The forest was green, and thick, and endless. Sodden with warm rain which dripped and trickled in a constant downpour from the canopy a hundred metres above. The air felt like a hot cloth pressed against skin, and even when it was just after noon the canopy gloomed all underneath it in dim emerald green light. Ground level was flooded with an ocean of insect sound almost deafening.
The forest was swollen with life. And yet in recent weeks it had taken five of Yàk è's men to their deaths. They had each starved and died like fish thrown on a shoreline. Feeble gasping and staring eyes. After the last had passed the others had caught a giant gèpà, and things were easier. Yàk è pondered the grimness of fortune in this alien place.
Now there were but seven of them.
At dusk, as was their ritual, they rested in hammocks strung above the ground. Spirits were somewhat higher now that food was regular. Three of the men, the ones from Lamarakh, even sang, in their strange alveolar language full of 't's and 'd's and 's's. Yàk è's other men, his Yellow City brothers, lit torches around the circle of their camp. All night these fires would bring insects - huge beetles, fat moths like birds, and tiny bloodsucking flies. Their flutterings and clickings would be a constant low-level torture. But the alternative was darkness, and then the things that sometimes came in the night, and which needed no light to see, would easily kill everyone in the camp.
"Who will take the watches?" asked Yàk è. "I will be first."
"I will be second." Jòh Pò, the others had learned, had the sharpest ears. He had been with Yàk è on many journeys, all of them triumphant. Never a big man he was wasted now by hunger and heat. He volunteered for everything, clearly attempting to disguise his horror at his own weakness.
The third volunteer was one of the Lamarakhi, the tallest of the three. The Yellow City men called him U. His real name was an impossibility for them and he seemed to prefer this abbreviation to the indignity of mispronunciation.
As darkness surrounded their island of light, they slept. All except Yàk è, sitting in his hammock with three javelins across his lap. He thought about the men who had starved, as he often did, and then his mind went back to the Yellow City and he imagined he was there, in the rooftop garden of the fourth library, with a pipe and poppy seeds, watching the sun rise over the ocean.
He woke from that dream with the man called U shaking his shoulder. Looked around. It was not yet day. The light from the torches was dim and orange. Flickering. Some mindless winged thing was butting itself repeatedly into the flames.
The man called U put a finger to his lips, then made the waving motion with his fingers. So, one of the things had come. Yàk è clenched his fists and pressed his teeth together. An old and familiar mixture of excitement and fear.
Together, he and U woke the others. All the men knew not to make a sound. The hunters could feel the very vibrations of the air. Not that it greatly mattered - they would be smelled out. But it might buy them some time.
They fanned out around their little circle of hammocks. The blades on their javelins glowed in the light from the fires. Since the others had died, javelins at least had become plentiful. Each man carried three.
The forest was dark, so very dark, beyond the circle of light. Before he had come to this place Yàk è could scarcely have imagined it. The canopy was so thick that the moonlight could not penetrate. To look into the trees at night was to stare into nothing. A black nothing which thronged with invisible life.
He turned his head this way and that, trying to spot what U had seen. An endless ululating swell of insect calls washed over them.
It came silently from the vegetation near Hè Lòk.
The Yellow City man had the most fleeting of moments to survive. At once the blackness before him revealed movement. A velveteen, slithering body reared. Huge, wet, horribly graceful. Its maw opened beneath the expressionless, blank, faceless face. Its feelers - long, whip like - reached for him. To Yàk è they looked for a second like a pair of arms spread wide in anticipation of a loving embrace. If they touched Hè Lòk he was as good as dead. But if he moved it would sense him nevertheless.
He was at the mercy of his companions.
Yàk è stepped towards Hè Lòk's position and threw his first javelin over hand. It thudded into the hunter's exposed side, slicing through thick skin. An instant later three more javelins hit it from the other flank - the Lamarakhi. Sharp metal punched through flesh.
Instantly the creature's face began to change. Yàk è saw the quiver of movement. He raised his second javelin and threw wildly, even as Jòh Pò, Fò Yà and the three Lamarakhi came bounding in the hunter's direction, hurling another volley.
They were too late. The two openings had already appearing in the hunter's face. Even as the javelins cut into its flesh it was spraying twin streams of liquid which coated Hè Lòk in thick ropes. He had flung himself aside but it did not matter. He did not stand up. As the hunter thrashed itself back into the forest he lay almost motionless, only a leg twitching.
The others gathered round.
"He is finished," said Fò Yà. The younger man was a complainer and a fatalist, but for once, Yàk è could not argue. The hunter's liquid was impossible to dissolve or break.
Hè Lòk gazed up at them. He was glued to the forest floor; the liquid had even sprayed across his face, coating his mouth closed. Only his left leg was free.
The Lamarakhi gathered together and held each other's hands.
Yàk è bent down. "We cannot help you, brother," he said.
Hè Lòk merely stared at him. It was impossible to tell whether forgiveness or anger was in those wide brown eyes.
Yàk è straightened up. "Who will do it?"
The man called U stepped forward and drew his knife.
"Don't let the lozenge touch your skin. Do it quickly."
U nodded, bent down, and with one quick slice it was done.
Yàk è looked into Hè Lòk's eyes and saw that he was dead. He saw nothing of the blank horror that the starved men's eyes had showed, and for that he was grateful. The hunter would return to claim the body the next night - no other animal would touch it.
"A quick end, which we might not have," said Fò Yà. "In a way, he is to be envied?"
"We lost ten javelins and an intelligent man." Yàk è stepped away from the body. He had not known Hè Lòk well but was saddened. He felt, not for the first time, the forest's indifference. Whether they lived or died meant nothing here.
