During the days that we had been wandering in the forest we must have been climbing steadily, but the ascent had been so gradual that we had scarcely noticed it. Now, the effect of coming suddenly upon this mighty depression was startling. It was as though I were looking into a deep pit that lay far below sea level. This impression, however, was soon dispelled, for in the distance I saw a great river winding along the bed of the valley; and I knew that it must run downward to some sea.
“A new world!” breathed Duare. “How beautiful by contrast with this frightful forest!”
“Let us hope that it will be no less kind to us than the forest has been.”
“How could it be otherwise than kind? It is so beautiful,” she replied. “There must be people living there, generous, kindly people as lovely as their lovely valley. There could be no evil where there is so much beauty. Perhaps they will help us to return to my Vepaja. I am sure they will.”
“I hope so, Duare,” I said.
“See!” she exclaimed. “There are little rivers running into the big river, and there are level plains dotted with trees, and there are forests, too, but no terrible forest that stretches on and on seemingly without end as this that we are escaping. Do you see any cities or signs of man, Carson?”
I shook my head. “I cannot be positive. We are very high above the valley; and the large river, where it is probable the cities would be, is far away. Only a very great city with tall buildings would be visible from here, and the haze that hangs over the valley might even hide a large city from us. We shall have to go down into the valley to find out.”
“I can scarcely wait,” exclaimed Duare.
The trail on which we had approached the edge of the escarpment turned sharply to the left and skirted the brink, but from it a smaller trail branched and dropped over the edge.
This trail was little better than a faintly marked foot path, and it zigzagged down the almost vertical face of the escarpment in a manner calculated to send the cold chills up one’s back if he happened to be affected by such things.
“Few creatures go up and down here,” remarked Duare, as she looked over the edge of the escarpment at the dizzy trail.
“Perhaps we had better go on farther; there may be an easier way down,” I suggested, thinking that she might be fearful.
“No,” she demurred. “I wanted to get out of the forest, and here is my chance. Something has gone up and down here; and if something else has, we can.”
“Take my hands, then; it is very steep.”
She did as I bid, and I also handed her my spear to use as a staff. Thus we started the perilous descent. Even now I hate to recall it. It was not only fraught with danger but it was exceedingly exhausting. A dozen times I thought that we were doomed; seemingly it was impossible to descend farther, and certainly it would have been impossible to retrace our steps to the summit, for there had been places where we had lowered ourselves over ledges that we could not have again scaled.
Duare was very brave. She amazed me. Not only was her courage remarkable, but her endurance was almost unbelievable in one so delicately moulded. And she kept cheerful and good-natured. Often she laughed when she would slip and almost fall, where a fall meant death.
“I said,” she recalled, once while we were resting, “that something must have come up and down this trail. Now I wonder what manner of creature it may be.”
“Perhaps it is a mountain goat,” I suggested. “I can think of nothing else that might do it.”
She did not know what a mountain goat was, and I knew of no Venusan animal with which to compare it. She thought that a mistal might easily go up and down such a trail. I had never heard of this animal, but from her description I judged it to be a rat-like animal abou the size of a house cat.
As we were starting down again after a rest, I heard a noise below us and looked over the edge of the ledge on which we stood to see what had caused it.”
“We are about to have our curiosity satisfied,” I whispered to Duare. “Here comes the trail maker.”
“Is it a mistal?” she asked.
“No, nor a mountain goat; but it is just the sort of a creature that might most easily cling to this vertical pathway. I don’t know what you Amtorians call it. Take a look; perhaps you will recognize it.”
It was a huge, hideous lizard about twenty feet in length that was climbing sluggishly upward toward our position.
Leaning on my shoulder, Duare glanced downward over the ledge. She voiced a low gasp of terror.
“I think it is a vere,” she said, “and if it is we are in for it. I have never seen one, but I have read of them in books and seen their pictures; this one looks like the pictures I have seen.”
“Are they dangerous?” I asked.
“They are deadly,” she replied. “We wouldn’t have a chance against a vere.”
