Continued from Part Two
Early the following morning I was awoken by a thundering sound coming from the mouth of the cave. Everyone rushed to see what was happening and we found the entrance was sealed by an avalanche. The landing outside the cave was over thirty feet wide meaning we’d have at least fifteen feet of snow and ice to dig through to clear the breach.
One of the porters said his brother had been outside when the avalanche occurred. There was no sign of him in the first few feet of loose snow. Tanner told us late spring avalanches such as this were not uncommon on mountains such as this and our best course of action was to leave the work of clearing the entrance until we return from our journey. The missing man was either buried beyond our reach and already dead or carried down the mountain with the avalanche. His brother was inconsolable and continued to dig at the massive frozen wall with an ice axe and hand shovel. We left him to it and returned to breakfast and break camp.
Baker and I discussed our situation over cups of black coffee and oatmeal. As we finished he checked to make sure no one was eavesdropping and then confided in me that Dr. Keith had not told the whole truth the night before. Dr. Baker had been chosen for the expedition partly because of his expertise in creating medicinal tinctures from minerals and herbs. Maxwell’s scrolls told of aquatic plants and cave fungi the inhabitants of Atlantis used to extend their lives almost indefinitely. Keith believed much of the island’s early wealth came from trading life-extending elixirs with regional rulers and tribal leaders. This explained why many of the people in the Old Testament lived for hundreds of years while later generations, born after the fall of Atlantis, had normal lifespans. He believed this was the real reason Mr. Norman was with the expedition. He was a man with far fewer days ahead of him than behind and he was painfully aware that all his money could not buy him more time, perhaps, until now.
I told Baker I was beginning to have doubts about Dr. Keith’s motives and was finding his secretiveness unsettling. Clearly Professor Abbasi was no common thief as Keith claimed and his pursuit of Keith’s maps and scrolls was directly related to his membership in the Protectors of Atlas. Keith would have known this when I contacted him, yet he remained silent. Also, I saw a link between Keith expecting to find gold and emeralds in the caves below and the fact Abbasi and his accomplice wore pendants made of gold and emeralds. Baker agreed there was reason for concern but thought there was little we could do now that we were sealed in the caves besides be on our guard.
The steep descent into the interior of the mountain began without fanfare an hour later. Tanner led the group. The native mountaineer and his assistants followed readying the path for the rest of us. We were each roped to a companion for safety and instructed to wear our spiked crampons on our boots until instructed otherwise.
The trek that day was unremarkable until the early afternoon. The air grew warmer and more humid as we descended and soon a soft blue-green glow shown from the crevices below us. We wound our way downward and found bioluminescent fungus lining the cave walls. Closer inspection revealed heretofore undiscovered insects living among the fungus. I was delighted and in a matter of minutes, gathered and cataloged many specimens. Dr. Baker inquired on behalf of the party if I believed the fungus was poisonous and fouling the air. I told him it was unlikely given that it appeared to be the food source for the insects as many of them had taken on its characteristic glow. The party was relieved at this and after a short break, we continued onward and downward.
A few hundred yards further and the caves were so well illuminated that we scarcely needed our torches. Even the dimmest crevices were as bright as if under the radiance of a full moon. The guides in front continued on with their torches burning but the rest of us found having two free hands more beneficial than the additional light.
Around 6:30 PM we made camp on a wide plateau over a gaping chasm. I was assembling my tent when Bowers whistled and shouted for a torch bearer to join him near the ledge. Moments later he called the rest of us over. He was kneeling over a pile of debris and raking through it with a utensil. “Ash, from a campfire,” he said. “Looks recent too. Weeks, maybe months old.”
“Are you certain?” asked Russell. Bowers picked up a blackened lump, snapped it in two and handed it to him. It was clearly some kind of wood.
“May I,” I said. “I studied up on the local flora and fauna on my way to Cyprus.” He handed me the pieces and I examined them in the torchlight. “Pinus Brutia, Turkish pine.” I dug a thumbnail into it. “It’s fresh, certainly no more than a year or two old.” I put it to my nose, “Smells of kerosene, or some other solvent.
“Dr. Keith?” said Bowers looking up at him, “anything you’d care to share with us?”
“Don’t be absurd,” said Keith. “I’m as surprised as any of you.”
“Are you?” said Bowers getting to his feet and dusting off his hands. “Old Tanner here is doing a marvelous job of leading us below. It’s almost like he already knows the way.”
“I’m a professional mountaineer Mr. Bowers,” said Tanner. “Finding the fast, safe path is what I do.”
Bowers shook his head. “I’ve been on climbs before. I’ve never been on one where we didn’t have to double back at least once, and descents are usually harder.”
“Bowers, we have a map. You know that,” said Keith.
“Yes, I’ve seen it,” said Bowers. “It’s not very detailed.” He looked at our native mountaineer. “What about you? You’re from Kuzun, aren’t you? You’d know if anyone came through, poking around the mountain recently.”
“No English,” said the man shaking his head, and he looked at one of the interpreters. The man translated and the mountaineer looked at Keith for a moment. Keith shook his head and the man looked back at Bowers and shrugged.
“Of course,” said Bowers. “Look, I know you’re up to something Dr. Keith, I have for a long time now. You and a few of the others, hell, maybe all of the others, you’ve got your secrets, and your plans.”
Dr. Keith interrupted, “You are mad if you believe…”
“It doesn’t matter. We’re all trapped here now, together, come what may. I just wanted you to know, that I know you’re up to something and you can’t be trusted – wanted everyone to know. Now they do.” Bowers walked back to his tent. Dr. Keith shook his head.
“It could have been anyone a year or two ago,” said Keith. “Strong, you said the wood could be two years old, right? Why would I…” I nodded and he looked around the group. No one spoke. Maxwell was looking away. Norman pulled at his moustache looking from man to man.
