CHAPTER NINETEEN: DOWN FROM ABOVE
“What the hell is going on?” Nate mumbled to himself; flinching at the sound of his own voice. It occurred to him it was the only voice he’d actually heard all day. Nate had been holding extensive conversations with the pack leader for most of the afternoon.
What’s that bastard up to now? Why is he suddenly giving up after seeming so desperate just a few moments before? Is this a bluff? Does he expect me to come down and try to rescue Zelda? I’ll bet he and the rest of his pals are waiting out there in the woods for me, just hoping I will fall for the bait.
The endless debate rolled on and on within himself. He was exhausted and confused. His numbed mind refused to cooperate — to arrange his thoughts in a clear and concise manner so that he could deal with the situation rationally. He fought for control. Never before in his life had he felt so alone and so inadequate.
His tired legs ached and throbbed beneath him. He thought about how wonderful it would be to be back home in his recliner. He would sit back and relax, a cold can of beer in one hand and the television remote control in the other — a king in his castle, complete with throne and scepter.
He shifted around on the branch, trying to peer farther into the woods so that he might catch a glimpse of one of them hiding in the underbrush. He saw nothing. Holding his breath, he waited and listened to the sounds of the forest, straining to detect the slightest hint of movement. All he heard was the creaking of the trees in the stiffening breeze and the occasional pop and crack of branches dropping to the matted tangle on the forest floor.
At the edge of the clearing, the tangle of growth was so thick as to be impenetrable. Any number of the devilish beasts could be hunkered down there waiting for him to come within reach. The thought made him extremely uneasy, and he squatted there, nervously mulling the situation over in his mind.
The owl he’d heard hooting in the distance while sitting around his campfire the night before, suddenly erupted, in a flurry, from a neighboring tree. It flew so close to Nate he nearly toppled from his branch. He watched it swooping off on silent wings and cursed it under his breath. Impervious to his epithets, the owl made a slow, wide turn and disappeared. The silence of the deep forest rushed back in to wrap itself around him. The coolness of the shadows felt almost solid, as though he could reach out and grab a handful and splash it like water in his face.
Nate wondered how long the large bird had been crouching there in the trees, watching him while he remained blithely unaware of its presence. He remembered reading somewhere about the way an owl could hide amidst the branches and then glide silently in for the kill, catching unsuspecting mice and voles completely off-guard.
Were the Kophet-kur equally adept at camouflaging themselves? He remembered what Chirkah had said about their knack for hiding from human eyes. Nate was certain they must be masters at blending in perfectly with the surrounding forest. How hard would it be for one or, perhaps, several of them to crouch behind a tree or amidst the cover of undergrowth? And now that he was weaponless, how long would it take even one of them to catch him and tear him limb from limb? These were important things to consider before he left the safety of the branches.
After all, if he were dead, there would be no chance at all for Zelda. He was the only person alive who had the slightest idea of her whereabouts. He was her only hope for survival, and he could not chance wasting it. Something else about owls occurred to him: they swallow their victims whole, coughing up pellets later that contain the bones and other indigestible materials. The thought made him shudder.
The light was almost completely gone from the forest, but Nate could clearly see the bean field through the canopy of leaves. The last, filtered rays of twilight were illuminating it and it had taken on the color of burnished copper. It called to Nate to leave the claustrophobic confines of his leafy bower and stretch his atrophied muscles with a run through its luxurious foliage. He could see the breeze blowing in rippling waves upon its surface, turning the field miraculously into a living entity. It stood alone and aloof. Unconcerned with the drama unfolding here in the forest, it was content to whirl and play in the breeze, shaking its tousled mane in contrived apathy. The lush plants, ripe with the harvest crop, danced and tossed their leafy heads like colts on a spring morning.
Nate longed to be among them, running with the solid ground beneath his feet, cavorting and drinking in the freedom of the open skies which hovered above. Suddenly, the air of the forest began to press in upon him, and he seriously considered climbing down from the tree. He needed to be down again, to get on with this charade. Whatever Chirkah had in mind, it couldn’t possibly be any worse than remaining trapped and helpless in this tree.
Again his eyes swept the forest below with the frenzied determination of an individual obsessed with paranoid delusions. Although in his case, the paranoia was completely justified. His vision blurred with the strain, and he rubbed his eyes, while bolts of pain shot behind them and through his head. Still, he could see no sign of anything awry in the foliage around the clearing.