“See if you can climb back out of the way,” I said to Duare. “I will try to hold it here until you are safe.” Then I turned toward the creature crawling slowly upward.
It was covered with scales of red, black, and yellow arranged in intricate designs. Its coloration and ornamentation were beautiful, but right there its beauty stopped. It had a head not unlike that of a crocodile, and along each side of its upper jaw was a row of gleaming white horns. Across the top and down the sides of its head sprawled a single huge eye of myriad facets.
It had not discovered us yet, but in another half minute it would be upon us. I loosened a bit of rock near my hand and hurled it down, thinking I might turn the creature back. The missile struck it on the snout, and with a grunt it raised its head and saw me.
Its great jaws opened and out shot the most prodigious tongue I had ever seen. Like lightning it curled about me and snapped me toward those gaping jaws from which was issuing a harsh screaming whistle.
All that saved me from being instantly engulfed was the fact that I was a little too large a mouthful for the creature to negotiate with ease. I wedged crosswise of his snout and there I fought with all my strength to keep from being dragged into that rapacious maw.
It was a great slimy, toothless, sucking gullet that I struggled to escape. Evidently the creature swallowed its prey whole, its horns being probably solely for defense. From that repulsive throat issued a fetid odor that almost overpowered me. I think that it may have been a poisonous exhalation that was intended to anaesthetize its victims. I felt myself growing weak and dizzy, and then I saw Duare at my side.
She was grasping my spear in both hads and lunging viciously at the horrid face of the vere. All the time she was moaning, “Carson! Carson!”
How small and frail and inadequate she looked to be pitting herself against this fearsome creature!—and how magnificent!
She was risking her life to save mine, and yet she did not love me. Still, it was not incredible—there are noble qualities far more unselfish than love. Loyalty is of these. But I could not permit her to sacrifice her life for loyalty.
“Run, Duare!” I cried. “You can’t save me—I am done for. Run while you can, or it will kill us both.”
She paid no attention to me, but thrust again. This time the spear tore into the many-faceted eye. With a shrill whistle of pain, the reptile turned upon Duare and sought to strike her with its gleaming horns; but she stood her ground and, thrusting again, drove the weapon between the distended jaws, drove it deep and far into the pink flesh of that repulsive maw.
The spear point must have pierced the tongue, for it suddenly went limp; and I rolled from its encircling grasp to the ground.
Instantly I was on my feet again, and seizing Duare’s arm dragged her to one side as the vere charged blindly. It brushed past us, whistling and screaming, and then turned, but in the wrong direction.
It was then that I realized that the creature had been totally blinded by the wound in its eye. Taking a perilous risk, I threw my arm about Duare and slid over the edge of the ledge upon which the brute had encountered us, for to have remained even an instant where we were would have meant being maimed or hurled to our doom by the viciously lashing tail of the frenzied lizard.
Fortune favored us, and we came safely to rest upon another ledge at a slightly lower level. Above us we could hear the whistling scream of the vere and the thudding of his tail against the rocky escarpment.
Fearing that the creature might descend upon us, we hurried on, taking even greater risks than we had before; nor did we stop until we had reached comparatively level ground near the foot of the escarpment. Then we sat down to rest. We were both panting from our exertions.
“You were wonderful,” I said to Duare. “You risked your life to save mine.”
“Perhaps I was just afraid to be left alone,” she said with some embarrassment. “I may have been entirely selfish.”
“I don’t believe that,” I remonstrated.
The truth was that I didn’t want to believe it. Another implication was far sweeter to me.
“Anyhow,” remarked Duare, “we found out what made the trail up the escarpment.”
“And that our beautiful valley may not be as secure as it looks,” I added.
“But the creature was going out of the valley up into the forest,” she argued. “That is probably where it lived.”
“However, we had best be on our guard constantly.”
“And now you have no spear; and that is a real loss, for it is because of the spear that you are alive.”
“Down there a little way,” I indicated, pointing, “is a winding strip of wood that seems to be following the meanderings of a stream. There we can find material for another spear and also water. I am as dry as a bone.”
“So am I,” said Duare, “and hungry too. Perhaps you can kill another basto.”