"How many more days?" said Jòh Pò.
"Then the return."
"We will never leave this forest. You realise this?" Fò Yà was studying the corpse with interested eyes.
The next morning Yàk è opened the journal of Laxmi Guptra Dahl, as was his custom, and pored over the Silaish script. Like Lamarakhi it was difficult for him to pronounce the words but he understood their meaning. "The thirty fourth day. As the ground rose we came to monuments in the forest like the menhirs on the River of Crayfish. Except smaller and worn away by the heat of this vile place. Clearly they are of the same or similar makers." Yàk è had never been to the River of Crayfish and knew it only by its name on a map; it was hundreds of leagues away, in high mountains distant in every sense of the word.
Not for the first time he felt that reading the journal had left him more apprehensive and confused than he had been. Though it was easy enough to be apprehensive and confused that morning. The forest was thick with mist that seemed a tangible thing. Like grey foam strung between the trees.
"Let's break camp," he said.
The Lamarakhi had gathered around Hè Lòk's body. The tall one called U was saying something to the others, who Fò Yà had nicknamed The Chin and The Eyes after their most prominent features. They did not have the look of men ready to continue.
"We should have moved on as soon as the hunter was gone," said Yàk è to Jòh Pò. "This way we start the day with it...fresh in our minds."
The older man shrugged. "We would have all died in the forest at night."
"You believe that would have been regrettable?" said Fò Yà, overhearing. His laugh was a derisory cackle.
"Why are you here, Fò Yà?" said Jòh Pò, true feeling suddenly in his voice for the first time in many days.
"There is no 'why', there only 'is'."
"The hunter worm should have taken you instead," Jòh Pò muttered.
Yàk è watched them both, but knew neither had the energy for more than bickering. In any case he doubted he himself had the energy to say anything to them of value.
"We go," he said.
The mist grew thicker around them. It was like nothing Yàk è had seen before on earth. As if the very air itself was slowly coalescing into something grey and solid. It lay on the forest like a damp cloak, suppressing all sound. He could hear his own breathing.
None of them talked. This was common enough and they had often been silent for hours at a time as they travelled. Nevertheless Yàk è could almost feel the men’s' apprehension. They were only six in number now, and it could not be doubted that Fò Yà was right - they would never leave the forest alive. They might reach their destination but the return journey would destroy them.
He was not even sure any longer why he had come.
At noon, they reached a slope, as Dahl's journal had predicted. It ran upwards for half a mile, then flattened itself out. When they reached the top they saw things dark in the mist, among the tree trunks. Tall, narrow, and made from stone. The menhirs. They looked like termite mounds on the hills of the aviary's garden where it ran down to the God River; monuments of earth and stone which seemed nevertheless alive.
There were twelve, arranged in three rows of four.
"Well, there once were people here, then," said Jòh Pò. "Though I wonder what manner of fools might choose to live in such a place?"
"The same manner of fool who might choose to come here and try to find out?" Fò Yà approached the nearest stone and laid his hand against it.
The Lamarakhi had gathered together, their arms linked. They reminded Yàk è of women you might see on Temple Row in summer, examining the incense stalls or buying parasols. Their physical comfort with one another intrigued and repelled him.
"It is basalt," Fò Yà was saying.
Yàk è went over. "Basalt? There was once a volcano around here, then."
"Or they brought it." The younger man appeared already to have lost interest. "There is no way of telling."
Yàk è stood back, wondering what the three rows signified. Perhaps graves of chiefs or kings. Or monuments to forgotten gods or heroes. Or perhaps there had been beauty in them in the eyes of their creators. Their silence and stillness was undoubtedly impressive.
Fò Yà had wandered beyond them and was gazing up at the high canopy with a bored expression. Yàk è watched him. The young man was a mystery, all right. He was handsome, strong, intelligent, and his entire bearing was that of a rich and educated city boy. And yet here he was. Diffidence could ruin an entire life.
There were plenty of men like that in the Yellow City of course. Some of them were fixtures in the lounges and atria of the aviary - men who Yàk è had shared smoke with and held pleasant conversation. They were men whose laziness had made them like shells. Fò Yà's lack of ambition was monstrous, however, and that had taken him beyond useless dilettancy to outright delinquency, and thus here. Yàk è was sure of it.
Reluctant to stay near the standing stones, they pressed on after making only cursory sketches. Yàk è took out Laxmi Guptra Dahl's journal again. They were now near the end of the journey, and the man's writings. Yàk è had read the entries dozens of times, but he went over the final two once more. They were carefully etched in Dahl's pedantic hand; nothing about them hinted at any nervousness or fear. The expedition had spent an uneventful night just beyond the stones, and from there had reached the Holes unmolested. Their doom had crept up on them unawares.
At least when our doom creeps up on us, we won't be unawares, Yàk è thought to himself, and then suddenly found himself chuckling.
"You are laughing about our impending death?" said Fò Yà.
"How did you guess?"
"What else is there to laugh about?"
Yàk è chuckled again. The Lamarakhi glanced at turned around and looked at him with uneasy smiles.
"I would kill for some poppy seeds," said Yàk è.
"Poppy seeds," said the man they called U, showing a rare willingness to use the Yellow City tongue. "When we return."
"A thousand of them," said Fò Yà.
They camped in a clearing where a tree fall had created a space in the vegetation. The huge body of the tree lay like some slumbering rock-hewn being on the ground. Knowing that there might be beetle grubs burrowed inside they spent some time smoking them out, and then chewing on the resultant tasteless catch as evening fell.