Continuing the adventure that began here.
CHAPTER VII. Jungle of Green Death.
The forces trying to pull me away from the cable I clung to were extraordinary. I was whipped this way and that for I know not how long as the airship shot across the sky with countless zigzags and loops.
At last, with an indescribably flatulent sound, the gas bag gave up the last of its goesuppium, and the long wild ride seemed to be over.
“Now,” said Weyland, “it may get a bit bumpy.”
Almost immediately the gondola began to plummet, trailing the spent gas bag like a streamer. The trajectory varied but settled into a steep descent toward what appeared to be lush green forest. Very soon we hit the top branches, and Weyland and I were flung from the gondola.
Luckily we were tossed into the branches of a cottonwood tree, whose luxuriously soft wood cushioned the impact like a down mattress.
“Well,” said Weyland when we had recovered our breath, “I’d say that turned out a good deal better than it might have done.”
“Where do you suppose we are?” I asked, carefully picking my way toward the massive trunk of the tree.
“Headwaters of the Amazon, I’d say.”
“Good heavens! That far?”
“The peculiar pattern of veins in this leaf,” said Weyland, picking a leaf off the branch, “marks this as an Amazon Headwaters Cottonwood, which grows only in this one area of the world.”
“Well, I won’t argue with a cottonwood.”
“And now, Peevish, I suggest we descend to the ground, but with the utmost care. Not only have we Miss Kun and her clerical goons to worry about, but it is said that this jungle is infested by particularly vicious and intractable cannibals.”
“So it is said by the few surviving explorers. I, for one, have no desire to end up in someone’s chowder, so I suggest we proceed with appropriate caution.”
We began by carefully descending the tree, which was rendered difficult by the soft and yielding nature of its branches. Fortunately the tree was festooned with vines of every description, which formed themselves into serviceable ladders; and in a few minutes we had reached the comparative dimness of the forest floor.
The jungle was a vast cathedral, with trees for columns and their lofty branches for a roof. Most of it was open space between the trees, except where a tree had fallen and opened up a space in the canopy; then a riot of vines, bushes, saplings, and flowers rushed in and grasped madly at the rays of sunlight.
“It’s a beautiful place,” I remarked as we strolled along on the soft carpet of decaying leaves.
“Beautiful but deadly,” said Weyland. “You never know where sudden death may be lurking. That scarlet Peruvian death viper, for example—most venomous reptile on the planet. One bite will kill you, revive you, and kill you again. That’s now deadly it is.”
I stopped in my tracks and gaped at the bright red serpent in the leaves not six feet away from me.
“Oh, don’t worry, Peevish,” Weyland continued. “It won’t strike unless provoked.”
“What provokes it?” I asked nervously.
“Well, I wouldn’t insult its sister if I were you. And don’t mention the border dispute with Ecuador.”
Cautiously we resumed our stroll, making sure to express no opinions on border issues. The snake remained lazily sprawled on the ground behind us, its flicking tongue the only sign that it had taken any notice of us.
It was noisy all around us with the bird calls and monkey chatter one usually expects from a tropical forest. Our footsteps were quiet but audible among all the other sounds—a fact that hardly registered in my mind until Weyland suddenly held up his hand in front of me. We stopped, and he put his finger to his lips.
I stopped and listened. The birds had ceased to shriek, and the monkeys were no longer chattering. My own breathing had nearly ceased as well. I could sense something ominous in the jungle.
Weyland gestured for me to follow him. As silently as we could, we made our way to one of the thickets of bushes and vines where a mighty tree had fallen, and there we hid ourselves among the leaves so that we could see out through small gaps in the vegetation but were not ourselves visible, or at least so we hoped.
For some time I saw nothing, and more ominously I heard nothing. The forest, which had been raucous with all the calls of the creatures that inhabited it, was now eerily silent. Then I began to hear a sound. It was indistinct at first, but as it grew in volume I suddenly realized, with a sickening drop in my stomach, that it was the sound of many feet.
Soon we could see the feet, and the bodies attached to them as well. A mixed party of natives had come into view. They were copper-fleshed and black-haired, and they seemed to regard clothing as a nuisance to be applied as sparingly as possible. They marched forward with a silent purposefulness that chilled my blood. I held my breath as they came within only a few yards of my position. But they passed us without detecting us, and when I could no longer hear their footsteps, I resumed something like normal breathing. I kept still for a while longer, however, not daring to dove quite yet.
At last Weyland spoke in a low voice. “Well, Peevish, it looks as though we just narrowly avoided ending up in somebody’s pot.”
“Do you think it’s safe now?”
“We are never safe until the Devil King is stopped. But I believe we can move on without immediate risk.”
I willed myself to step out of the thicket, but nothing happened. I pulled harder, but my arms and legs were bound in place by vines.
“I seem to be stuck,” I announced. And more worryingly, the vines were visibly growing up my arms.
“Strangler figs!” exclaimed Weyland. “They’ve got me, too! Don’t struggle, Peevish. If you move, the vines will climb up to your neck and throttle you.”
“What happens if I don’t move?”
“The vines will climb up to your neck and throttle you.”
“How is that better?” I demanded as a tendril reached my shoulder.
“I didn’t say it was better. I just thought I’d spare you some wasted effort. Either way, you die.”
Don’t miss tomorrow’s thrilling episode: