The Isle of Blood

Page 52

“Awaale,” the doctor said. “Let me borrow your knife for a moment. I want to show Will Henry something.”

Warthrop rammed the blade into the trunk of the tree and sliced downward, making a six-inch incision. Thick, bright red resin oozed from the tree’s wound.

Awaale groaned softly. “Bleeding trees? How did I not guess?”

“This is Dragon’s Blood, Will Henry,” the doctor said, “from which Socotra derives one of her names. It was highly valued in antiquity. They say Cleopatra used it for lipstick. This particular species, like the one you saw earlier, grows nowhere else on earth.”

“It does not look like any tree I have ever seen,” said Awaale, carefully wiping the blade clean on his trousers. “But this island is full of things I’ve never seen, and I have seen many, many things.”

Warthrop pointed to his right. “The Hagghier Mountains. And, on the other side, Hadibu.”

In the distance the range undulated in the noonday heat. The tallest peaks reared their saw-toothed heads more than five thousand feet into the air and thrust them into the billowing clouds draped over their jagged shoulders. They puffed their broken cheeks and blew a flurry of wind that stirred the monstrumologist’s dark hair.

“Hurry, gentlemen,” he said. “I think there may be a storm coming.”

The wind off the mountains played with our hair for a while and flicked at our collars. The wind was dry, though, the sky clear, the sun high and hot. After we’d traversed a mile or two, when the gigantic serrated teeth of Socotra sidled closer to our right, the wind grew tired of toying with us and began to prod and push, with an occasional thirty-mile-per-hour shove thrown in, testing our will to hold our northerly course. At one point a massive gust hurled me to the rocky ground. Awaale helped me up and said to the doctor, “If we walked in the gully, the wind could not reach us.”

“If we walked in the gully, a flash flood could sweep us off the plateau and into the ocean,” Warthrop answered testily. Both hado raise their voices to be heard. “But you are free to do as you wish.”

“I think I am not so free, because my wish is to be off this accursed island!”

“I did not ask for you to come!” returned my master.

“I did not come for you, dhaktar. I came for—”

“Yes?” The monstrumologist whirled on him. “Tell me. What did you come for?”

Awaale glanced at me. “For the unspoiled beaches.”

Warthrop stared at him for a long, awful moment. He started to say something, and when his mouth came open, the wind abruptly died. The sudden silence was deafening.

An object tumbled out of the sky and landed at the monstrumologist’s feet. Thin and shriveled, yellowish gray and speckled with gore—a human finger.

We followed the doctor’s thoughtful gaze upward. A shadow was descending from the cloudless sky, a whirling mass of blood and shattered bone and the blasted bits of a human carcass. The doctor was the first to react, and his reaction was to shove me as hard as he could with a panicked cry of “Run, Will Henry! Run!” In two strides he had outpaced Awaale and me, making for a tight grouping of Dragon’s Blood trees clinging precariously to the lip of the three-foot-deep gully along which we’d been hiking. The big Somali scooped me up under his massive arm and followed, shouting in abject terror, “What is this? What is this?” as the bloody rain began to slap and spatter the hard ground, popping all around us. A large piece of an organ—probably a portion of a liver—fell directly in front of him, and Awaale hopped over it with that peculiar grace that is born of desperation. We joined the monstrumologist beneath the relative safety of the trees. He was tearing through the rucksack, looking for our ponchos.

“Did it strike either of you?” Warthrop asked breathlessly. He did not wait for an answer. His eyes glowed with exultation. “Red rain! You understand what this means, don’t you? We are not too late.”

“It feels as if we are,” Awaale shouted in his face before yanking on his poncho.

The monstrumologist laughed, and lifted his face toward the bleeding sky.

Chapter Thirty-Eight: “The Faithful Scrivener of His Handiwork”

The red rain ended as abruptly as it had begun, and now a great shadow raced across the plain, the sky was engulfed, and the wind returned with a vengeful howl. Then the heavens split open in a furious cannonade. Like a gray curtain slamming down came the torrential rain, driven sideways by the wind, full of hate.

“Stay here!” the monstrumologist commanded, and he dove into the maelstrom and was quickly lost in the twisting sheets of gray. He returned after a moment and threw himself to the ground beside us with a great sigh of relief not altogether owing to the paucity of shelter offered by the trees.

“Well, the rain has washed away most of the evidence, but I did manage to scoop this up,” Warthrop said, opening his hand to show us the severed tip of a human finger. He dug into the instrument case for something to put it in. Awaale watched him impassively; it was impossible to tell what he was thinking. His stony expression unnerved me, though.

Not so the doctor of monstrumology. “Before you volunteer for an expedition with a practitioner of aberrant biology, perhaps you should educate yourself in what precisely constitutes aberrant biology,” he said to Awaale.

“The missionaries who taught me must have overlooked that part of my education, dhaktar,” returned Awaale dryly. The poncho was too small for him. The hood would not fit over his large head, and water coursed down his wide face and dripped from his chin. Fat drops splattered from above, filtered by the tangled arms of the Dragon’s Blood trees.

“I am not surprised,” Warthrop return. “It’s not the sort of thing that God-fearing men like to think about.”

“Now you will tell me that you do not fear God.”

“I don’t know enough about him to form a reasonable basis for fear.”

The doctor wrapped his long arms around his upraised knees and looked to the east—the source of the storm and the gruesome shower that had preceded it.

