Story by Lawrence R. Dagstine
Illustration by Toe keen
We were led into the red and purple wilderness, the spear tips of the merciless Cohrezi probing our flesh as we stumbled toward their village in the sky. Thirty yards away from the nearest floating shack; we noticed one of the ogre-like males climbing a giant log platform, a pair of primitive and grotesque-looking females urging him upward from the base with their toothless grins and taunts. Eventually, he reached the side of his fellow tribesmen, and he gathered up a hammer that lay there, though not until a signal from below reached him did he join in the now intensified striking of their ceremonial gong. For twenty, thirty seconds the rumbling continued, along with the beating of drums, and then the islet became still.
As an explorer, I deal with mythical places and legendary races. And during an age of adventure and intrigue, social and cultural dynamism—1920, to be exact—I could only describe this soaring wilderness as being similar to something I had read as a boy. Was it The Island of Dr. Moreau? Perhaps… Only these prehistoric manifestations, who wielded spears and axes and lived in suspended tree trunks and cloud-encircled huts, were the living breathing stuff of Man. And where Darwin’s ideas offered a stepping-stone of enlightenment to their upper atmospheric existence, Pre-Galtonian philosophies countered it with impossible and forbidden mystery.
I looked at Sally, my balloon pilot, and we shrugged conjointly. The same could be said about Trevor, my young faithful assistant. For now, it appeared that our concern was unfounded. While they gathered amongst each other to decide our fates, we reclined in some bushes; even the plant-life was strange in this place.
The last sight that I recall before closing my eyes was that of my nerve-raw companions, sitting cross-legged against a tree, their thoughts, like mine, centered on the rough fare spread before them. But no sooner had I closed them than we were forced up from our resting places in the wood.
Blood was drawn as savage tips pierced our flesh more decisively. “Sacrifice, sacrifice!” a tribal leader with a crow’s headdress shrieked. “It is the Ground God’s time of awakening! Oh, if these intruders have doomed us…!” The procession continued.
“I thought you told me that the Sky Blazer was their deity,” Sally whispered. “What’s this Ground God business?”
“According to the scroll, they worship a great silver machine made of metal and flight,” I said. “This is all new to me as well. There is nothing in the code or on the map to say that they pray to anything but that which was built by an ancient civilization, and they were far more advanced than these creatures.”
Sally shook her head. “Advanced? You could’ve fooled me. At least we know they can talk.”
“Which means they can understand us.”
“Let’s just concentrate on getting out of here,” Trevor jumped in and said. “I’m not particularly fond of being any kind of sacrifice.” His face held a contorted look of worry, and I felt to blame.
The steady, distant boom, boom, boom, began again from the tall and wide torchlit treetops. I clamped my hands over my ears as I staggered in the direction of the gathering, for I was again besieged by the brutal cries that had earlier felled my party. This time it was not a reverberation in the dark recesses of my mind, but a real and terrible sound that rose from an unimaginable source twenty, thirty yards ahead of us. The Cohrezi who did not join in the procession were similarly affected, but not so their tribal leaders, whose muscle-ripped bodies surged and melded into a sort of rhythmic wave. I was more worried about Sally if anything. Trevor, seemingly less overcome by the enigma than anyone there, wrapped an arm around her waist, and before the probing spears of our captors we penetrated the layer of dark, ivy-like foliage glistening at the end of the village path. Some stepped aside, while others were forced to push. Soon no more stood before us, and the architect of the sound, the object of their interest, was revealed.
From the edge of a previously concealed pit, a broad affair with a spike-filled cavity more than twenty feet deep, we gazed in mute horror at the tentacled creature on the floor below. Born in the darkest of nightmares, nurtured in some miasmal sky swamp, the atrocity they called their Ground God writhed anxiously before the adoring eyes of its acolytes. Its thick, pinkish-blue torso, which extended out from just under a calcareous shell and two ponderous yellow eyes, exceeded fifteen feet. Pincers, long and sharp at the end of each suction-cupped limb, methodically stroked the thorny, bone-filled abyss, which shimmered beneath the dancing glow of the torches held by those who lined the rim. Its veiny features painted the portrait of a grotesque mask, one made of savagery. The heavily lidded eyes burned with malevolence. The large mouth, now visible beneath its giant body, formed in a wide oval as it continued to sound its frightening lamentations. It had gleaming, filed jaws and a bifurcated tongue, the latter darting outward hungrily every few seconds.