Maybe Chirkah was playing it straight. He’d said from the start that the only reason he was speaking to Nate was to satisfy his own curiosity. Nate offered no threat to the Kophet-kur. Who would believe him if he went for help? And, without weapons, he couldn’t launch much of an attack. So, since Nate would not readily surrender himself to them, perhaps they had lost interest in their game. He considered this possibility, turning it round and round in his mind, trying to examine it from every conceivable angle.
They had kept a constant vigil all night and again throughout this entire day. Even the Kophet-kur had to sleep sometime. Other than his bloody death, what did they have to gain by continuing to harass him there in the tree-tops? Nate began to think Chirkah had been telling it like it was — he could stay or he could go. Either way, Chirkah had definitely proven his strength. Maybe Nate could come down from the trees completely unmolested.
Or, maybe that was just what Chirkah wanted him to think; and they were really hiding in the bushes, waiting to spring the trap the moment he set foot on the ground. What was he to do? It was infuriating. He was just as effectively trapped now, by his own uncertainty, as he had been when Chirkah was camped out beneath the tree.
The effort required to solve this quandary was pulling Nate apart. He fidgeted restlessly on the branch. His palms, despite the cool air around him, were bathed in sweat. Occasionally, he would begin to rise up, only to change his mind and resume his perch. For what seemed like an eternity he wrestled with the perplexity of his situation. Each option his fevered mind dredged up would be countered by a dreadful possibility. Each avenue ended in a cul-de-sac that spelled death and destruction. Still, he continued to cudgel his brains, relentlessly seeking a way out and pounding out the possibilities in his mind.
At last one thought prevailed: Zelda needed him, and there was absolutely nothing he could do for her sitting up here in the branches of a tree. He would have to be like the squirrel he’d seen earlier. He would take his chances among the creatures, but be ready, at a moments notice, to run for shelter should danger present itself. At last Nate was resolved. He had observed the way the other creatures of the forest dealt with the Kophet-kur, and he had learned from them.
With that in mind, he began to put together a sketchy plan. Sticking close to the tree line, he would make his way back to the clearing where they had camped and retrieve what provisions were left. He remembered he had a camping knife and a flashlight in his backpack. Also, there was the canteen. His thirst was fast becoming a major consideration, and he didn’t know how much longer he could go on ignoring it.
Once he was properly provisioned, he would trek back to the forest and search for the creatures’ lair. If he could find it, he would try to remain hidden long enough to keep watch and discover where they were keeping Zelda. Then, if he was lucky, he might get a chance to make some sort of rescue attempt. As he ran it over in his mind, it didn’t sound like much of a plan, but more of a daydream. However, it was all he could do. At any rate, anything was better than sitting in this tree all night wondering what hell Chirkah was running Zelda through.
Nate realized he didn’t have the slightest chance of succeeding. The Kophet-kur were craftier, larger and fiercer and out-numbered him vastly. They had every advantage he could think of and he had none. But, it was a great relief to have finally made a decision. Though the way would be fraught with unbelievable danger, he looked forward to having solid ground beneath his feet once more. This thought brought with it a certain calming effect, and he felt his soul quieting. His mind, after wrestling for hours with possibility and perchance, was relieved to be at last resolved and steadfast. Dealing with the mechanics of a specific plan, no matter how vague and, perhaps ineffectual it may turn out to be was extremely taxing. A tight, grim determination overtook him and he pursed his lips in concentration.
As the final remaining glimmer of light faded from the sky, Nate took one long look around the gloomy depths of the forest and slid slowly down out of the tree.
CHAPTER TWENTY: UP FROM BELOW
Cold water, seeping through cracks in the limestone, dripped on Susie’s face. She slowly returned to consciousness to find herself lying, with her body jammed into a crevice in the side of a tunnel. Her head was lodged in a crack with her feet sticking straight up in the air.
When she fell into the well, she landed on the bottom of the “bottomless” pit, after a fall of about twelve feet. The floor sloped at an angle, and when she struck, her body rolled. Thus, the major force of the fall was diverted, saving her life but knocking her senseless for a time. It also served to prevent Tonrah from seeing her, as she rolled from sight and into this crevice where she now rested in her inverted position.
Feeling was mercifully slow in returning to her limbs, but when it did, Susie was racked with aching muscles and throbbing contusions. Nevertheless, she began pulling herself out of the crevice and feeling about in the darkness to re-orient herself. Soon she discovered she was in another tunnel similar to the one she and Zelda had attempted to make their escape in, only much smaller. This tube-like rift in the limestone ran at an angle from the well into where the floor funneled down to its opening.
