themselves. But there was no possibility that they could climb higher today. Although Mathild had born the climb surprisingly well, and Honath himself still felt almost fresh, Alaskon was completely winded. He had taken a bad cut on one hip from a serrated spike of volcanic glass against which he had stumbled. The wound, bound with leaves to prevent its leaving a spoor which might be followed, evidently was becoming steadily more painful.

Honath finally called a halt as soon as they reached the little ridge with the cave in back of it. Helping Alaskon over the last boulders, he was astonished to discover how hot the navigator’s hands were. He took him back into the cave and then came out onto the ledge again.

“He’s really sick,” he told Mathild in a low voice. “He needs water, and another dressing for that cut. And we’ve got to get both for him somehow. If we ever get to the jungle on the other side of the Range, we’ll need a navigator even worse than we need a needlesmith.”

“But how? I could dress the cut if I had the materials, Honath. But there’s no water up here. It’s a desert; we’ll never get across it.”

“We’ve got to try. I can get him water, I think. There was a big cycladella on the slope we came up, just before we passed that obsidian spur that hurt Alaskon. Gourds that size usually have a fair amount of water inside them and I can use a piece of the spur to rip it open—”

A small hand came out of the darkness and took him tightly by the elbow. “Honath, you can’t go back down there. Suppose the demon that—that took Charl is still following us? They hunt at night—and this country is all so strange….”

“I can find my way. I’ll follow the sound of the stream of blue lava or whatever it is. You pull some fresh leaves for Alaskon and try to make him comfortable. Better loosen those vines around the dressing a little. I’ll be back.”

He touched her hand and pried it loose gently. Then, without stopping to think about it any further, he slipped off the ledge and edged toward the sound of the stream, travelling crabwise on all fours.

But he was swiftly lost. The night was thick and completely impenetrable, and he found that the noise of the stream seemed to come from all sides, providing him no guide at all. Furthermore, his memory of the ridge which led up to the cave appeared to be faulty, for he could feel it turning sharply to the right beneath him, though he remembered distinctly that it had been straight past the first side-branch, and then had gone to the left. Or had he passed the first side-branch in the dark without seeing it? He probed the darkness cautiously with one hand.

At the same instant, a brisk, staccato gust of wind came whirling up out of the night across the ridge. Instinctively, Honath shifted his weight to take up the flexing of the ground beneath him.

He realized his error instantly and tried to arrest the complex set of motions, but a habit-pattern so deeply ingrained could not be frustrated completely. Overwhelmed with vertigo, Honath grappled at the empty air with hands, feet and tail and went toppling.

An instant later, with a familiar noise and an equally familiar cold shock that seemed to reach throughout his body, he was sitting in the midst of—

Water. Icy water. Water that rushed by him improbably with a menacing, monkeylike chattering, but water all the same.

It was all he could do to repress a hoot of hysteria. He hunkered down into the stream and soaked himself. Things nibbled delicately at his calves as he bathed, but he had no reason to fear fish, small species of which often showed up in the tanks of the bromelaids. After lowering his muzzle to the rushing, invisible surface and drinking his fill, he dunked himself completely and then clambered out onto the banks, carefully neglecting to shake himself.

Getting back to the ledge was much less difficult. “Mathild?” he called in a hoarse whisper. “Mathild, we’ve got water.”

“Come in here quick then. Alaskon’s worse. I’m afraid, Honath.”

Dripping, Honath felt his way into the cave. “I don’t have any container. I just got myself wet—you’ll have to sit him up and let him lick my fur.”

“I’m not sure he can.”

But Alaskon could, feebly, but sufficiently. Even the coldness of the water—a totally new experience for a man who had never drunk anything but the soup-warm contents of the bromelaids—seemed to help him. He lay back at last, and said in a weak but otherwise normal voice: “So the stream was water after all.”

“Yes,” Honath said. “And there are fish in it, too.”

“Don’t talk,” Mathild said. “Rest, Alaskon.”

“I’m resting. Honath, if we stick to the course of the stream…. Where was I? Oh. We can follow the stream through the Range, now that we know it’s water. How did you find that out?”

“I lost my balance and fell into it.”

Alaskon chuckled. “Hell’s not so bad, is it?” he said. Then he sighed, and rushes creaked under him.

“Mathild! What’s the matter? Is he—did he die?”

“No … no. He’s breathing. He’s still sicker than he realizes, that’s all…. Honath—if they’d known, up above, how much courage you have—”

“I was scared white,” Honath said grimly. “I’m still scared.”

