This is the second part of the White Cobra serial: this and its predecessor first appeared on the story shelf of “Elfwood.com” in 2002 or so. It is therefore not technically “unreleased” or “unpublished” work, but it’s my own.
The same copyright rules apply: this is my own work and not to be republished without my permission or for monetary gain. Link back to this blog–don’t copy-paste to repost.
And please, enjoy!
Continued from Part 1:
The jungle closed around us as we made our way forward. Our necks and backs were baked by the midday sun, which filtered pure heat through the great canopy of leaves above our heads, the leaves which blocked the light. That’s what I remember first about that pagan journey—heat and darkness. No birds sang. The light ended three miles out of Bombay, and within two hours we might have gone mad for the darkness. The golden droplets of the sun were only enough to illumine the next furlong, and so we went, a furlong at a time. We broke the silence only with the horses’ weary tread and the whistling creak of the cab, and the drone of flies was the jungle’s only reply.
A wondrous vision burst upon our senses, of a sudden, and the forest ahead was flooded with light. We stopped, and stood blinking, hating the light for its blind ferocity. A great deadfall lay across our path, directly at the holey place. Its bole was many feet across, and so mighty was this Ozymandias that he in his death appointed that his places in the canopy be left empty, and the light that miser hoarded fell with him to the forest floor. How ignobly now he lay, now to furnish the royal banqueting halls of the ants and termites which had caused his kingdom’s fall. The rotting carcass of a deer lay in his skew shadow where some predator had let it do so. Black vultures pulled languidly at the flesh, and flies were thick. More vultures circled overhead, and occasionally a winged shadow was wont to fall across the sun. Mulligan cursed them all.
We laughed, a tepid, hollow, nervous laugh. We laughed at the curse, but our laughter was a lie. It is not easy to laugh in the jungle. There lives a silence not wanting to be broken. A silence of unnamed, unspeakable fear. We felt it as we navigated around the fallen emperor, stooping at his feet because the trees did, to pay their homage. And when at last we found the solid trail again, we were loth to leave his presence, for though great was the light of heaven which fell upon his ruin, yet greater still the darkness upon the further side. And greater still the silence. And greater still the fear.
We knew when night came. Our track’s pale wraith was exorcised at last by the unhallowed jungle, and we were forced to stop. The hunters began to build a small fire. Mulligan spat blasphemy after blasphemy upon them for its meager size, and threatened not to pay them if they didn’t add more wood. Accordingly more wood was added. The fire burned brighter and higher, and Mulligan, momentarily becalmed, took advantage of its coals to light a long Havana cigar, and blew a pungent plume to mix with the fire’s torpid haze. Ram sat beside me, shivering with the chill of the night. Our native hunters sat across the fire from him, and crossed themselves to every saint or idol that they knew. I read and reread from my Bible the judgements of the Revelation, for the calming of my nerves. And we sat in a ring facing outward, and we set the horses betwixt the cab and the fire, and we dared not sleep, and we watched the darkness.
We watched the eyes which watched us. We saw the great eyes. Then the small, thin eyes glowing like azure and the round, swift eyes full of fear. A great blood-red moth lurched suddenly free of the shadows, and hissed upon the pyre of our flame. Then another moth, and yet another. The eyes were still there. Cold blooded eyes met ours, and fiery eyes seemed to speak to one another across the fire. Hatred, menacing and sulphurous, was there. The smoke weakened in Mulligan’s cigar, and he slung it at the next pair of eyes that met his own. We heard a yell, inhuman and unearthly, and the answering shriek of the cab boy pierced the night by my ear. The eyes went out, and the smoke was filled with the yawping and screaming of a thousand barbaric voices. I smelled singed hair, and above the cacophony there arose such a dread wail that our horses, already nervous, bucked and reared. Their tether ropes snapped tight again and again. They didn’t have long to go.
“Look to the animals!” I cried out. One of the strongest horses, a fine stallion and a favourite of Mulligan’s, burst his rein completely. His master ran after him, but it was too late. My partner returned in defeat and angrily lit another cigar on the coals of the dying fire. Ram curled cautiously under my arm in the darkness, and I let him be, grateful for the added warmth.
“The horses, I have wrapped his eyes, Sahib,” whispered the boy.
A great limb fell, off in the jungle, and the screams of the monkeys splattered the air from that quarter. Then all was silent.
Across the embers from me, the figure of a man wavered and stood upon its feet. It strode away to the place where a prize stallion had broken off the road into the thicket.