“We must correct our course, gentlemen. The way lies due east of us.”

“East?” Awaale asked. He glanced over his shoulder but could not even see to the other side of the gully through the ruffling gray shroud of water. “But you said the mountains were impassible this time of year. Rock slides and wind and—”

“Well, I suppose we could send Will Henry ahead with a polite note for the magnificum to rendezvous with us in Hadibu?” The monstrumologist laughed harshly and humorlessly, and then spoke gravely. “Those remains were carried aloft by the winds coming down from the Hagghier Mountains, so it is to the Hagghier Mountains that I intend to go, with your charming company or without it!”

He turned to me, unable to restrain his childlike enthusiasm. “You understand what this means, Will Henry. Despite their best efforts to keep the prize from my grasp, the Russians have failed. The magnificum still roams free!”

“Russians?” asked Awaale. “What Russians?”

The doctor ignored him. “I suspect they put their trust in Sidorov, a terrible scientist who couldn’t find the Statue of Liberty if you plunked him down on Bedloe’s Island!” He tapped the container that held the severed digit. “Maybe this belongs to my former colleague—a fitting end to an ignominious career!”

Awaale was slowly shaking his head. In all his travels he’d never met a man like the monstrumologist, and Awaale, you will recall, had traveled with bloodthirsty pirates. Warthrop’s particular brand of bloodlust was of a peculiar vintage, though, a taste that was wholly foreign to the Somali, like the difference between rotgut and fine wine.

The doctor dropped the specimen container into the instrument case and pulled himself to his feet, holding on to the trunk of the Dragon’s Blood tree to keep from sliding down the muddy slope. He cocked hiis head, as if listening for something hidden in the tumult of the smashing rain. In the gully below, the trickle of water had swelled into a shallow stream merrily racing over the rocks.

“We have to cross,” Warthrop said suddenly. He threw the instrument case over his shoulder and started down. “Now!”

We were nearly too late. A wall of water five feet high spun around the bend ahead, a churning debris-laden foaming mass that roared toward us like a runaway locomotive. Halfway across I slipped and pitched forward, my terrified cry smothered by the heavy throw of rain. Awaale, who had already reached the other side, turned and ran back for me, driving his legs furiously through the knee-deep water. He grabbed my arm and slung my body over his shoulders with the same fluid motion of a Steamer Point coal-heaver. With a mighty roar he hurled me up toward the doctor, who managed to grab hold of my collar before the slippery rocks shot me back down. I scrambled backward, like a scuttling crab up the slope, pushing my heels hard against the stone. Below me Awaale clutched and clawed at the rocks, while below him the muddy floodwaters churned and chewed along the course, bearing the effluvia of the mountains, their foul vomitus, to the sea.

Warthrop sensed it coming somehow—he must have, for we did not seek shelter upon reaching the summit of the opposite bank. He squatted on the lip of the gulch, pulled his hat low to shield the rain from his eyes, and waited. He raised his hand, one finger extended, and, as if on cue, a headless human torso came round the bend, turning lazily in the slowing current, its trunk split wide down the middle, its intestines trailing behind in the bloody froth.

More refuse followed. Some of the larger pieces were easily identifiable—a hand here, a head there. Others had been shredded past all recognition. The rain slackened; the current eased; the cosmic stage manager willed the pageant to slow to a stately pace befitting the solemnity of the occasion. The water went from muddy brown to rusty red—a river of blood coursing from the island’s fractured heart.

The monstrumologist looked down upon the human tide, and was entranced.

He murmured. “‘In this thou shalt know that I am the Lord: behold, I will smite with the rod that is in mine hand upon the waters which are in the river, and they shall be turned to blood.’”

“This does not belong to him,” Awaale whispered back. There was no need to whisper, really, yet somehow there was every need. “You pervert his word.”

“To the contrary,” answered the monstrumologist. “I am his devoted servant, the faithful scrivener of his handiwork.”

His hour had come. The hour when all the blood and death in his wake would be justified, the ledger sheet would be balanced, the debt repaid. James and Mary, Erasmus and Malachi, John and Muriel, Damien and Thomas and Jacob and Veronica, and the ones whose names I have forgotten and the ones whose names I never knew… Finding the magnificum would redeem the time, would redeem the dream. It was the hour—his hour—the hour when desire met despair. I saw it in the icy, unquenchable fire within his eyes. What fueled that infernal flame? Was it desire or was it despair?

The rain had departed, but the scudding clouds remained; the day would die a premature death. The mountains loomed before us, their serrated teeth draped in mist and shadow, and the earth beneath our feet was broken and crumbling, like the bones in the Dakhma’s ossuary. Huge boulders littered the way, hurled down in ages past by angry gods long since dead. Deep, shadowed-filled fissures, some only inches across, others spanning six feet or more, fanned out from the mountains’ feet like the tentacles of an enormous beast reaching for us. The ground rose and dipped in a frozen undulation, each hill a little higher, each valley a little shallower, and the wind dove down to test the monstrumologist’s will. It barreled across the plain, a wall of wind against which Warthrop pushed us without pause. It snatched the breath from our lungs, trammeled our words to the ground, spat dust into our eyes, and still he strove against it, bending forward lest he be driven backward or knocked off his feet entirely, moving like a man wading in waist-deep water, each step forward a victory hardly won.

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