But her hand touched his again in the solid blackness, and after he had taken it, he felt irrationally cheerful. With Alaskon breathing so raggedly behind them, there was little chance that either of them would be able to sleep that night; but they sat silently together on the hard stone in a kind of temporary peace. When the mouth of the cave began to outline itself with the first glow of the red sun, they looked at each other in a conspiracy of light all their own.

Let us unlearn everything we knew only by rote, go back to the beginning, learn all over again, and continue to learn….

With the first light of the white sun, a half-grown megatherium cub rose slowly from its crouch at the mouth of the cave and stretched luxuriously, showing a full set of saber-like teeth. It looked at them steadily for a moment, its ears alert, then turned and loped away down the slope.

How long it had been crouched there listening to them, it was impossible to know. They had been lucky that they had stumbled into the lair of a youngster. A full-grown animal would have killed them all, within a few seconds after its cat’s-eyes had collected enough dawn to identify them positively. The cub, since it had no family of its own, evidently had only been puzzled to find its den occupied and didn’t want to quarrel about it.

The departure of the big cat left Honath frozen, not so much frightened as simply stunned by so unexpected an end to the vigil. At the first moan from Alaskon, however, Mathild was up and walking softly to the navigator, speaking in a low voice, sentences which made no particular sense and perhaps were not intended to. Honath stirred and followed her.

Halfway back into the cave, his foot struck something and he looked down. It was the thigh-bone of some medium-large animal, imperfectly cleaned and not very recent. It looked like a keepsake the megatherium had hoped to save from the usurpers of its lair. Along a curved inner surface there was a patch of thick grey mold. Honath squatted and peeled it off carefully.

“Mathild, we can put this over the wound,” he said. “Some molds help prevent wounds from festering…. How is he?”

“Better, I think,” Mathild murmured. “But he’s still feverish. I don’t think we’ll be able to move on today.”

Honath was unsure whether to be pleased or disturbed. Certainly he was far from anxious to leave the cave, where they seemed at least to be reasonably comfortable. Possibly they would also be reasonably safe, for the low-roofed hole almost surely still smelt of megatherium, and intruders would recognize the smell—as the men from the attic world could not—and keep their distance. They would have no way of knowing that the cat had only been a cub and that it had vacated the premises, though of course the odor would fade before long.

Yet it was important to move on, to cross the Great Range if possible, and in the end to wind their way back to the world where they belonged. And to win vindication, no matter how long it took. Even should it prove relatively easy to survive in Hell—and there were few signs of that, thus far—the only proper course was to fight until the attic world was totally regained. After all, it would have been the easy and the comfortable thing, back there at the very beginning, to have kept one’s incipient heresies to oneself and remained on comfortable terms with one’s neighbors. But Honath had spoken up, and so had the rest of them, in their fashions.

It was the ancient internal battle between what Honath wanted to do, and what he knew he ought to do. He had never heard of Kant and the Categorical Imperative, but he knew well enough which side of his nature would win in the long run. But it had been a cruel joke of heredity which had fastened a sense of duty onto a lazy nature. It made even small decisions egregiously painful.

But for the moment at least, the decision was out of his hands. Alaskon was too sick to be moved. In addition, the strong beams of sunlight which had been glaring in across the floor of the cave were dimming by the instant, and there was a distant, premonitory growl of thunder.

“Then we’ll stay here,” he said. “It’s going to rain again, and hard this time. Once it’s falling in earnest, I can go out and pick us some fruit—it’ll screen me even if anything is prowling around in it. And I won’t have to go as far as the stream for water, as long as the rain keeps up.”

The rain, as it turned out, kept up all day, in a growing downpour which completely curtained the mouth of the cave by early afternoon. The chattering of the nearby stream grew quickly to a roar.

By evening, Alaskon’s fever seemed to have dropped almost to normal, and his strength nearly returned as well. The wound, thanks more to the encrusted matte of mold than to any complications within the flesh itself, was still ugly-looking, but it was now painful only when the navigator moved carelessly, and Mathild was convinced that it was mending. Alaskon himself, having been deprived of activity all day, was unusually talkative.

“Has it occurred to either of you,” he said in the gathering gloom, “that since that stream is water, it can’t possibly be coming from the Great Range? All the peaks over there are just cones of ashes and lava. We’ve seen young volcanoes in the process of building themselves, so we’re sure of that. What’s more, they’re usually hot. I don’t see how there could possibly be any source of water in the Range—not even run-off from the rains.”