“What manner of creature is this?” Trevor gasped in astonishment; I, too, struggled against the dark waves of revulsion that now assailed us. “Some kind of octopus?”
“I don’t know, but—,” I stopped midsentence; perhaps I was just as awestruck. “It could be something from the mollusk family. Whatever it is, it’s unrecorded, that’s for sure.”
Sally seized my arm. “It’s enormous!” she cried.
“It seems almost organic in nature,” I added, “rather than aquatic or swamp like. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen.”
“I just don’t want to die,” she said. “Please, Jonathan, do something!”
The Cohrezi parted on the far side of the pit, and three figures strode forward purposefully. A female tribeswoman, young and naked, stepped forward almost hypnotically, while two slightly built males, similarly primal and garmentless, walked at her left and right side. Her eyes stared blankly before us, as did those of her race, and it was evident that neither had the least control over this immediate situation.
Heeding an abrupt gesture from the headdress-adorned Cohrezi male, they halted about a foot from the rim. The young female fell to her knees, her eyes tightly shut, her arms outstretched toward the abomination that was their deity. For nearly a minute the eerie lamentations of the monster were barely audible, while the blood-stained lips of the Cohrezi leader moved soundlessly as if the two were party to some trancelike communication. The female then rose, and the leader decisively pointed a finger at Trevor, who stood vacantly to the left.
“The Ground God will first have Alya, one of our own,” he answered piercingly, “so that her malnourished body may warm gradually to the potential appetite of you strangers who have come from afar. Once she is digested”—he gazed up and down hungrily at Trevor’s well-proportioned, youthful form—“he will be next, and satisfy the Great One’s daily fulfillment!”
“And what about me and the girl?” I asked.
“Your time will come, traveler,” the leader replied casually.
Sally cried, “You can’t let them throw Trevor down there. You just can’t!”
“I’ll handle this,” I said, prepared to bargain with my own life if need be. “Take me. Leave that one. He is but a boy.”
“Silence!” With a nod of approval from his leader, the guard standing beside me drove the blunt end of his spear into my flank and I recoiled in pain. “For the Cohrezi…! For the island…! For… Modera!”
The populace moaned their approval, while the garmentless two gathered up the young female by her arms. They tied a rope made of ivy around her waist and lowered her into the pit as far as they could before releasing her. A moment later the strand broke, and she fell unharmed the remaining few feet. The spot where she rose was directly in front of a large, cave-like opening. It was the only such one on any of the hole’s walls, and it must have been where the creature burrowed; the trail of slimy discharge leading toward the center of the pit left little doubt from where it had earlier been summoned by the insistent gong beats.
I was nearly driven to my knees by its persistent wailing, which once again shattered the momentary silence. Modera’s hunger could be sensed in its wavering lamentations as it slowly explored the limits of the female’s body with its eyes and tongue. Its tentacles uncoiling slightly, the female guided the now-stimulated head and mouth amidst flaccid folds of gelatin-like tissue until the orifice was directly over her. The slavering sounds that followed were disturbing in itself, and the thick torso of the trembling squid-like body, instinctively or otherwise, began encircling the ankles of the unwitting sacrifice.
It continued to swallow from top to bottom and curl its limbs until more than half the female’s bony frame was covered. It then began to constrict, tighter, even tighter, until the victim, summoned by unimaginable pain from whatever depths had ensnared her brain, had its head and neck bitten down on and was pulled into the obscene folds. She barely had time to shriek, as her bones snapped and she was completely devoured. Sally’s eyes widened in terror, and along with Trevor, they were soon bulging from their sockets before the torrents of blood that propelled them.
“My people!” the Cohrezi leader intoned, pointing at us with his spear tip. “The Ground God is clearly still angered by these weaknesses being kept alive, these atrocious things we call visitors. But they will no longer be a weakness to our island. Lessons will be learned. He who is great will protect us from others like them. He who is all-knowing and all-powerful will reward us on this very day.” They had secured Trevor’s arms, and when I tried to grab hold, a nearby savage floored me once more. “Modera will have the stranger now, and I believe he won’t be disappointed!”