I laughed. “This time I shall make you a spear and a bow and arrows, too. From what you have already done, you seem to be better able to kill bastos than I.”
Leisurely we walked toward the wood, which was about a mile away, through soft grass of a pale violet hue. Flowers grew in profusion on every hand. There were purple flowers and blue and pale yellow; and their foliage, like the blossoms, was strange and unearthly. There were flowers and leaves of colors that have no name, colors such as no earthly eye had ever seen before.
Such things bear in upon me the strange isolation of our senses. Each sense lives in a world of its own, and though it lives a lifetime with its fellow senses it knows nothing of their worlds.
My eyes see a color; but my fingers, my ears, my nose, my palate may never know that color. I cannot even describe it so that any of your senses may perceive it as I perceive it, if it is a new color that you have never seen. Even less well might I describe an odor or a flavor or the feel of some strange substance.
Only by comparison might I make you see the landscape that stretched before our eyes, and there is nothing in your world with which I may compare it—the glowing fog bank overhead, the pale, soft pastels of field and forest and distant misty moutains—no dense shadows and no high lights—strange and beautiful and weird—intriguing, provocative, compelling, always beckoning one on to further investigation, to new adventure.
All about us the plain between the escarpment and the forest was dotted with trees; and, lying beneath them or grazing in the open, were animals that were entirely new to my experience either here or on Earth. That several distinct families and numerous genera were represented was apparent to even a cursory survey.
Some were large and cumbersome, others were small and dainty. All were too far away for me to note them in detail; and for that I was glad, for I guessed that among that array of wild beasts there must be some at least which might prove dangerous to man. But, like all animals except hungry carnivores and men, they showed no disposition to attack us so long as we did not interfere with them or approach them too closely.
“I see that we shall not go hungry here,” remarked Duare.
“I hope some of those little fellows are good to eat,” I laughed.
“I am sure that big one under the tree is delicious; the one looking at us,” and she pointed to an enormous, shaggy creature as large as an elephant. Duare had a sense of humor.
“Possibly it entertains the same idea concerning us,” I suggested; “here it comes!”
The huge beast was walking toward us. The forest was still a hundred yards away.
“Shall we run?” asked Duare.
“I am afraid that would be fatal. You know, it is almost instinctive for a beast to pursue any creature that runs away from it. I think the best course for us to follow is to continue steadily toward the forest without seeming haste. If the thing does not increase its speed we shall reach the trees ahead of it; if we run for it the chances are that it will overtake us, for of all created things mankind seems to be about the slowest.”
As we proceeded, we constantly cast backward glances at the shaggy menace trailing us. He lumbered along, exhibiting no signs of excitement; but his long strides were eating up the distance between us. I saw that he would overtake us before we reached the forest. I felt utterly helpless, with my puny bow and my tiny arrows, before this towering mountain of muscle.
“Quicken your pace a little, Duare,” I directed.
She did as I bid, but after a few steps she glanced back. “Why don’t you come, too?” she demanded.
“Don’t argue,” I snapped a little shortly. “Do as I bid you.”
She stopped and waited for me. “I shall do as I please,” she informed me, “and it does not please me to let you make this sacrifice for me. If you are to be killed, I shall be killed with you. Furthermore, Carson Napier, please remember that I am the daughter of a jong and am not accusoomed to being ordered about.”
“If there were not more pressing matters to occupy me I would spank you,” I growled.
She looked at me, horrified; then she stamped one little foot in rage and commenced to cry. “You take advantage of me because there is no one to protect me,” she sputtered. “I hate you, you—you—”
“But I am trying to protect you, Duare; and you are only making it harder for me.”
“I don’t want any of your protection; I would rather be dead. It is more honorable to be dead than to be talked to like that—I am the daughter of a jong.”
“I think you have mentioned that several times before,” I said, coldly.
She threw up her head and walked stiffly on without looking back at me. Even her little shoulders and back radiated offended dignity and stifled rage.
I glanced behind me. The mighty beast was scarce fifty feet away; ahead of us the forest was about the same distance. Duare could not see me. I stopped and faced the colossus. By the time it had dispatched me Duare would probably be close to the safety of the branches of the nearest tree.