A horrible scream came from the cliffs above us, a human scream, and something else then, a bleating, a gurgling. “Farid” Yelled one of the natives getting to his feet. There was a great commotion as men rushed to arm themselves with pistols, ice-axes and knives.
The scream grew into an awful death wail which was choked out by a queer chattering sound. We heard the shrill bleating again and a mewing sound that sent a deathly chill up the spine of every living soul on the plateau. We were frozen there some in shock, others in fear, waiting for the ungodly noise to stop.
I grabbed an elephant gun and torch and called for Drs. Keith and Baker to join me, then told Russell to take charge of the party and set up a defensive circle near the campfires until our return. I handed the torch to Keith who was armed with a revolver and lead the two men up the path, my elephant gun at the ready.
We climbed in silence listening keenly so as not to be taken by surprise by the unknown thing, or things ahead of us. I saw it, only for a moment as we rounded a corner, the torch light glinting in its wide green eyes, off its glistening membranous skin and on its thick writhing tentacles which were tearing flesh from the dead man’s face and feeding it into a shining black beak in the center of its mass. The blood ran cold in my veins at the sight of the hideous thing. It sprayed a jet of fishy smelling inky fluid at us with a hiss and a shudder. The stream doused our torch and, an instant later, the creature was gone over the side of the cliff before I’d even thought to fire my weapon.
“What in God’s name?” said Baker, steadying himself with a hand on my arm. I walked to the cliff’s edge and peered down. There was no sign of the creature, just the otherworldly blue-green glow that we’d become accustomed to accented here and there by deep black crevasses. Keith was unable to relight the torch but there was enough ambient light for Baker to perform a cursory examination of the body. The man was dressed like one of the natives from our group. He had two large openings on either side of his chest a few inches below his collarbone. There was a massive wound on the left side of his head where part of his skull was missing and the brain was exposed.
Dr. Keith looked at the right side of the man’s face which was undamaged and said, “It’s Farid, the porter who lost his brother to the avalanche this morning.” The poor man had apparently given up his hopeless task and, finding himself alone, followed after us hoping to rejoin our group. “We must dispose of the body,” said Keith. “Best not to leave it to be skeletonized and stumble over it on our way back.”
“His people may want to perform some sort of service for him. Are you familiar at all with their customs?” said Baker looking up at Keith.
“Not at all,” said Keith. “Either way, we’ll have to heave him over the cliff afterward. There’s no way we can bury him amidst the solid rock.”
“We have to burn the body,” I said, “right here, as soon as possible. Whatever attacked him now has a taste for human flesh. At the moment, it’s the only one. If we pitch him over the cliff, who knows how many others, or what else will acquire the taste and come looking for more?”
“Indeed,” said Baker. “We’ll need kerosene.”
“We must go for it together,” I said. “It’s no surprise this man was attacked while alone. Most predators prey on the weak, the young and those that are separated from the herd.”
“Tell no one of the creature until we’ve dealt with the body,” said Keith. “We don’t need a panic to erupt while we’re away.” Baker and I agreed and the three of us proceeded back to our campsite on the plateau.
Russell had the group in a tight circle around the campfire and he was the first to address us asking what we’d seen. I told him we would explain everything upon our return but, for now, we needed a fresh torch and a can of kerosene. The group was, understandably on edge and I told them there was no immediate danger and that they should remain calm and in their defensive positions until our return. A porter brought us a can of kerosene and a torch. Baker put his hand out and the porter gestured to come with us. I shook my head and he handed the items to Baker and returned to the group.
The three of us made our way back up the path only to discover the body was gone. Each of us looked at the other but no one spoke. Baker doused the blood stains and remaining bits of flesh with kerosene and set them ablaze. Dr. Keith asked Baker and me to do the talking upon our return so Bowers would not implicate him in a conspiratorial murder plot. Baker suggested we tell the others that we hadn’t gotten a good look at the creature and that whatever it was moved off into the darkness as we approached. This, he thought would be more calming to the group. We all agreed then returned to camp.
Upon our return to camp, Baker told the group the porter had simply been attacked by a wild animal and had not survived his wounds. The creature fled when we approached and we were unable to determine what it was and when we attempted to retrieve the body it fell down the cliff. I had suggested cleansing the scene of the attack with fire so the scent would not attract more animals so near to our location.
The general reaction was relief. While everyone was concerned to be in giant caverns with man-eating wild animals, it was at least something they could understand. Bowers himself said it was no different than being on safari, or in the jungle. I suggested we always travel in groups of three or more and that we post four armed guards around the camp at all time. We agreed that each man would take a two hour shift and the only person exempted was Mr. Norman’s granddaughter Evelyn.
The natives were heartsick at the loss of their two countrymen and asked for an hour after their morning prayers the following morning to perform a religious service for Farid and his brother. Dr. Keith agreed and we all offered them our condolences.
Baker and I took guard duty together later that night. We stood beside a fire at the edge of the camp near the downward path and quietly discussed the day’s events. After one day in the mountain, we were trapped behind a wall of ice and two of our party were dead, one of whom was eaten alive, and yet the only thing that alarmed us was the nature of the creature that had killed the porter. Everyone involved, save perhaps Norman’s granddaughter, knew the danger of undertaking an expedition that required both mountaineering and spelunking into uncharted land. Many of us had survived other hazardous expeditions, some had encountered large predatory animals in the wild before, and still others survived two wars. But the creature that killed and was eating that poor man was something completely unexpected, something from a terrible nightmare.
My sleep that night was fitful and I awoke twice shaking and in a cold sweat. Waking to the eerie otherworldly glow of that deep cavern was like waking up deep underwater and my sleep addled mind struggled at first to make sense of where I was and that I was still breathing air.
Continued in Part Four