Chapter 13 - The Wombflash Forest
He awoke to his third day on Tormance. His limbs ached. He lay on his side, looking stupidly at his surroundings. The forest was like night, but that period of the night when the grey dawn is about to break and objects begin to be guessed at, rather than seen. Two or three amazing shadowy shapes, as broad as houses, loomed up out of the twilight. He did not realise that they were trees, until he turned over on his back and followed their course upward. Far overhead, so high up that he dared not calculate the height, he saw their tops glittering in the sunlight, against a tiny patch of blue sky.
Clouds of mist, rolling over the floor of the forest, kept interrupting his view. In their silent passage they were like phantoms flitting among the trees. The leaves underneath him were sodden, and heavy drops of moisture splashed onto his head from time to time.
He continued lying there, trying to reconstruct the events of the preceding day. His brain was lethargic and confused. Something terrible had happened, but what it was he could not for a long time recollect. Then suddenly there came before his eyes that ghastly closing scene at dusk on the Sant plateau - Spadevil's crushed and bloody features and Tydomin's dying sighs.. .. He shuddered convulsively, and felt sick.
The peculiar moral outlook that had dictated these brutal murders had departed from him during the night, and now he recognised what he had done! During the whole of the previous day he seemed to have been labouring under a series of heavy enchantments. First Oceaxe had enslaved him, then Tydomin, then Spadevil, and lastly Catice. They had forced him to murder and violate; he had guessed nothing, but had imagined that he was travelling as a free and enlightened stranger. What was this nightmare journey for - and would it continue, in the same way? ...
The silence of the forest was so intense that he heard no sound except the pumping of blood through his arteries. Putting his hand to his face, he found that his remaining probe had disappeared and that he was in possession of three eyes. The third eye was on his forehead, where the old sorb had been. He could not guess its use. He still had his third arm, but it was nerveless.
Now he puzzled his head for a long time, trying unsuccessfully to recall that name which had been the last word spoken by Catice.
He got up, with the intention of resuming his journey. He had no toilet to make, and no meal to prepare. The forest was tremendous. The nearest tree appeared to him to have a circumference of at least a hundred feet. Other dim boles looked equally large. But what gave the scene its aspect of immensity was the vast spaces separating tree from tree. It was like some gigantic, supernatural hall in a life after death. The lowest branches were fifty yards or more from the ground. There was no underbrush; the soil was carpeted only by the dead, wet leaves. He looked all around him, to find his direction, but the cliffs of Sant, which he had descended, were invisible - every way was like every other way, he had no idea which quarter to attack. He grew frightened, and muttered to himself. Craning his neck back, he stared upward and tried to discover the points of the compass from the direction of the sunlight, but it was impossible.
While he was standing there, anxious and hesitating, he heard the drum taps. The rhythmical beats proceeded from some distance off. The unseen drummer seemed to be marching through the forest, away from him.
"Surtur!" he said, under his breath. The next moment he marvelled at himself for uttering the name. That mysterious being had not been in his thoughts, nor was there any ostensible connection between him and the drumming.
He began to reflect - but in the meantime the sounds were travelling away. Automatically he started walking in the same direction. The drum beats had this peculiarity - though odd and mystical, there was nothing awe-inspiring in them, but on the contrary they reminded him of some place and some life with which he was perfectly familiar. Once again they caused all his other sense impressions to appear false.
The sounds were intermittent. They would go on for a minute, or for five minutes, and then cease for perhaps a quarter of an hour. Maskull followed them as well as he could. He walked hard among the huge, indistinct trees, in the attempt to come up with the origin of the noise, but the same distance always seemed to separate them. The forest from now onward descended. The gradient was mostly gentle - about one foot in ten - but in some places it was much steeper, and in other parts again it was practically level ground for quite long stretches. There were great swampy marshes, through which Maskull was obliged to splash. It was a matter of indifference to him how wet he became - if only he could catch sight of that individual with the drum. Mile after mile was covered, and still he was no nearer to doing so.
The gloom of the forest settled down upon his spirits. He felt despondent, tired, and savage. He had not heard the drum beats for some while, and was half inclined to discontinue the pursuit.
