Part 7 - This Hellish Hole
The night reached out and bit the airship out of the world. The moon’s radiance cut off immediately and even the ship lamps seemed to gutter with the shock. They returned hesitantly, and held a weaker luminance than before. Although Rosenhatch Traverstorm trusted the captain to know the dimensions of his vessel the hole had appeared all too small. He and the crew had all cringed as the captain unerringly steered the huge balloon and gondola into the cave. To his credit he had already reversed the velocity engines while they were some way out and they drifted gently into the waiting maw.
The terrific swarm of clawing monsters that bedevilled their flight were vivid silhouettes against the glowing exterior. The pistoliers and riflemen continued to gun them down; their centipede companion braced his forelimbs against the rail and directed the rotating barrels of his enormous battery gun towards their enemies, exploding them into tatters. The tremendous roar of Harvey’s carapace mounted machine gun slowed and reduced to irregular shouting. The cannon whined to a halt and the crew’s individual pistol shots were distinct once again. They too tapered off till the crew stood quiet and still on deck. The creatures had withdrawn as the airship drifted further from the outside world. The cave mouth had shrunk dramatically – as Traverstorm proved to himself, raising his hand outstretched in front of him. He abandoned the view, leaving half of the crew maintaining their vigilance at the rear, to join the rest peering into the absolute blackness ahead.
The dark was peerless. Nothing was visible. The lanterns shrank from the gloom, which was irritating as that only made the darkness more complete. Nonetheless Traverstorm squinted, in the vain hope that some light might be forthcoming from deep within the sky cliff. Harvey’s heavy tread announced his presence, the repeating monster on his back causing him to sway more than usual.
“Perhaps they are afraid of the dark,” he joked, jocularly jabbing Traverstorm with his right mandible.
“Hmm,” murmured his friend,” I do wonder if we ought to be…”
Jasparz, the captain’s aide, joined them at the rail. “Lord Emmaline requests your counsel gentlemen.” The crew took an automatic step or two backwards as Harvey’s repeating cannon lurched over them, even though the crank handle hung untouched to his side.
Lord Emmaline was busy lighting a cigar. The glowing tip added a fraction more light to the darkness.
“Good instincts Lord Emmaline,” commented Traverstorm, accepting one of the captain’s cigars (which he himself had brought aboard), “we seem to be safe from them for now.”
“Unless they’re now massing within, preparing to come upon us from all directions,”
“We’re not likely to see them coming,” Harvey chipped in, “but this place is curious. It has the most unusual emanations.” His final pair of legs, which pointed directly behind him quivered and twitched gently.
“Harvey’s kind are highly sensitive to vibration,” Traverstorm offered in response to Lord Emmaline’s quirked brow, “his sensitivity is remarkable, and in circumstances such as these will doubtless prove of greater value than our poor sight.”
“The walls, the whole substance of this unusual aerial structure is positively vibrant. Why, it feels as if the whole rock is alive.”
“A roost perhaps? A vast eyrie, like the ghastly shite-spattered cliffs of Grimdown – only within the hollows rather than on the cliff itself. This must be the resting and probably breeding space for the species. Where else could they fly to? This may be the only object of its sort in the sky. A rare species – indigent solely to this bizarre honeycombed mountain…” Traverstorm’s eyes glazed over as the evolutionary possibilities of the curious cliff bedazzled him.
Lord Emmaline was not so blinded and whilst the explorer pondered he stuffed his pistol into its holster and directed Jasparz to maintain their present cautious course.
“Fix the lamps at fullest extension lads,” he called out through his clenched cigar.
The crew unfolded the hidden booms, stretching an extra set of lights out as far as they would go. They seemed even dimmer out there, but the combined radiance produced a faint reflection off the sides of the cavern, just barely enough to be sure they were not on an immediate collision course. With the oppressive darkness held at bay Lord Emmaline grew conscious of the dank heat that surrounded them as surely as the dark.
“So now what?” asked Traverstorm.
“While I was briefly torn between remaining here or reversing our route and facing that endless horde once more, I believe we ought to follow our intent – to find young Jacob Bublesnatch and rescue him from this hellish hole.”
“Splendid. Harvey here believes he can use his sensitivity to the queer vibrations to at least partly map out the warren that we’re presently plumbing.”
Indeed, the giant centipede had unrolled a large sheet of paper and was even now deftly manipulating a pair of charcoal pencils to plot out the network of tunnels. Beside the sketch he added florid tables of personal symbolism depicting depth of vibration, intensity and irregularities he could detect.
“We shall shortly come upon a vertical passage which looks to lead further into the heart of this place. Given the lack of denizens thus far I’d speculate that they cluster tightly as far from the outer reaches as possible. There we might well discover our missing night watch mate.”
“Excellent,” declared their captain, “I want two men on top of the main frame in five minutes. Take your safeties and pistols. Contact us as soon as you reach the top,” the crew exchanged worried looks and a series of surreptitious ‘rock-paper-scissors’ were soon underway. Lord Emmaline turned back to Harvey and Traverstorm, “there’s a platform above the bag’s frame. I’ll have them spot for us from up there.” A pair of men bounded up the rigging and vanished into the gloom.
“I do hope they took lights with them,” remarked Traverstorm.
“They’ll be fine. Capable fellows,” Lord Emmaline’s response seemed dreadfully glib when with a scream, one of the two men plummeted past the railing and into the depths, “perhaps a little hasty with the knots though.”
Next Week: Part 8 – Running Blind