“It can’t just come up out of the ground,” Honath said. “It must be fed by rain. By the way it sounds now, it could even be the first part of a flood.”

“As you say, it’s probably rain-water,” Alaskon said cheerfully. “But not off the Great Range, that’s out of the question. Most likely it collects on the cliffs.”

“I hope you’re wrong,” Honath said. “The cliffs may be a little easier to climb from this side, but there’s still the cliff tribe to think about.”

“Maybe, maybe. But the cliffs are big. The tribes on this side may never have heard of the war with our tree-top folk. No, Honath, I think that’s our only course.”

“If it is,” Honath said grimly, “we’re going to wish more than ever that we had some stout, sharp needles among us.”

Alaskon’s judgment was quickly borne out. The three left the cave at dawn the next morning, Alaskon moving somewhat stiffly but not otherwise noticeably incommoded, and resumed following the stream bed upwards—a stream now swollen by the rains to a roaring rapids. After winding its way upwards for about a mile in the general direction of the Great Range, the stream turned on itself and climbed rapidly back toward the basalt cliffs, falling toward the three over successively steeper shelves of jutting rock.

Then it turned again, at right angles, and the three found themselves at the exit of a dark gorge, little more than thirty feet high, but both narrow and long. Here the stream was almost perfectly smooth, and the thin strip of land on each side of it was covered with low shrubs. They paused and looked dubiously into the canyon. It was singularly gloomy.

“There’s plenty of cover, at least,” Honath said in a low voice. “But almost anything could live in a place like that.”

“Nothing very big could hide in it,” Alaskon pointed out. “It should be safe. Anyhow it’s the only way to go.”

“All right. Let’s go ahead, then. But keep your head down, and be ready to jump!”

Honath lost the other two by sight as soon as they crept into the dark shrubbery, but he could hear their cautious movements nearby. Nothing else in the gorge seemed to move at all, not even the water, which flowed without a ripple over an invisible bed. There was not even any wind, for which Honath was grateful, although he had begun to develop an immunity to the motionless ground beneath them.

After a few moments, Honath heard a low whistle. Creeping sidewise toward the source of the sound, he nearly bumped into Alaskon, who was crouched beneath a thickly-spreading magnolia. An instant later, Mathilda’s face peered out of the dim greenery.

“Look,” Alaskon whispered. “What do you make of this?”

‘This’ was a hollow in the sandy soil, about four feet across and rimmed with a low parapet of earth—evidently the same earth that had been scooped out of its center. Occupying most of it were three grey, ellipsoidal objects, smooth and featureless.

“Eggs,” Mathild said wonderingly.

“Obviously. But look at the size of them! Whatever laid them must be gigantic. I think we’re trespassing in something’s private valley.”

Mathild drew in her breath. Honath thought fast, as much to prevent panic in himself as in the girl. A sharp-edged stone lying nearby provided the answer. He seized it and struck.

The outer surface of the egg was leathery rather than brittle; it tore raggedly. Deliberately, Honath bent and put his mouth to the oozing surface.

It was excellent. The flavor was decidedly stronger than that of birds’ eggs, but he was far too hungry to be squeamish. After a moment’s amazement, Alaskon and Mathild attacked the other two ovoids with a will. It was the first really satisfying meal they had had in Hell. When they finally moved away from the devastated nest, Honath felt better than he had since the day he was arrested.

As they moved on down the gorge, they began again to hear the roar of water, though the stream looked as placid as ever. Here, too, they saw the first sign of active life in the valley: a flight of giant dragonflies skimming over the water. The insects took fright as soon as Honath showed himself, but quickly came back, their nearly non-existent brains already convinced that there had always been men in the valley.

The roar got louder very rapidly. When the three rounded the long, gentle turn which had cut off their view from the exit, the source of the roar came into view. It was a sheet of falling water as tall as the depth of the gorge itself, which came arcing out from between two pillars of basalt and fell to a roiling, frothing pool.

“This is as far as we go!” Alaskon said, shouting to make himself heard over the tumult. “We’ll never be able to get up these walls!”

Stunned, Honath looked from side to side. What Alaskon had said was all too obviously true. The gorge evidently had begun life as a layer of soft, partly soluble stone in the cliffs, tilted upright by some volcanic upheaval, and then worn completely away by the rushing stream. Both cliff faces were of the harder rock, and were sheer and as smooth as if they had been polished by hand. Here and there a network of tough vines had begun to climb them, but nowhere did such a network even come close to reaching the top.