“Du schweinkopf Pferd, du!” it screamed into the haughty night. Then it wreathed itself in its odourous vapour, and settled itself again.
We reached the city the following morning. More accurately, we saw the first signs of it. The fragment of a man’s skull, more ancient than Britain, lay nearly hidden in a morass of vines. Only a skull. I wondered that there was the light to see it at all. Then a little further on a weathered old obelisk careened heavily from among the trees, which were noticeably thinner by this time. The horses snorted and balked, but we urged them past it. A smell lingered on the breeze, a cold, rotting, reptilian smell. The smell became worse as we progressed, as did my companion’s choice of words.
“Damn this rotten smell!” said Mulligan from inside the cab among the baggage. “We’d better find that city soon.” His next several sentences were not as repeatable.
Then a roar like the fall of a second Atlantis tore the jungle behind us. The great pillar stood shuddering, and then it fell, smashing branches and saplings on its way. It shook the ground when it fell, and the treetops parted to reveal the city of Delwaar San in all of its crumbling glory. Even as the hunters crossed their breasts, the horses bolted underneath us, and we plunged forward against our will full into the city’s clearing. My horse, ahead of the rest, balked as suddenly as he had started, and I was thrown. It was the smell that did it. I smacked my head on the pavement.
Towering stone pillars frowned down upon the plaza in which I lay. Slowly, I made out the shapes of the walls. If the gates of Babylon had been planted in the jungle, if they were graven in serpents and not lions, they might have been the gates of Delwaar San. The mouldering and vine-wrapped towers soared around me on all sides. A lone pebble fell from high above, and rattled off the stones before landing at my feet. I picked it up, and examined it. Unusually long and slender, it resembled nothing more to me than the fang of a great stone serpent. I looked up naively to see where it had fallen from. It was then that I first truly beheld the pale, living horror of Delwaar San.
Thirty feet above the pavement was a terror of hideous gargoyles. Row upon row, all cold and reptilian in their form. All alike, with long teeth and hollow eye sockets, and long tongues which lolled hungrily. In the lowest row of five above me, the left fang was but newly broken, and the paint upon the monster’s tongue belied the years. It was ghost-white still, and hung quite straight below the jaw. But perhaps the very tip curled back a hair’s breadth. I looked again at the stone in my hand, and up at the monster. Yes, there was a definitive hook to the tongue, and I wondered why I hadn’t seen it before. It hadn’t been there before.
The tongue drooped no more. There was a momentary flash in the air, and then the beast awakened, and drew the coils of this organ slowly back into its motionless throat. Then its eyes awakened. But only its right eye. With its newfound vision the orb threw wild glances this way and that, and then inverted itself. The pupil filled its socket, and then the white came up again, this time in the centre of the opening. It grew, and took the form of a snake’s head. A pair of coals, redder than blood, burned frigidly in the stead of the animal’s eyes. The head emerged completely from the socket and dropped, a scaly eyeball on the stalk of a slug. And it scooped itself up again in one fluid motion, even as it continued to slide out, and the head reared back on a level with the socket. I felt the snake was looking right at me with its ruby eyes. It was a sense of powerlessness in the face of death.
The cobra spread its hood, and a breeze at that moment blew across the gargoyles; the hollow eyes moved, the empty throats sang. And on the pale hood which met my eyes was a mark of blood. It effaced the chalky grey yolk of the wyrm’s natural and regal kin, the king cobras, and stood crimson and smooth upon the deadly breast. The forked tongue flashed out, in and out, in and out, in and out hypnotically. The eyes flashed in the sun. My poor horse’s pitiable scream alone brought me back to reality.
“Dear Lord save me,” I prayed. “Deliver us from evil. For Thine is the Kingdom སྒྲ ” By this time, the whole of the gateway was swarming with cobras. Turning around, I saw my terror-smitten steed stumble and fall among the serpents. Already they writhed about his legs and withers. Many times they struck, and the faithful beast withered with no more than a final whinny. “སྒྲ and the Power, and the Glory, forever,’” and with the “’Amen,’” I ran for dear life to the shelter of a bare archway among the vines.