I held my bow in one hand, but my arrows remained in the crude quiver. I had fashioned to hold them behind my right shoulder. I had sense enough to realize that the only effect they might have upon this mountain of hairy sinew would be to enrage it.
After I stopped, the beast approached more slowly, almost warily. Two little eyes, set far apart, regarded me intently; two large, mulish ears pricked forward; quivering nostrils dilated.
On it came, very gradually now. A bony protuberance extending from its snout to its forehead commenced to rise until it revealed itself to my astonished gaze as a sharp-pointed horn. The horn rose until it pointed fiercely at me, a terrible weapon of offense.
I did not move. My experience of earthly animals had taught me that few will attack without provocation, and I stake my life on the chance that the same rule prevailed on Venus. But there are other provocations besides those that arouse fear or anger; a most potent one is hunger. However, this creature looked herbivorous; and I hoped that it was a vegetarian. But I could not forget the basto; that somewhat resembled an American bison, yet would eat meat.
Closer and closer came the remarkable beast, very, very slowly, as though its mind were assailed by doubts. It towered above me like a living mountain. I could feel its warm breath upon my almost naked body; but, better still, I could smell its breath—the sweet, inoffensive breath of a grass eater. My hopes rose.
The creature stuck out its muzzle toward me; a low rumbling issued from its cavernous chest; that terrible horn touched me; then the cool, moist muzzle. The beak sniffed at me. Slowly the horn subsided.
Suddenly, with a snort, the animal wheeled about and went galloping off, bucking and jumping as I have seen a playful steer buck and jump, its little tail stiffly erect. It presented a most ludicrous appearance—as would a steam locomotive skipping rope. I laughed, possibly a little hysterically, for my knees were suddenly weak and wobbly. If I had not been near death, I had at least thought that I was.
As I turned back toward the forest I saw Duare standing there looking at me, and as I approached her I perceived that she was wide-eyed and trembling.
“You are very brave, Carson,” she said with a little catch in her throat. Her anger seemed to have departed. “I know that you remained there so that I might escape.”
“There really wasn’t much else that I could do,” I assured her. “And now that that’s over, let’s see if we can’t find something to eat—something a few sizes smaller than that mountains of steaks and roasts. I think we’ll go on until we strike the stream that flows through this forest. We may find a drinking place or a ford that the animals are accustomed to coming to.”
“There are many animals out there on the plain that are small,” suggested Duare. “Why don’t you hunt there?”
“There are plenty of animals, but there are not enough trees,” I replied with a laugh. “We may need some trees in our hunting. I don’t know enough about these Amtorian beasts as yet to warrant me in taking unnecessary risks.”
We moved on into the wood beneath the delicate foliage and among the strangely beautiful boles with their lacquer-like bark of white and red and yellow and blue.
Presently we came in sight of a little river winding leisurely between its violet banks, and at the same instant I saw a small creature drinking. It was about the size of a goat, but it didn’t look like a goat. Its sharply pointed ears were constantly moving, as though on the alert for the slightest sound of danger; its tufted tail switched nervously. A collar of short horns encircled its neck just where it joined the head. They pointed slightly forward There must have been a dozen of them. I could not but wonder what their specific purpose might be until I recalled the vere from whose horrible maw I had so recently escaped. That necklace of short horns would most certainly have discouraged any creature that was in the habit of swallowing its prey whole.
Very gently, I pushed Duare behind a tree and crept forward, fitting an arrow to my bow. As I was preparing to shoot, the creature threw up its head and turned half around. Probably it had heard me. I had been creeping on it from behind, but its change of position revealed its left side to me, and I planted my first arrow squarely in its heart.
So we made our camp beside the river and dined on juicy chops, delicous fruits, and the clear water from the little stream. Our surroundings were idyllic. Strange birds sang to us, arboreal quadrupeds swung through the trees jabbering melodiously in soft sing-song voices.
“It is very lovely here,” said Duare, dreamily. “Carson—I wish that I were not the daughter of a jong.”