Susie surmised she was in another tube which might serve as an escape route at best, or lead her back to the main chambers of the Kophet-kur at worst. In either event, she had no recourse but to follow it. Ignoring the urge to call out to Zelda, she groped her way up the tunnel as quietly as possible, so as not arouse any of the cruel beasts.
Susie was adept at finding her way around in the dark and able to move along at a pretty good rate. She ran her hands across the limestone floor of the tunnel ahead of her, so as to avoid any more wells. After falling now into two of them and was lucky enough to survive; she had no desire to drop into another.
The girl had no idea how long she had been unconscious, nor did it occur to her to worry about it. Battered, frightened and sore, she was driven by only one concept: she must escape. If she had to spend more time in this nightmarish dungeon, she was certain to lose her mind.
The creatures themselves no longer terrified her. They were gruesome and cruel with a smell disgusting enough to gag a maggot on a gut-pile, but she was accustomed to them. They liked to growl and threaten, but, in her heart, Susie knew they would not harm her unless she did something unconscionable by their standards, like the killing of one of their own. For some reason, they wanted her alive. She had picked up enough information from bits and pieces of conversation with other slaves to know they had some master plan to wipe out the human race; but she didn’t know the details. Frankly, though, their plans didn’t interest her. All she had been concerned with was staying alive, which was why she shunned the slave quarters, preferring instead to hole up in the darkness of the small cave where Zelda first found her.
In the weeks she spent with these animals, she felt something awakening within herself. Susie was coming in touch with a sense she had never used, but which had been there all along. Like an under-developed muscle, lying just beneath the skin, it waited to be exercised and strengthened. Perhaps, being plunged into darkness, this sense was being nurtured by her brain to make up for her loss of sight — the way a blind person learns to rely more on their other senses, strengthening and honing them to razor sharpness. Being young, she didn’t stop to analyze the budding of this strange new power; rather, she simply accepted and used it as it developed. A child, learning to read doesn’t stop to wonder at the miracle of it all, he simply reads. And if you were to ask him how he’d managed this amazing skill, he would calmly state that he had learned it. Thus it was with Susie. The Kophet-kur possessed the amazing power of telepathic communication, and Susie — at first by osmosis, and later by design — learned it as well.
She hadn’t set out to learn this form of communication, it had just sort of crept up on her. Her first experience had left her baffled and shocked the Kophet-kur. One of the women had chased her out of the slave quarters, screaming about snot-nosed human brats. As she crossed the floor of the main hall, she tripped over a sleeping beast. The creature leaped to its feet with astonishing speed, swiping its paw out to knock Susie to the floor. It stood over her snarling and menacing, its evil red eyes glowing in the dark above her. From experience, she knew what terrible tempers these beasts had.
At that point, she had no doubt this creature would rip her to pieces and she was horrified. Her voice stuck in her throat, terror froze her scream. She closed her eyes, and with all her might she concentrated on one single word and telepathically commanded, “STOP!” It was not even a conscious effort, but more a reflex action, like throwing up a hand in self-defense. She kept her eyes squeezed shut and repeated projecting the word, “STOP!”
Susie braced herself to die.
But death didn’t come. Instead, the creature paused in its attack and stood back, regarding the accused through a one-way mirror. She couldn’t see it, but it could see her very well.
The creature’s own voice sounded in Susie’s mind: Did the young Meat speak to me? it asked then answered. It DID! The man-child has the gift of speech!
Suddenly Susie became aware of others gathering around her in the darkness of the cavern. There was an excited debate, all of it running together in Susie’s mind as her inexperience failed to allow her to filter and sort the thoughts being projected toward her. All was a mass of voices, all babbling at once as in a crowded square. This was even worse because they were all of equal volume and she hadn’t the ability to focus.
The babbling continued, rattling around inside her head until she felt it bulging and threatening to explode. Abruptly, all fell silent and a hushed new tone filled their thoughts with one word: “Chirkah!”
The voices fell completely silent and Susie heard something large approaching through the darkness. The massive beast parted the crowd and stopped directly before her. There was a long pause while Chirkah regarded and studied her. Susie wondered if she had done the right thing. Had she perhaps broken some ancient taboo by using their means of communication? Maybe they would regard her as some kind of freak like humans would a talking cow. Maybe Chirkah would punish her for her impudence.
The voice of the first creature cut through the stillness, sounding excited and proud: The man-child can use The Speech! it said, obviously addressing Chirkah. I was… looking at it when it said ‘Stop’. Just like that.
Chirkah ignored the beast and addressed himself instead to Susie. Again, he said mildly.