My feet drummed against the flagging stones, as I fled for my life along the deserted city streets, until I could run no further. My chest ached, and my pulse pounded behind my temples and rang in my ears. I stood alone, in a deserted market street, lined with broken shops and the bones of birds. The jungle loomed dark through the gaps between them at the ends of alleyways and the edge of town it defied thought. But I felt that the sin of the jungle was less than the curse of the city but I stayed on. A troop of monkeys chattered noisily overhead, but there was not a snake in sight. Soon, though, all was silent. A human skeleton lay in the shadows in one of the larger shops, dressed in the ever-present jungle vines. I went in to have a closer look. Perhaps I might learn who he was, for the remains, though old, were centuries newer than the ruin. Blonde hair still clung to the top of the skull. I poked the rib cage, and seven good British brass buttons fell out with something which interested me more. It was a gold ring, the like of which I had only seen in one other place. A white sapphire shone in the stead of the ruby which had graced Sir Edgar’s hand, but in all else the rings were identical. One other item caught my attention. A black, leather bound book like a ledger or a diary lay by his side, which I lifted and brought out into the street where the light was better. The ring went into my pocket.
The book was the log of Lieutenant Ishmael Stuart of the East India Company, describing the discovery of Delwaar San by the officers of the Company ten years before. This was that lost expedition, of which Edgar had been the only known survivor. Entries stopped abruptly in the middle of the book. I noted the last one:
Hans crossed Edgar again this morning. Wants his ring not know where is number two. I have it. E D starting to fall— Sgt Bremen always was. Shot last native last night. Us three now. H B and E D having it out now. D shot and missed B coming. Number two is past his reach now. He may fight for—
I wondered what had then become of this Hans Bremen, as I supposed H B to be, and prayed too late that the young lieutenant had not died too dreadfully. I feared that in fact he had. Mulligan was calling for me, so I stepped out of the room into the street.
“I’m over here, Mulligan!” I hollered.
He was standing beside a large old fountain in the nearby square. The basin was filled with stagnant rainwater, and the air was filled with the droning whine of large mosquitoes.
“All these miles, and now this!” Mulligan said with a curse. He kicked the stagnant fountain. “And now,” he swore again, “this!”
He brought out the map and passed it to me. The crypt we sought was concealed beneath the altar to a snake-goddess, apparently the primary cult of the city. We should have been standing beside that altar right now, but there was nothing of the sort in sight. I saw at the other end of the square the hired hunters lounged against the pillars of a fantastic temple. Checking the copied map, I saw that its devotion was to the same idol.
“Did you check the temple?”
“Only till I was sick.” Mulligan grumbled. “Did you find anything?”
I brought out the ring, without thinking so much of the matter. But when Mulligan saw it, he pounced upon it eagerly. Briefly I thought that his eye flashed, but when I looked again I saw I had been mistaken, as he held it to the sun.
“Where did you find this?” and I told him. “Show me this shop!”
“This is no ordinary shop, my friend,” he said with authority and awe. “Did you note that skeleton in the corner? This was the quarters of the keeper of the altar. That would be him there: he kept the keys to the temple and the kings’ burial vault.” I asked him, as I looked again upon the skeleton of poor Ishmael Stuart, how he knew all this. “It’s written on the map,” he said with a smile. I surely didn’t remember that, and I’d copied the whole thing.
“Now what,” I asked him.
“Find that altar!” was the prompt reply, and once again we scoured the square. Ram and the hunters even pitched in, and one of the men found a gold piece on the lintel of the temple, but that was all. Just to be sure, I checked the copy I’d made up of the map. Still the coordinates pointed to the fountain, and there was no reference made to the shop. I glanced sidelong at the Irishman, who still prodded the masonry at the end of the square.
Just then, I heard approach of a familiar wagon. It was the cab, and Ram, as usual, drove his horse forward at the same breakneck plod. Mulligan ran up to him and demanded to know where he’d been. The boy didn’t answer him.
“Never mind, then, boy! Help me find the altar,” said Mulligan. And once again, we spread out across the courtyard. Still nothing. As I lifted aside the debris in one corner, a milk-white serpent slid from between the rocks and into the square.
“Sahib Grey, I must to show unto you the altar of the goddess of the cobras, Sahib,” Ram was at my ear, speaking softly. “She—the altar, no?—lies very close at hand. But the mother of cobras is dead, Sahib.”
We stood together beside the fountain until Mulligan and his men were sufficiently out of earshot for Ram’s confidence, and he clenched my sleeve in a large and grubby fist.
“Now, Sahib!” he whispered, and I prepared to dash off to the altar, but the boy turned me around instead to face the fountain. “Behold the mother of cobras!” he whispered hoarsely in my ear.