“Oh God, Trevor! Please, no!” Sally pleaded. “Stop this crazy ritual, I beg you!”
“Stop!” I shouted. “Don’t do it! We’re not your enemy!”
Trevor was tossed into the pit.
With half-swollen eyes, I looked up through the treetops and saw the Sky Blazer, an unmanned Zeppelin which constantly circled the island; and the reason for my balloon-rearing journey to this cloud-sustained wilderness in the first place. As it glided overhead, I knew it was too far to help us escape the nightmare that now seized my party. And with Trevor at the bottom of the pit with that unfathomable beast, I had but a few seconds in which to act.
Before Sally could utter another plea, I motioned to her from the ground to remain silent, for I already knew, as she did, that we could no longer refrain from assisting our helpless young companion. A hasty glance to our rear indicated that our captors, each immersed in the events of recent minutes, had lowered their menacing weapons to crowd the pit and see what was happening below, and this was all the advantage required. I gave Sally the special nod, just as I had done on other occasions. We scrambled like cornered mice, each of us snatching a weapon from the ground. Side by side we drove the Cohrezi back with the sharpened hardwood shafts. Amidst the confusion, their leader was pushed back into the pit alongside Trevor, and this little diversion was all that the boy needed to use his dexterity and climb up the thorny sides to freedom.
A few stepped forward hesitantly, this synchronized with the heightened cries of the horror in the pit. My senses reeled beneath the overwhelming sound, but I had an airship to get to, so I fought desperately against it as I drew blood from my captors. The Cohrezi leader screamed insanely, and the others backed away as the wails diminished.
“Mother of God, what was that?” Trevor looked behind him and gasped; it was eventually followed by a sigh of relief.
“Heads up!” Sally threw him an extra spear. “A few more seconds,” she said, “and that might have been you, kid.”
“We have them at a disadvantage,” I stated. “They’re confused beyond words.” I lunged forward and pierced flesh again. “But there’s still too many. The only way to get out of this village is to go back the way we came, and we won’t be able to contend with them all.”
“What do we do?” Trevor asked.
“I’m thinking, I’m thinking!”
Initiating a plan conceived of in desperation, Sally came to the rescue. Whenever I couldn’t come up with one of my own, I knew that I could always fall back on her.
She dropped her spear and gathered up one of the many torches discarded by the Cohrezi. She then hurled it into the pit, her target obvious. The fiery projectile flew past the eyes of the feasting Modera, a few sparks showering down upon his hard shell and long tentacles. But this proved more than enough with the brushwood that filled the pit’s bottom, for it caught fire like timber, and in seconds the monstrous torso of the writhing horror was engulfed by flames. Its frightening lamentations now altered to shrieks of agony, as he thrashed on the floor of the pit, his gyrations depositing additional sparks atop the flammable undergrowth surrounding its flesh.
Within minutes the creature had become an inferno.
“The Ground God!” one of the toothless savages screamed. “The Ground God is burning!”
“We must save him!” exclaimed another; the people panicked.
Those hoarding the front row and surrounding our march to freedom leaped frantically into the fiery pit, a handful of lesser villagers joining them. But in seconds their own primitive cries joined with those of their god, whose wildly flailing arms had shattered the bones of the erstwhile acolytes. The flesh of the Cohrezi now became additional fuel, and the smoke from the crackling furnace wafted high above the village.
“The path’s clear,” I said. “Let’s get out of here!”
Once again we skirted the perimeter of the tribe, none of which gave us as much as a sidelong glance, not even those sitting mesmerized atop their hollowed tree trunks.
“We’re in for it now,” I told Sally, after the display she had caused. “Be ready!” I tightened my fingers around my spear just in case.
Trevor hastily gathered up some of their discarded weapons, which he shared with us, and we grimly awaited the attack. But the Cohrezi, oddly enough, chose not to vent their passions upon the perpetrators of so incomprehensible an act. They fell to their knees conjointly, an unnerving chorus of cries voiced again and again amidst the carnage of the thing which they had revered. How long this would last we dared not say, though we did not pause to ponder our good fortune. Instead, we continued to retreat, until forty, fifty yards of wilderness and cloud cover lay between us.
