However had Kearns managed this operose conduit? A grown man would have been forced to crawl, and, if crawling, how had he calculated his steps, when walking was impossible? Forget a grown man-how could a seven-foot-tall hulk of a monster do it without slithering snakelike upon its tooth-encrusted belly? As the walls tightened around me, doubt and fear followed in kind. Surely this could not be the main thoroughfare back to the nesting chamber. I must have misunderstood him or taken a wrong turn… but the way had been marked, was still marked, though the space between the glimmering sprays had lengthened to far more than twenty feet. And the tunnel continued to go down, not up, as he’d promised, the floor no longer hard packed but spongy, saturated with moisture as it descended into the depths. I inched forward, my progress painfully slow, the lamp illuminating little but the weeping wet walls and the dripping roof, too deep for even the longest roots of the largest trees above to penetrate.
And then I smelled it, a sickly sweet odor like rotten fruit, faintly at first, becoming stronger with each agonizing yard, a nauseating stench that burned my nose and lodged sourly in the back of my throat. I had smelled it before, in the cemetery on the night Erasmus Gray had died; it still clung upon my clothing from the embrace of the juvenile whose delirious slumber I had disturbed. It was the smell of the beast. It was the smell of them.
I cannot say I grasped the full meaning of that moment then, the import of the disparate elements, which seems so obvious now: the two pathways marked, one straight and wide, the other crooked and narrow; the tunnel leading downward, ever downward; the sound of something following me; the baring of my wounds to let them ‘breathe a bit.’ Such profound perfidy is beyond the comprehension of most men, let alone the trusting naïveté of a child! No, I was merely confused and frightened, not suspicious, as I kneeled, lamp thrust before me in one hand while I clutched the gun in the quivering other. The grade was steep and the floor slick. If I turned around now, I would have to crawl slowly or risk sliding back a foot for each I gained. Should I turn back? Or should I ignore the awful smell (perhaps the earth itself had absorbed it like a sponge) and the still, small voice within that whispered, Turn around! Go back! Should I press on?
In the end the decision was made for me. A hand reached out of the darkness and tapped my shoulder. With a startled cry I pivoted round, the lamp slapping into the wall as I whirled. Its swaying light lit up in manic flashes his smudged face, the animated eyes and the small, ironic smirk.
“Why, Will Henry, wherever are you going?” he whispered. His breath smelled as sweet as licorice. “Didn’t I tell you to keep to the path and not turn back?”
“This isn’t the way back,” I breathed in reply.
“I had hoped to avoid it,” was his cryptic response. “The smell of blood should have drawn her out; I’m at a loss, frankly, why she didn’t come.”
He gently pulled the lamp from my hand and withdrew a flare from his bag. “Here, take this. Hold it at the base so you won’t burn your little hand. Don’t let go of it, whatever you do!” He touched the short fuse to the lamp’s flame. Smoke curled in the close space; the tunnel burst into dazzling light; darkness fled.
He put his hand on my chest and said with mock sorrow, “I am so sorry, Mr. Henry, but there really is no choice. It is the morality of the moment.”
And with those parting words John Kearns shoved me as hard as he could.
My fall was swift, straight, and unstoppable. His crouching form rocketed away from me, dissolving into darkness as I skidded down the grease-slick trough, until a collision with a bend in the wall flipped me onto my back and I slid the remaining few feet digging my heels into the muck in a vain effort to slow my slide into the hole that awaited me at the bottom.
How wondrously strange to an observer below, should he have been standing inside the chamber into which now I fell, to see the virgin darkness, never blessed by light’s beneficent kiss, rent by the blinding ember of the flare clutched in my hand, descending like a falling star from heaven’s vault. I landed on my back, and the jolt of impact jerked the flare from my hand. For a moment I lay stunned and gasping, the hot, coppery taste of blood filling my mouth: I had bitten the tip of my tongue when I’d hit.
I rolled onto my stomach, spat the blood from my mouth, and had barely gotten to my knees when it came at me with a sibilant screech, arms outstretched, black eyes rolling in its powerful shoulders, slavering mouth agape. I brought up the gun with a foot to spare and yanked the trigger. The young Anthropophagus fell at my feet, its body twisting in the stinking muck of the chamber floor. It was a lucky shot, but I had no time to rejoice or wonder at my good fortune, for its brother now barreled toward me from its hiding place. I fired twice, missing both times, shooting as I scrambled backward.
A bullet imploded into the ground scarred by my scurrying retreat, followed the next instant by the rifle’s report. It was Kearns, lying on his belly in the tunnel over me, firing through the hole through which I, the bait, had fallen.
My back hit the wall; I thumped down on my backside, legs spread wide; and shot twice more at the advancing form. Both shots went wild, but Kearns ’s next found its target, striking the beast in its right shoulder, driving its arm into the ground, yet hardly slowing its implacable approach. They possess the largest Achilles tendons known to primates, enabling them to leap astonishing distances, up to forty feet, the doctor had informed me in his characteristically matter-of-fact manner. Traversing so great a distance in a single bound might prove a challenge to an immature Anthropophagus; fortunately for him, he had a span of only ten feet to cross. He launched himself at me, his left arm extended perpendicular to his body, poised to land the killing blow. I had just one bullet left and one second to decide.