Passing around a great, columnar tree trunk, he almost stumbled against a man who was standing on the farther side. He was leaning against the trunk with one hand, in an attitude of repose. His other hand was resting on a staff. Maskull stopped short and started at him.
He was nearly naked, and of gigantic build. He over-topped Maskull by a head. His face and body were faintly phosphorescent. His eyes - three in number - were pale green and luminous, shining like lamps. His skin was hairless, but the hair of his head was piled up in thick, black coils, and fastened like a woman's. His features were absolutely tranquil, but a terrible, quiet energy seemed to lie just underneath the surface.
Maskull addressed him. "Did the drumming come from you?"
The man shook his head.
"What is your name?"
He replied in a strange, strained, twisted voice. Maskull gathered that the name he gave was "Dreamsinter."
"What is that drumming?"
"Surtur," said Dreamsinter.
"Is it advisable for me to follow it?"
"Perhaps he intends me to. He brought me here from Earth."
Dreamsinter caught hold of him, bent down, and peered into his face. "Not you, but Nightspore."
This was the first time that Maskull had heard Nightspore's name since his arrival on the planet. He was so astonished that he could frame no more questions.
"Eat this," said Dreamsinter. "Then we will chase the sound together." He picked something up from the ground and handed it to Maskull. He could not see distinctly, but it felt like a hard, round nut, of the size of a fist.
"I can't crack it."
Dreamsinter took it between his hands, and broke it into pieces. Maskull then ate some of the pulpy interior, which was intensely disagreeable.
"What am I doing in Tormance, then?" he asked.
"You came to steal Muspel-fire, to give a deeper life to men - never doubting if your soul could endure that burning."
Maskull could hardly decipher the strangled words.
"Muspel.. .. That's the name I've been trying to remember ever since I awoke."
Dreamsinter suddenly turned his head sideways, and appeared to listen for something. He motioned with his hand to Maskull to keep quiet.
"Is it the drumming?"
"Hush! They come."
He was looking toward the upper forest. The now familiar drum rhythm was heard - this time accompanied by the tramp of marching feet.
Maskull saw, marching through the trees and heading toward them, three men in single file separated from one another by only a yard or so. They were travelling down hill at a swift pace, and looked neither to left nor right. They were naked. Their figures were shining against the black background of the forest with a pale, supernatural light - green and ghostly. When they were abreast of him, about twenty feet off, he perceived who they were. The first man was himself - Maskull. The second was Krag. The third man was Nightspore. Their faces were grim and set.
The source of the drumming was out of sight. The sound appeared to come from some point in front of them. Maskull and Dreamsinter put themselves in motion, to keep up with the swiftly moving marchers. At the same time a low, faint music began.
Its rhythm stepped with the drum beats, but, unlike the latter, it did not seem to proceed from any particular quarter of the forest. It resembled the subjective music heard in dreams, which accompanies the dreamer everywhere, as a sort of natural atmosphere, rendering all his experiences emotional. it seemed to issue from an unearthly orchestra, and was strongly troubled, pathetic and tragic. Maskull marched, and listened; and as he listened, it grew louder and stormier. But the pulse of the drum interpenetrated all the other sounds, like the quiet beating of reality.
His emotion deepened. He could not have said if minutes or hours were passing. The spectral procession marched on, a little way ahead, on a path parallel with his own and Dreamsinter's. The music pulsated violently. Krag lifted his arm, and displayed a long, murderous-looking knife. He sprang forward and, raising it over the phantom Maskull's back, stabbed him twice, leaving the knife in the wound the second time. Maskull threw up his arms, and fell down dead. Krag leaped into the forest and vanished from sight. Nightspore marched on alone, stern and unmoved.
The music rose to crescendo. The whole dim, gigantic forest was roaring with sound. The tones came from all sides, from above, from the ground under their feet. It was so grandly passionate that Maskull felt his soul loosening from its bodily envelope.
He continued to follow Nightspore. A strange brightness began to glow in front of them. It was not daylight, but a radiance such as he had never seen before, and such as he could not have imagined to be possible. Nightspore moved straight toward it. Maskull felt his chest bursting. The light flashed higher. The awful harmonies of the music followed hard one upon another, like the waves of a wild, magic ocean.. .. His body was incapable of enduring such shocks, and all of a sudden he tumbled over in a faint that resembled death.
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