The heart-wrenching moans of the grieving Cohrezi eventually faded in the distance, though not before we had placed more than a mile between the village and ourselves. We had cast numerous glances over our shoulders in fear of an immediate reprisal, for we knew that within their primitive element the male hunters could pick us off one by one before any were even seen.
Blinded by perspiration, fatigued almost to the point of no longer caring, we somehow managed to emerge from the woods within twenty yards of our encampment. We half crawled to the ring of torches, and when our overtaxed bodies sprawled on the sand it was nearly atop one another.
A driving rainstorm from beneath the island—yes, it rained upside-down in this place—awakened us not long after. This dousing, coupled with the modicum of sleep that we had been granted saw us rousted quickly, and we scrambled for the shelter of some rocks to escape the upward torrent.
We again heard the steady thunder from the distant village, the sound of the immense gong and the mysterious drums, of which the Cohrezi had used to observe their procession and call forth their god. But this time the beatings were different, and they came more frequently, denoting a sense of urgency.
“Do you think they’ll attack soon?” asked Trevor, with whom I stood at the moment.
“I’d say that this part of the ritual has to do with the refortification of their hunt,” I said, “and that we’ve overstayed our welcome.”
He glared at the forest. “Then I hope they try and mess with us again! We’ll show those damn apes! Throw me into a hole… Hmph!” His whiny outburst received a puzzled look from Sally.
“I don’t care how restless the natives are,” she said, “as long as we get that airship,”—her finger was outstretched and pointing to a small wooden dock, hanging airborne in the distance—“and get the hell off this island.”
“Holy mackerel!” Trevor was never more surprised in all his sixteen years of life. “It’s the Sky Blazer. It must have come full circle before we hit the beach.”
“Which means we can finally board it. Let me have a look at the scroll.”
Trevor handed over the old parchment.
“Well?” Sally was impatient; I could tell.
“According to these figures, the dimensions are correct for flight capability, but some of the equipment and parts need refilling or replacing. This is no ordinary airship. If we don’t do it, there’s no guarantee it’ll survive the long journey.”
“What do you mean there’s no guarantee?” I could see that both my companions were not only alarmed but also confused.
“This island has magical properties,” I explained. “It must be a combination of something geological and mystical, and it’s this combination which creates the extra-low gravity field so that the whole land mass stays afloat with everything around it. The culture that preceded the Cohrezi must have known this, and they used this environmental force to their advantage.” I paused. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the Cohrezi are an offshoot of the island’s original inhabitants, some missing link or separate branch that abused the geological powers here and then over many generations regressed.”
Nevertheless, I told Sally to stay calm, for I firmly believed that we were safe at the moment; that our time and effort could be best expended upon by making the necessary repairs, and by using the equipment the Sky Blazer’s original owners had left behind. I had also told Trevor that perhaps it would be a good idea if we set some traps around the encampment.
To the ceaseless accompaniment of the Cohrezi drums, we fixed the airship’s outer hull, and we filled its spare envelopes with fresh helium. And with what camp tools we had available to us, we then laid a new framework which measured nearly thirty feet from bow to stern, and a sturdier back rudder twenty feet across at its longest point.
We labored relentlessly through the night, and with dawn near we stepped back for the first time in hours to gaze upon our handiwork. An additional rudder had been placed, crude but functional, to the ship’s belly, the narrow tiller reaching over the high stern; eight giant propellers had been drilled, four on each side, and we had begun work on the outer canopy and balloon. The first posts had been set at the bow, and it extended upward about fifteen feet. The others were spaced evenly on the starboard and port sides, securing the inflatable part of the structure.
About an hour past sunrise, a few minutes before I would have roused Trevor for the next watch, I noticed the sky below us darkening. A thick fog was rolling upwards, and in the same manner that smoke rises. Numerous thoughts raced through my head as I stood along the edge of the beach—which, in this case, was a very high cliff—and watched the approaching mist. Unlike the brief cloudbursts of previous days, my hope was that this shroud was of a less lasting nature. Sally could steer us through it—I never doubted her skills as a pilot—but I knew that navigation was key in the operation of any balloon craft.
“Well, will you look at that!” exclaimed Trevor, suddenly appearing at my side. “It appears as though our luck is taking a turn for the worse.” He nodded down at the weather.
“I disagree,” I said. “I don’t think it’ll be a problem.”
“Maybe for you. But Sally’s the one that’s got to fly this thing.”
“Sally’s a natural,” I reminded him. “She was born with wings. Sometimes I think she was a bird in a previous life.”
“I think she likes you.”
“I think so too. I also think the only reason she’s still traveling with me is that she’s infatuated with my stubbornness. What would I do without her?”
Suddenly, the drums from the previous night had stopped.
The chattering of rodentlike animals and insects, along with the rustling of bushes and leaves, were now the most audible sound emanating from the forest as the echoes of the last beat faded in the distance. We ceased our talking and looked around as we absorbed the comparative silence, then gazed at one another grimly.
“Well, what do you know,” I whispered. “Let’s get aboard, fast!”
We leaped from the cliff and raced across the sand, slowing only when we were within yards of the Sky Blazer. We then loaded our camp equipment and gazed across the turf for anything of value we might have missed, though I found my eyes turning often toward the woods, where at any moment I expected to see the Cohrezi emerge with unappeasable wrath. Trevor was scattering a few last logs on the beach between the airship and hanging shoreline, while Sally, also standing atop the sand, was engaged in a task at the dock. Puzzled, I called out to her.
For a moment our peril was forgotten, and I daresay that Trevor and I acted like a couple of schoolboys as we alternated between pounding one another on the back and lifting the bemused Sally off her feet.
“Damned if this old girl isn’t going to fly again!” I roared.
A primitive scream shattered the merriment of our handiwork, then a second, and a third. With their approach now revealed, the Cohrezi abandoned all pretenses at stealth, and a chorus of intimidating cries rose from their throats as they crashed through the foliage. But once on the sand, they froze, and their snarling countenances altered to masks of bewilderment as they indicated wildly in our direction.
“What’s wrong with them?” Sally mumbled. “Why won’t they attack?”
“The Zeppelin!” Trevor exclaimed. “They’ve never seen anything like the Sky Blazer before, and they’re afraid of it!”
“Yeah, but for how long?”
“No, it isn’t that,” I said. “I must have misinterpreted the code.” I scratched my chin in thought. “Of course! They recognize the craft, but in their eyes it is another tribe’s god, one that they fear immensely or do not worship. Still, I do not intend to find out if my postulation is true. Let’s get her airborne, now!”
With the fifty or so spear-toting savages jabbering amongst themselves, we backed away slowly. My eyes remained glued over my shoulders at the hesitant throng, as I grabbed my companions’ arms and raced across the suspended dock. Sally then knifed the rope, and I boarded and grimaced under the strain as the aircraft rolled over the well-placed cumulus along its path outward.
With Sally in control of the gasbags and fueling mechanism, Trevor kept a watchful eye on them from the stern. Their courage renewed, the Cohrezi raced to the island’s edge and launched their spears at the airborne thing which, only seconds earlier, had terrified them. But despite the strong arms that propelled them, the majority of the deadly weapons caromed harmlessly over the armorlike hull. A few found their way to the clouds, a few even to the airship’s deck; one landed within a few inches of Trevor’s foot, but this was the closest call experienced.
Soon the last spear had been hurled, leaving the Cohrezi frustrated on the beach. Before a shower of waving fists and angry cries, we flew effortlessly beyond the sphere of the island and were finally on our way home.
— ♦♦♦ —
Three, Two-Penny Pieces. By L.P. Melling , Art by John Waltrip
Four bodies found already. Not even a damn hint of a clue. Broads, one young, one older (sisters), a nun and even a young kid for God’s sake. It was sickening—a case that smelt like used cigarette buds stewing in stale ale. The boys in blue who found and called in the last two were still not the same. Follow this detective trying his damnedest to solve this seemingly random string of senseless murders. Will he solve it in time to stop the next murder?