Fortune spared me that awful decision: In midflight he stiffened, shoulders yanked back by the punch of the round landing between them. The second shot struck him in the middle of his back, and dropped him. He lay heaving and mewling at my feet, claws digging impotently in the dirt, before expiring his last breath, and death took him down.
I heard soft satisfied laughter above me and, coming from the far side of the chamber, where the light of the flare could not reach, a familiar voice calling my name.
“Will Henry, is that you?”
I nodded. I could make no other reply. It seemed like years since I had heard that voice, and more times than I could count it had unnerved me, frightened me, filled me with not unreasonable dread and gnawing apprehension. Ah, but now it brought tears of joy.
“Yes, sir,” I called to the doctor. “It’s me.”
The monstrumologist rushed to my side. He grabbed me by the shoulders and looked deeply into my eyes, his own reflecting the intensity of his concern.
“Will Henry!” he cried softly. “Will Henry, why are you here?” He pulled me into his chest and whispered fiercely into my ear, “I told you that you are indispensable to me. Do you think I lied, Will Henry? I may be a fool and a terrible scientist, blinded by ambition and pride to the most obvious truths, but one thing I am not is a liar.”
He released me with these words and turned aside for a moment, as if embarrassed by his confession. Then he turned back and asked brusquely, “Now tell me, you silly, stupid boy, are you hurt?”
I lifted my arm, and he played the light of his lamp up and down the length of it. Over his shoulder, on the outer edge of the light’s reach (for the flare had finally fizzled out), I could see Malachi. He was staring not at our touching tableau but over our heads, toward the hole through which I had fallen.
The doctor carefully brushed the dirt and tiny, scratching pebbles from the wounds, bending low to examine them in the wavering light. “It’s a clean bite, and relatively shallow,” he pronounced. “A few stitches and you’ll be good as new, Will Henry, if a bit battle-scarred.”
“There is something up there,” Malachi called hoarsely, jabbing his finger toward the roof of the cave. “Above you!”
He swung the rifle to his shoulder and would have pulled the trigger, I’ve no doubt, if Kearns had not announced his presence and dropped through the hole. He landed on his feet with all the aplomb of a champion gymnast, spreading his arms wide to retain his balance, and he sustained the pose as if to gather us into his metaphorical embrace.
“And so all’s well that ends well!” he said heartily. “Or should I say all ends well very nearly near the end. Perhaps ‘so far so good’ would be better-but here you are, Pellinore, in the nick of time, thank goodness!”
With narrowed eye Malachi returned, “This is very strange.”
“Oh, my dear chap, you should have been with me in Niger back in ’85. Now that was strange!”
“I find it strange too,” said the doctor. “Tell me, Kearns: How did Will Henry come to be down here and you up there?”
“Will Henry fell; I did not.”
“He fell?” echoed Warthrop. He turned to me. “Is this true, Will Henry?”
I shook my head. Lying was the worst kind of buffoonery. “No, sir, I was pushed.”
“Oh, ‘fell,’ ‘pushed’-it’s all a matter of semantics,” pooh-poohed Kearns. He watched, bemused, as Malachi brought the muzzle of his gun a foot from his chest. “Go on,” he urged the enraged orphan. “Pull the bloody trigger, you insufferably melodramatic, semi-suicidal, blubbering bugger. Do you honestly think I care if I live or die? But you may wish to include in your calculations the fact that our work is not finished. She is still out there somewhere in the dark, and not very far, I would guess. That said, sir, I would not presume to pass judgment upon the passage of your judgment. Fire at will, sir, and I shall die as I lived, with no regret!” He thrust his chest in Malachi’s direction defiantly and grinned ear to ear.
“Why were you pushed, Will Henry?” asked the doctor, barely acknowledging the drama. He had long grown weary of Kearns ’s theatrics.
“He tricked me,” I said, lowering my voice and refusing to look in my betrayer’s direction. “I think he found this chamber and he knew they were down here, but he couldn’t get off a good shot, so he marked the spot and sent me straight to it. Finding me hurt, he thought the smell of blood might draw them out. When it didn’t, he-”
“In my own defense,” Kearns said, “I did give you a weapon and I didn’t just throw you to the wolves. That was me up there, you know, shooting at them. I don’t question the demands of circumstance; I simply obey them. Like Malachi here, abandoning his beloved sister when she needed him the most-”
“ Kearns, enough!” admonished the monstrumologist. “Or by God I shall shoot you.”
“Do you know why our race is doomed, Pellinore? Because it has fallen in love with the pleasant fiction that we are somehow above the very rules that we have determined govern everything else.”
“I don’t know what he’s talking about,” Malachi said with unnerving levelness. “But I like his idea. I say we make him bleed and use him as bait.”