Honath turned and looked once more at the great arc of water and spray. If there were only some way to prevent their being forced to retrace their steps—

Abruptly, over the riot of the falls, there was a piercing, hissing shriek. Echoes picked it up and sounded it again and again, all the way up the battlements of the cliffs. Honath sprang straight up in the air and came down trembling, facing away from the pool.

At first he could see nothing. Then, down at the open end of the turn, there was a huge flurry of motion.

A second later, a two-legged, blue-green reptile half as tall as the gorge itself came around the turn in a single bound and lunged violently into the far wall of the valley. It stopped as if momentarily stunned, and the great grinning head turned toward them a face of sinister and furious idiocy.

The shriek set the air to boiling again. Balancing itself with its heavy tail, the beast lowered its head and looked redly toward the falls.

The owner of the robbed nest had come home. They had met a demon of Hell at last.

Honath’s mind at that instant went as white and blank as the under-bark of a poplar. He acted without thinking, without even knowing what he did. When thought began to creep back into his head again, the three of them were standing shivering in semidarkness, watching the blurred shadow of the demon lurching back and forth upon the screen of shining water.

It had been nothing but luck, not foreplanning, to find that there was a considerable space between the back of the falls proper and the blind wall of the canyon. It had been luck, too, which had forced Honath to skirt the pool in order to reach the falls at all, and thus had taken them all behind the silver curtain at the point where the weight of the falling water was too low to hammer them down for good. And it had been the blindest stroke of all that the demon had charged after them directly into the pool, where the deep, boiling water had slowed its thrashing hind legs enough to halt it before it went under the falls, as it had earlier blundered into the hard wall of the gorge.

Not an iota of all this had been in Honath’s mind before he had discovered it to be true. At the moment that the huge reptile had screamed for the second time, he had simply grasped Mathild’s hand and broken for the falls, leaping from low tree to shrub to fern faster than he had ever leapt before. He did not stop to see how well Mathild was keeping up with him, or whether or not Alaskon was following. He only ran. He might have screamed, too; he could not remember.

They stood now, all three of them, wet through, behind the curtain until the shadow of the demon faded and vanished. Finally Honath felt a hand thumping his shoulder, and turned slowly.

Speech was impossible here, but Alaskon’s pointing finger was eloquent enough. Along the back wall of the falls, where centuries of erosion had failed to wear away completely the original soft limestone, there was a sort of serrated chimney, open toward the gorge, which looked as though it could be climbed. At the top of the falls, the water shot out from between the basalt pillars in a smooth, almost solid-looking tube, arching at least six feet before beginning to break into the fan of spray and rainbows which poured down into the gorge. Once the chimney had been climbed, it should be possible to climb out from under the falls without passing through the water again.

And after that—?

Abruptly, Honath grinned. He felt weak all through with reaction, and the face of the demon would probably be grinning in his dreams for a long time to come. But at the same time he could not repress a surge of irrational confidence. He gestured upward jauntily, shook himself, and loped forward into the throat of the chimney.

Hardly more than an hour later they were all standing on a ledge overlooking the gorge, with the waterfall creaming over the brink next to them, only a few yards away. From here, it was evident that the gorge itself was only the bottom of a far greater cleft, a split in the pink-and-grey cliffs as sharp as though it had been riven in the rock by a bolt of sheet lightning. Beyond the basalt pillars from which the fall issued, however, the stream foamed over a long ladder of rock shelves which seemed to lead straight up into the sky.

“That way?” Mathild said.

“Yes, and as fast as possible,” Alaskon said, shading his eyes. “It must be late. I don’t think the light will last much longer.”

“We’ll have to go single file,” Honath added. “And we’d better keep hold of each other’s hands. One slip on those wet steps and—it’s a long way down again.”

Mathild shuddered and took Honath’s hand convulsively. To his astonishment, the next instant she was tugging him toward the basalt pillars.

The irregular patch of deepening violet sky grew slowly as they climbed. They paused often, clinging to the jagged escarpments until their breath came back, and snatching icy water in cupped palms from the stream that fell down the ladder beside them. There was no way to tell how far up into the dusk the way had taken them, but Honath suspected that they were already somewhat above the level of their own vine-web world. The air smelled colder and sharper than it ever had above the jungle.

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