Part 4 – The The Frothing Horror
The Dove’s Eye was in pursuit. With Lord Emmaline Corshorn at the helm the airship’s upward drift was adjusted, and though the frost did not slacken its grip on the balloon or on the chilled flesh of the crew and passengers it gleamed brightly as they turned their course towards the moon.
“We’re not actually going to the moon, are we?” enquired Maxwell, from deep inside Rosenhatch Traverstorm’s coat.
“Of course not, doubtless the creature responsible for this hooliganism dwells in some cave within the Razored Ridge,” replied a shivering Rosenhatch.
“You might wish to remind the captain of that, for we are about to veer sharply from our destination in pursuit of the dangling boy,” commented Harvey, the huge centipede from within his voluminous scarves. And indeed they were heading out into the deep desert, leaving the ridge behind.
“I can hardly ask him to to call off the hunt for the poor boy when we’ve only just begun looking.”
Rosenhatch had studied the scene of the kidnapping as best he could, which was not well, considering that Lord Emmaline was currently stamping around inside it, his hands at the controls with crewmen bobbing in and out for instructions and course corrections. By ducking and weaving around that stream of activity Rosenhatch noted the splintered glass, and the inward bend of the pane that remained. His investigation revealed a number of facts, which in turn offered certain conclusions to his curious mind. And it is here that the ambiguity of the available evidence aided the travellers not in the least.
“Lord Emmaline,” cried Rosenhatch, above the gale that blew in to the tiny cabin as they fiercely pursued the departing creature, “I have drawn a number of conclusions regarding the beast-” he was interrupted by Harvey who thrust his forward segments and mouthparts to offer his own contribution.
“-for the thing, due to the residue left upon the fragments of glass is almost certainly neither vegetable nor mineral, although it could be construed as some form of sap or pulped cellulose – but no, for the accounts of Cloud Beans are at best apocryphal-”
Rosenhatch interrupted in turn, fearful that the centipede would mire them in academia, “I believe the beast to be large – though not so large as to require the entire window to get inside,” he reflected on the glass for a moment, “or, that the beast’s arm, or claw or writhing proboscis alone was not so large as to destroy the whole window to gain access to the poor boy. Well. If the latter, then the brute would likely be huge.”
“My thanks Traverstorm,” the Lord replied in his typical sanguine fashion, “for bringing to my attention the precisely unknown nature of our quarry.”
Harvey chipped in, “we believe it to be dangerous – most likely carnivorous and possibly female,”
“Though that presumes gender, of which we have little evidence, save noting that the boy was not torn to shreds and immediately consumed.”
“Indeed,” clicked Harvey, animatedly, “suggesting a gathering behaviour, perhaps a period of nesting or for the feeding of the young. Recall the Greater-Toothed Grundle Bear and its collecting of live amphibians into a stockpile to feed their ravenous triplets once they have burst from its wombing limb?”
“Ah! Or the Chiverley Hermit Beetle, which takes live prey in order to wear the still-breathing skin and pass amongst the tribesmen of the western plain…”
“While these deliberations are doubtless fascinating and of great worth within your hallowed college halls,” remarked their captain snidely, “perhaps you could turn your scholarly eyes towards that.”
His harsh tone cut through the bubbling rush of ideas and he gestured forward, beyond the overhanging balloon at what awaited them. As Rosenhatch peered into the night ahead he caught a last glimpse of the flying creature as it vanished into a greater shadow. The clouds drew back from the moon and its sterile glare etched out the shape of a cliff hanging in the sky. It extended upwards beyond Rosenhatch’s view, even as he leaned over the railing to follow its rise. The cliff face appeared to be slowly turning, for the moonlight spread across its face revealing countless crags and crannies, from holes large enough to house The Dove’s Eye to gaps Maxwell would struggle to squeeze inside. The caves were blacker than the night from which the cliff hung.
“It has no bottom – look, it’s just hanging in the air!” exclaimed Rosenhatch, his analytic brain stalled with gawping. The crew appeared on deck, as crew will, without summons or orders- they just knew, drawn by the sense of wonder, and not yet tainted by fear, that their place was on deck. Lord Emmaline, being possessed of a good deal more common sense than the average commoner, reduced their speed until they reached a drifting stop.
“Sky Mountain,” gasped one of the more nimble crew.
“Bollocks,” retorted a rigger, “no such thing as Sky Mountain.”
“Well what’s that then?” demanded the crewman.
“Well, that’s just a lot of caves stuck together.”
“Gentlemen, I think we can afford to name the Aerial Monolith later,” intruded Harvey (a round of murmurs went up as he continued: “Sky Mountain’s a better name”), “I myself have a more immediate concern.”
The centipede shook off the smaller of his scarves to gesture with more legs at the cliff side. The edges of the caves, those ovaline shapes so neatly outlined by the waxy yellow lunar glow, were changing, rippling, extending outwards in a frothy spume like a brutally whisked hot chocolate, bubbling onto a coaster. Here Traverstorm’s imagery broke down because the coaster was the night air itself and the over-excited beverage was a vast cloud of winged monsters.
“Man the artillery!” cried Lord Emmaline and the crew scattered, leaving Traverstorm and Harvey at the bow. Maxwell hopped out of Rosenhatch’s coat and ran back to their cabin.
Next Week: Part 5 – The Obsidian Eyrie