Susie spoke aloud. “Wh-what?”
Again — do it again. It wasn’t a request.
Susie took a deep breath, trying to calm herself. Knitting her brows, she concentrated hard and sent the message, MY… NAME… IS SUSIE. Then she sat back on her elbows, panting slightly.
Laughter and excited chatter broke out around the chamber, filling the eerie darkness with echoes.
SILENCE! Chirkah’s telepathic voice roared above the others and the laughter died abruptly, as though someone had pulled the plug. She could feel the pack leader irritably glaring at her and even in the dark, she could sense his displeasure. We must hasten our efforts for the cause, he muttered, gloomily, as much to himself as to anyone. Without another word, he turned and strode away.
From that time on, Susie was treated differently. The slave women almost completely ignored her and the Kophet-kur gave her the run of the place. They no longer insisted she remain in the slave quarters but began allowing her to sleep wherever she wished. There was just one rule which they made abundantly clear to her: should she ever try to escape, she would be killed and eaten. Not necessarily in that order.
For that reason, she had not attempted an escape before this. But now, things had changed. She felt as though she owed it to Zelda to try and make good her escape. She had fallen into the well and passed out before finding out what had happened to her new friend, but she remembered the injunction of Tonrah and the Kophet-kur: punishment for attempted escape was death — undeniable and unequivocal. Also, she had seen what happened to women who remained slaves of the Kophet-kur for any length of time. So for these reasons, she was determined to escape and try to bring help for Zelda before it was too late.
As she progressed up the tunnel, she could feel it angling toward the surface. Also, it was becoming smaller and smaller until, eventually, she was forced to crawl on her belly, dragging herself along like a snake in a hole. This tunnel was obviously too small to be used by the creatures. Offering perhaps, shelter to the occasional groundhog or fox, it was pretty much abandoned at this point in time and Susie realized that for the first time in weeks she was safe from the Kopeth-kur. As she thought this, she smiled and squirmed ahead in the darkness.
Suddenly, something soft and filmy flapped across her face. She stopped, trying to figure out what it might be. It stretched across the diameter of the tunnel. When she brought her hand up to pull it from her face, she felt how sticky it was. At this point, she realized it was a spider web, the fuzzy little bodies of several arachnids scurrying over her face, scalp and hands. In spite of herself, she screamed.
She couldn’t bring both hands into play, due to the cramped space of the tunnel, but with one hand she slapped and swatted frantically at her face and neck. They slithered down the front of her sweat-shirt and across the back of her head. In the dark, she could only imagine how many of them there were, but it felt like dozens to her panicked mind. She continued slapping and swatting until her face and arms stung from it. At last she settled down and tried to gather herself together.
For some time, she waited to feel them moving upon her. Some of the itchy, crawly feelings were genuine spiders, but most were her overwrought imagination. Nevertheless, she slapped with equal fierceness at either one, as she was incapable of distinguishing the difference. When she could no longer feel any spiders crawling upon her skin, she pushed forward. Although she tried to blot it out of her mind, the feeling that they were squirming and burrowing in her hair would not go away. By now, she was fighting back claustrophobic panic and moaning quietly.
She kept one hand reaching out before her, scouting ahead for more spider webs. When her hand came upon a dry, crunchy leaf, Susie drew her hand back in surprise at first, and then, cautiously reached out again. There were several leaves scattered about the floor of the tunnel, she understood she was approaching the mouth. Sure enough, after just a few more feet, she could feel the air rushing in, cool and fragrant upon her face. Although it was dark outside, it was still lighter than the inky depths of the cave. Her heart leaped with joy at spotting a lighter patch in the darkness and recognized it as the mouth of the tunnel. With an excited little exhalation of breath, she crawled toward it.
Stars were shining in the night sky, and when she thrust her head from the opening, which had grown so small she could barely wedge her shoulders from it, she saw the full moon, shining brilliantly in the sky, illuminating a small clearing in the woods. A little whoop of delight escaped her as she struggled to drag herself up out of the ground.
Her exhilaration, however, was to be short-lived.
The hole emerged near to the center of the clearing, and as she squeezed her way out, like a corpse rising from its grave in the moonlight, the sight before her nearly stopped her heart and made her blood run cold in her veins.
The moon cast everything with silvery light, nearly as bright as day, but without the sun’s warmth. Cool shadows stood out starkly and pooled themselves at the feet of three ghastly tall figures gathered in the clearing.
They were Kophet-kur. Their faces lifted toward the moon, their mouths open and teeth bared.
And as she stared in utter horror, they began to howl.