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The Face Of Death







From: At The Earth's Core

I MUST HAVE FALLEN ASLEEP FROM EXHAUSTION. When I awoke I was very
hungry, and after busying myself searching for fruit for a while, I set
off through the jungle to find the beach. I knew that the island was
not so large but that I could easily find the sea if I did but move in
a straight line, but there came the difficulty as there was no way in
which I could direct my course and hold it, the sun, of course, being
always directly above my head, and the trees so thickly set that I
could see no distant object which might serve to guide me in a straight
line.

As it was I must have walked for a great distance since I ate four
times and slept twice before I reached the sea, but at last I did so,
and my pleasure at the sight of it was greatly enhanced by the chance
discovery of a hidden canoe among the bushes through which I had
stumbled just prior to coming upon the beach.

I can tell you that it did not take me long to pull that awkward craft
down to the water and shove it far out from shore. My experience with
Ja had taught me that if I were to steal another canoe I must be quick
about it and get far beyond the owner's reach as soon as possible.

I must have come out upon the opposite side of the island from that at
which Ja and I had entered it, for the mainland was nowhere in sight.
For a long time I paddled around the shore, though well out, before I
saw the mainland in the distance. At the sight of it I lost no time in
directing my course toward it, for I had long since made up my mind to
return to Phutra and give myself up that I might be once more with
Perry and Ghak the Hairy One.

I felt that I was a fool ever to have attempted to escape alone,
especially in view of the fact that our plans were already well
formulated to make a break for freedom together. Of course I realized
that the chances of the success of our proposed venture were slim
indeed, but I knew that I never could enjoy freedom without Perry so
long as the old man lived, and I had learned that the probability that
I might find him was less than slight.

Had Perry been dead, I should gladly have pitted my strength and wit
against the savage and primordial world in which I found myself. I
could have lived in seclusion within some rocky cave until I had found
the means to outfit myself with the crude weapons of the Stone Age, and
then set out in search of her whose image had now become the constant
companion of my waking hours, and the central and beloved figure of my
dreams.

But, to the best of my knowledge, Perry still lived and it was my duty
and wish to be again with him, that we might share the dangers and
vicissitudes of the strange world we had discovered. And Ghak, too;
the great, shaggy man had found a place in the hearts of us both, for
he was indeed every inch a man and king. Uncouth, perhaps, and brutal,
too, if judged too harshly by the standards of effete twentieth-century
civilization, but withal noble, dignified, chivalrous, and loveable.

Chance carried me to the very beach upon which I had discovered Ja's
canoe, and a short time later I was scrambling up the steep bank to
retrace my steps from the plain of Phutra. But my troubles came when I
entered the canyon beyond the summit, for here I found that several of
them centered at the point where I crossed the divide, and which one I
had traversed to reach the pass I could not for the life of me remember.

It was all a matter of chance and so I set off down that which seemed
the easiest going, and in this I made the same mistake that many of us
do in selecting the path along which we shall follow out the course of
our lives, and again learned that it is not always best to follow the
line of least resistance.

By the time I had eaten eight meals and slept twice I was convinced
that I was upon the wrong trail, for between Phutra and the inland sea
I had not slept at all, and had eaten but once. To retrace my steps to
the summit of the divide and explore another canyon seemed the only
solution of my problem, but a sudden widening and levelness of the
canyon just before me seemed to suggest that it was about to open into
a level country, and with the lure of discovery strong upon me I
decided to proceed but a short distance farther before I turned back.

The next turn of the canyon brought me to its mouth, and before me I
saw a narrow plain leading down to an ocean. At my right the side of
the canyon continued to the water's edge, the valley lying to my left,
and the foot of it running gradually into the sea, where it formed a
broad level beach.

Clumps of strange trees dotted the landscape here and there almost to
the water, and rank grass and ferns grew between. From the nature of
the vegetation I was convinced that the land between the ocean and the
foothills was swampy, though directly before me it seemed dry enough
all the way to the sandy strip along which the restless waters advanced
and retreated.

Curiosity prompted me to walk down to the beach, for the scene was very
beautiful. As I passed along beside the deep and tangled vegetation of
the swamp I thought that I saw a movement of the ferns at my left, but
though I stopped a moment to look it was not repeated, and if anything
lay hid there my eyes could not penetrate the dense foliage to discern
it.

Presently I stood upon the beach looking out over the wide and lonely
sea across whose forbidding bosom no human being had yet ventured, to
discover what strange and mysterious lands lay beyond, or what its
invisible islands held of riches, wonders, or adventure. What savage
faces, what fierce and formidable beasts were this very instant
watching the lapping of the waves upon its farther shore! How far did
it extend? Perry had told me that the seas of Pellucidar were small in
comparison with those of the outer crust, but even so this great ocean
might stretch its broad expanse for thousands of miles. For countless
ages it had rolled up and down its countless miles of shore, and yet
today it remained all unknown beyond the tiny strip that was visible
from its beaches.

The fascination of speculation was strong upon me. It was as though I
had been carried back to the birth time of our own outer world to look
upon its lands and seas ages before man had traversed either. Here was
a new world, all untouched. It called to me to explore it. I was
dreaming of the excitement and adventure which lay before us could
Perry and I but escape the Mahars, when something, a slight noise I
imagine, drew my attention behind me.

As I turned, romance, adventure, and discovery in the abstract took
wing before the terrible embodiment of all three in concrete form that
I beheld advancing upon me.

A huge, slimy amphibian it was, with toad-like body and the mighty jaws
of an alligator. Its immense carcass must have weighed tons, and yet
it moved swiftly and silently toward me. Upon one hand was the bluff
that ran from the canyon to the sea, on the other the fearsome swamp
from which the creature had sneaked upon me, behind lay the mighty
untracked sea, and before me in the center of the narrow way that led
to safety stood this huge mountain of terrible and menacing flesh.