I looked now upon a figure the like of which I had never seen. She resembled all the Hindoo idols and she resembled none of them. But the first one I thought about was Kali. This was Kali, but fiercer, darker, more sinister and seductive than in Calcutta. The mother of cobras was more Kali than Kali ever hoped to be—the evil goddess in her native element and surrounded by what she drew her life from: death. I knew then that this was no place for the living, and that we endangered our lives more each moment we remained in this city of wickedness and painful demise.
“Kali?” I asked the boy, and he nodded.
Mulligan was running his hand about the base of the altar. To him, it was still the lip of the broken fountain, and he had no idea of the peril his act engendered. Beside him stood the first of the Calcuttan hunters, a large, powerful man with a white scar across his blind left eye, extending from cheek to scalp, where it ended in a shock of long, snow-white hair. He watched the Irishman’s movements with an almost predatory interest, and when they rounded the far side of the altar, the look of latent hunger in Mulligan’s eye was keener even than the native’s. Ram skirted the edge of the square, slowly and more like a cat than anything else, keeping his eyes on the men at the altar. I did not see the other two, but was sure their attention was just a eagerly riveted on the altar of death. We had moved into the idol’s realm, now we had to face the principalities of this place. Out of options, I started to pray, hard, that the Lord would just get us out of Delwaar San, and that the city would once again be swallowed by the endless night of the jungle from which it had been torn by the slaves of this abomination.
I took out my map and unfolded it. According to Davies’ notes, the treasure was sealed in the earth until the goddess wore her rings upon her outstretched hands. I felt my pocket, and for the chain upon my neck where Edgar’s ring hung. I still had both of them. What if, what if I was to take the gold, and donate it, or a portion of it, to a church in England that needed the funds. And I could still put up a great new orphanage for Mr. Mueller’s work and not miss a single…
“No-o-o!” I cried! I could not go on like this! There was only one thing to do. I pulled out the map again, and a paper of Lucifer matches from my pack. With shaking hands I struck it on the sole of my boot. It flared a minute, but when I touched it to the corner of the map, it fizzled and died. I tried another, and its head broke off upon the pavement. I dropped the map.
Hands were at my throat from behind. I shouldn’t have screamed just now. My collar was pulled back hard, and I began to choke. I grasped at the rough, clawing fingers as their calluses scraped my neck, pawing, groping at the chain. I dug my nails into my attackers fingers, and tried to pry them free one at a time. But the grip was too powerful. I called out to Ram, now on the far side of the altar. He looked up momentarily, then resumed his stalk of the Irishman.
“Ram! Hel—” I screamed it as loud as I could, but was cut off by my attacker, who brought his left hand under my chin, crushing my larynx. At the same time, he whipped out a pistol with his right hand, and fired three shots at the boy. The stone rang with echoes, and I saw the boy fall upon the broken rocks at his feet. A milk-white snake dropped onto the body from above, but ignored it and slid on into the square. Another glided in and out among the pillars of the temple. A solitary mongoose stepped out of the jungle undergrowth, its fangs dripping blood from the snake in its jaws. The hands—both of them— squeezed tighter on my throat, and my vision swam. The hands of my assailant found the chain again, and pulled it out behind my neck. Edgar’s ring was what he wanted, and he didn’t care how he got it. I had by now recognized the second of the hunters, a small, bony man with a shaved head and the dark and cunning eyes of a master thief. I’d mistrusted him on the road, and now his voice at my ear and his bony talons at my throat confirmed my suspicions.
“There, now. No soul is going to miss you. The Lord Ram will not listen to a Chris-s-stian’s prayer! He will not save you now. That’s it, struggle, Sahib. Call on your own god and not on mine. He has no power here,” gloated the thief, and the chain was twisted tighter, tighter around my throat. I could no longer reply. I blinked furiously to keep from passing out entirely. I clawed at his hands, at the chain, at my neck, all in vain. I could do nothing.
“Has the sahib got them both? I shall search the body, I shall.” I saw a shadow move towards me. I thought it too dark to be Mulligan, too small to be the one-eyed man.
A voice spoke to my attacker in the native dialect. A voice of authority, but not an English voice. A curse from my attacker, and the shadow spit on the cobbles. A hand groped my pockets, and found Ishmael’s ring, securing it. Another half-twist of the chain, and my vision went red, and then black. I felt the chain at my neck break, and I collapsed forward. Air—good, living, flowing, moving air—rushed into my starving lungs like a northwester. I swallowed it in great gulps as I lay crumpled in the weeds of the cold pavement.
To Be Continued…
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