Hammer of the Pygmies
Part Eight – Ghost in the Dark
Obadiah led the way down through the tunnel, glowing rod held in one hand and rifle in the other. He walked half bent over to avoid scrapping his head across the top of the tunnel. Even so, it slowed the pace considerably. Curiously, the clinging webs that they had endured earlier were lacking through that tunnel. Shuffling along behind Obadiah were the native bearers, carrying their paralysed companions, with Doctor Gooding and Sir Richard bringing up the rear.
The tunnel hacked its way back through solid rock, not being natural in origin as the cavern had been. Carved by crude hands, it hadn’t been smoothed down, while the walls and floor bore the scratched and scrapes caused by picks and other tools as they had gouged out rocks.
The sense of urgency closed in on them, as did the narrow confines of the tunnel, plucking at the courage of the heart. In such a place, in the dark, with no real feel for direction, the sense of time could easily be lost and fears of what lay ahead – and behind – became magnified.
Through the malaise of dread and darkness they forced themselves forward, deeper into the heart of the hills, following the uncertain path. No sound did they make, walking in utter silence, lost in their own thoughts and straining their ears to pick up any hints of noise, of pursuit behind or ambush ahead, until at last, ahead of them, a faint noise began to grow, at first a dull rumbling that increased in volume the closer they drew to it.
“What is that?” Sir Richard inquired, speaking in hushed tones.
“Sounds like flowing water, laddie,” Doctor Gooding responded. “An underground stream perhaps. If it is so, then it may indicate a way out.”
Once more they resumed their journey, and a new change came over the tunnel. The air began to feel moist, while from the ceiling and down the walls drops of water beaded. Every so often one would fall upon them or the ground. The floor beneath them had a layer of moisture upon it that made the rocks slippery, forcing them to take even more care in their steps.
“Hold up, sir,” Obadiah’s insistent whisper cane from up ahead as he halted in his travels, the words barely heard over the sound of the flowing water. “The tunnel opens up here.”
Cautiously he held forth the glowing rod, out of the tunnel they had been following into the wide open space in which it emerged. Before them, a large natural chamber opened up, the ground treacherous with fallen stones and boulders. Through them rumbled the underground stream, splashing and tumbling, throwing up spray, the waters of it clear and bright.
They left the tunnel behind and stepped out into the cavern, released from the tight confines that had cramped them. Doctor Gooding peered about through the cavern, the light of his glowing rod not able to display its full scope. Nearby, slightly upstream from where they had emerged, stood cairns of stones, nearby to where the cavern narrowed again. They were not mere assemblages of fallen stone, but constructions of sentient hands and minds. Doctor Gooding moved across to them with the aim of investigating them further.
Upon some of the stones of the cairn could be seen more of the pygmy hieroglyphics, carved into their surfaces, while in other places, polished bones wrapped with string and feathers, teeth and fur had been lodged tight.
“What do you think they are?” Sir Richard asked of Doctor Gooding.
“A warning marker of some kind, I’d be thinking,” the Doctor explained, “Or a ward.”
From further upstream there came to alert ears a faint slithering and the click of stones being rubbed together. Sir Richard peered in that direction and caught sight of a ghostly pale flash of movement, sliding between tumbled boulders. When it emerged, it was a sight to cause grave concern to any. A monstrous snake whispered towards them, longer than any snake had a right to be and as thick across as a man’s torso. Entirely white, its tongue flickered from beneath fangs, tasting at the air. It coiled about and around boulders as it slithered along. The illumination from their rods reflected back cold and sinister from its eyes, a gleam within them.
“I guess that answers the question as to what the warning was about,” Sir Richard observed, readying his revolver. Even so, he did not think it would have much effect against a creature of such size.
“Aye, and also the question as to which direction to take,” Doctor Gooding added. “Downstream.”
They beat a retreat from the slithering beast, picking their way through the damp, fallen stones down alongside the stream, headed deeper into the cavern. Alongside the stream, the way was easier, almost in the manner of a cleared path, though the stone floor had been made slippery by the spray of water churned up from the stream as it crashed through the piles of fallen boulders. It forced them to walk with caution.
The snake slithered up to the stone markers, whereupon it came to a sudden halt, its long body piling up in coils about itself. As the light they carried drifted away, the last they saw of the beast was the cold gleam of its eyes until that too faded.
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