A single glance at the thing was sufficient to assure me that I was
facing one of those long-extinct, prehistoric creatures whose
fossilized remains are found within the outer crust as far back as the
Triassic formation, a gigantic labyrinthodon. And there I was,
unarmed, and, with the exception of a loin cloth, as naked as I had
come into the world. I could imagine how my first ancestor felt that
distant, prehistoric morn that he encountered for the first time the
terrifying progenitor of the thing that had me cornered now beside the
restless, mysterious sea.

Unquestionably he had escaped, or I should not have been within
Pellucidar or elsewhere, and I wished at that moment that he had handed
down to me with the various attributes that I presumed I have inherited
from him, the specific application of the instinct of self-preservation
which saved him from the fate which loomed so close before me today.

To seek escape in the swamp or in the ocean would have been similar to
jumping into a den of lions to escape one upon the outside. The sea
and swamp both were doubtless alive with these mighty, carnivorous
amphibians, and if not, the individual that menaced me would pursue me
into either the sea or the swamp with equal facility.

There seemed nothing to do but stand supinely and await my end. I
thought of Perry--how he would wonder what had become of me. I thought
of my friends of the outer world, and of how they all would go on
living their lives in total ignorance of the strange and terrible fate
that had overtaken me, or unguessing the weird surroundings which had
witnessed the last frightful agony of my extinction. And with these
thoughts came a realization of how unimportant to the life and
happiness of the world is the existence of any one of us. We may be
snuffed out without an instant's warning, and for a brief day our
friends speak of us with subdued voices. The following morning, while
the first worm is busily engaged in testing the construction of our
coffin, they are teeing up for the first hole to suffer more acute
sorrow over a sliced ball than they did over our, to us, untimely
demise. The labyrinthodon was coming more slowly now. He seemed to
realize that escape for me was impossible, and I could have sworn that
his huge, fanged jaws grinned in pleasurable appreciation of my
predicament, or was it in anticipation of the juicy morsel which would
so soon be pulp between those formidable teeth?

He was about fifty feet from me when I heard a voice calling to me from
the direction of the bluff at my left. I looked and could have shouted
in delight at the sight that met my eyes, for there stood Ja, waving
frantically to me, and urging me to run for it to the cliff's base.

I had no idea that I should escape the monster that had marked me for
his breakfast, but at least I should not die alone. Human eyes would
watch me end. It was cold comfort I presume, but yet I derived some
slight peace of mind from the contemplation of it.

To run seemed ridiculous, especially toward that steep and unscalable
cliff, and yet I did so, and as I ran I saw Ja, agile as a monkey,
crawl down the precipitous face of the rocks, clinging to small
projections, and the tough creepers that had found root-hold here and
there.

The labyrinthodon evidently thought that Ja was coming to double his
portion of human flesh, so he was in no haste to pursue me to the cliff
and frighten away this other tidbit. Instead he merely trotted along
behind me.

As I approached the foot of the cliff I saw what Ja intended doing, but
I doubted if the thing would prove successful. He had come down to
within twenty feet of the bottom, and there, clinging with one hand to
a small ledge, and with his feet resting, precariously upon tiny bushes
that grew from the solid face of the rock, he lowered the point of his
long spear until it hung some six feet above the ground.

To clamber up that slim shaft without dragging Ja down and
precipitating both to the same doom from which the copper-colored one
was attempting to save me seemed utterly impossible, and as I came near
the spear I told Ja so, and that I could not risk him to try to save
myself.

But he insisted that he knew what he was doing and was in no danger
himself.

"The danger is still yours," he called, "for unless you move much more
rapidly than you are now, the sithic will be upon you and drag you back
before ever you are halfway up the spear--he can rear up and reach you
with ease anywhere below where I stand."

Well, Ja should know his own business, I thought, and so I grasped the
spear and clambered up toward the red man as rapidly as I could--being
so far removed from my simian ancestors as I am. I imagine the
slow-witted sithic, as Ja called him, suddenly realized our intentions
and that he was quite likely to lose all his meal instead of having it
doubled as he had hoped.

When he saw me clambering up that spear he let out a hiss that fairly
shook the ground, and came charging after me at a terrific rate. I had
reached the top of the spear by this time, or almost; another six
inches would give me a hold on Ja's hand, when I felt a sudden wrench
from below and glancing fearfully downward saw the mighty jaws of the
monster close on the sharp point of the weapon.

I made a frantic effort to reach Ja's hand, the sithic gave a
tremendous tug that came near to jerking Ja from his frail hold on the
surface of the rock, the spear slipped from his fingers, and still
clinging to it I plunged feet foremost toward my executioner.

At the instant that he felt the spear come away from Ja's hand the
creature must have opened his huge jaws to catch me, for when I came
down, still clinging to the butt end of the weapon, the point yet
rested in his mouth and the result was that the sharpened end
transfixed his lower jaw.

With the pain he snapped his mouth closed. I fell upon his snout, lost
my hold upon the spear, rolled the length of his face and head, across
his short neck onto his broad back and from there to the ground.

Scarce had I touched the earth than I was upon my feet, dashing madly
for the path by which I had entered this horrible valley. A glance
over my shoulder showed me the sithic engaged in pawing at the spear
stuck through his lower jaw, and so busily engaged did he remain in
this occupation that I had gained the safety of the cliff top before he
was ready to take up the pursuit. When he did not discover me in sight
within the valley he dashed, hissing into the rank vegetation of the
swamp and that was the last I saw of him.





Next: Phutra Again

Previous: The Mahar Temple



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