Southern Appalachians, 11, 000 bce
The creature screamed as the arrow punched into its neck. Ripping it free, it turned to roar in frustration. The wound was deep and bled heavily, but the sticky blood quickly froze on its coarse, blunt fingers.
The small ones were coming fast, sending more of their arrows flying through the air. The creature roared again, wanting to rush back and fight, to crush those small, loud man-things down to nothing. But that would mean its own death, and then the end of all of them. There were now barely forty members of the group remaining, and some with young; they would be slaughtered. The leader snorted and drew its clan higher, moving quickly now. When it looked back briefly, the man-things were a crawling multitude that whooped and ran and hurled their sharp sticks.
The time for peaceful coexistence had long since passed. The creature looked to the sky – cold, iron grey with heavy cloud down to the peak – then it grunted, calling the group. There was one place they could go, where they could defend themselves and save their young. The deep, wintering cave that they used for hibernation when the season was unusually long and cold. Down there, deep inside the mountain, where the lichens glowed green and things slid and wormed their way in the darkness, there was safety. Deeper still there was a black river, with pale, sightless things swimming within it – food.
The leader urged the group to greater speed, forcing them on, higher up the mountain, along the old pathways, steep and narrow tracks on the cliff edge that fell away to a depth so great its bottom was invisible in the heavy mist. Up, up, and into the cave, through the small and narrow opening, into the inner world of the mountain. There was no way out, but they could wait. If the man-things followed them in, then they would have to fight; they’d done it before. The small ones wanted their heads as trophies. If they came into the mountain, then their heads would be taken.
Deep in the dark they waited, the large adult bodies pressed to the front, the young behind, all breathing heavily, fear sharp and acrid in the air around them. And then the man-things came, but just to the mouth of the cave, throwing fire inside.
The great beasts waited still, but instead of an attack, there came a scraping, grinding and pounding noise, over and over. Then, to the creatures’ horror, the light from outside began to diminish. A mighty wall rose up before them, stone by stone.
The adults screamed in rage and surged forward, but were answered with more fire and stinging arrows. They fell back, pounding the ground, their rage loud but impotent as large, interlocking blocks continued to be piled and fixed in place, until the last square of light was blotted out. Still the sounds continued as many more layers were added.
Finally, there was silence, save for the heavy breaths of the creatures themselves. The leader shuffled forward and rested a large and bloody hand against the stone – it could sense the many thick layers and doubted they could break through. It also sensed the man-things on the other side, waiting for them to try.
It turned back to its clan, a decision forming in its mind. There was food, and there would be weak light from the lichens in the deeper caves below. They could survive. They would wait, and eventually their world would be given back to them. They had walked its surface before the man-things had arrived, and they would walk it again.
Kowloon, Hong Kong, 1935
Charles Albert Schroder paused at the bustling intersection. He knew the main streets were too easily picked over, and so it was down the secretive side alleys that he had navigated this day. Being a head taller than the milling crowd, he should be able to spot the type of shop he was searching for without too much trouble. There – the double Chinese symbols for medicine hung from a shingle out the front of a dark cramped space that emanated the mixed odours of a thousand exotic herbs, fungi and dried animal carcasses.
Schroder watched the doorway for a while. The clientele were a mix of older men, presumably seeking remedies for ailing potency, or young women looking for an elixir to turn a rich man’s head. Each left with a small package wrapped in rice paper and stamped with the shop owner’s symbol.
Schroder ducked his head as he stepped inside, and blinked a few times to try to adjust his eyes to the gloom of the interior. An ancient Chinese man stood behind a counter, staring at him with a rheumy gaze and resting a pair of reptilian hands on the counter top. Behind him, the wall was completely covered in wooden slots holding powder-filled jars or tiny drawers that were undoubtedly filled with exotic wares. Schroder quickly looked left and right, making sure he was alone with the man.
The only other gaze he detected belonged to the milky eyes of a monkey’s head suspended in a jar of yellow fluid.
Schroder nodded – he didn’t need to look around the shop any further. What he searched for was never on display. He cleared his throat. He didn’t know much of the language but had taken pains to memorise a few phrases. His greeting was delivered with a bow, and on receiving a small nod in return he was encouraged to continue.
‘Nıˇ yoˇu lóng de yáchıˇ?’
The man didn’t move, perhaps pretending not to understand. Schroder repeated the sentence, confident his words and pronunciation were correct. Still nothing more than the flat gaze in return. He lifted his billfold from his breast pocket and slowly removed a single note and placed it on the counter. He bowed and tried again.
‘Nıˇ yoˇu lóng de yáchıˇ?’
The man’s eyes flicked down briefly to look at the purple and yellow bill. After a few seconds he nodded and disappeared behind a string curtain, emerging with a wooden tray covered in a soft cloth. He laid it down on the counter and pulled back two-thirds of the material. He waved his small wrinkled hand over the tray’s contents and said in a surprisingly deep voice, ‘Lóng de yáchıˇ. ’
Schroder smiled flatly. His eyes quickly sorted through the tray’s contents, mentally cataloguing the species that the pieces had come from – cave bear, giant deer, a boar the size of a rhinoceros. All excellent fossils, but nothing of real interest to him. He went to push back the cloth that still covered a portion of the tray, but the shopkeeper made a sharp noise in his throat and held his hand up. With the other hand, he pushed the single bill back across the table. His meaning was clear: the covered side of the tray was more expensive.
Schroder knew the real thing would be. What he sought was unique, and rarely placed in the hands of unappreciative foreigners. He bowed again and pulled another two bills from his wallet and laid them on the pile. He made a flat gesture indicating that was all he was going to pay. The shopkeeper’s eyes narrowed briefly, then with a flourish that would have impressed a stage conjuror he lifted the cloth to reveal several more specimens.
Schroder felt his heart thump in his chest. It wouldn’t have mattered if there were a hundred relics laid before him, his paleoanthropologist eyes were immediately drawn to just one. A canine tooth, broken at its base but still easily four inches long from its root to curved tip. With a shaking hand he held it up before him, the breath locked in his chest.
‘Lóng de yáchıˇ – ga¯o pıˇnzhí. ’The small man pointed one long fingernail at the specimen, obviously satisfied with Schroder’s response.
‘Yes, yes . . . dragon’s teeth. ’ He used English without thinking as he brought the fossil close to his face, studying it, mentally calculating, estimating, extrapolating. In his mind, he turned the fragment of a long dead creature into something living – he could see it in all its terrible glory. He held the relic above his head, standing on his toes to reach up above his six-foot-plus frame, adding another four feet to where the mouth would have been.
He heard the shopkeeper’s voice again. ‘Lóng de yáchıˇ. Guàiwù lóng de yáchıˇ!’
Schroder exhaled and lowered his arm. ‘Yes, best quality, but not a dragon. Something just as fantastic. ’
He emptied his wallet onto the counter and leaned in towards the man. ‘Zài naˇlıˇ?’ he asked. ‘Where?’
Alex was miles beneath the surface. He stared up at a shimmering mirage of blue light. He clamped his lips shut. Panic was a heartbeat away, and the more he tried to break free, the tighter he was trapped by the black coils of slimy rope that bound his arms and legs, wrapped around his chest and coated his face. He was aware his burning lungs would soon give out, but he dared not open his mouth even to scream, as he knew the mucous-covered strands would find their way inside.
He was dragged deeper down; his feet sinking into the primordial ooze of the lightless depths. With his last fragments of energy he sprang towards the surface. Last time, last chance – he needed to breathe; he wanted to live.
Excerpted from Black Mountain by Greig Beck. Copyright © 2012 by Greig Beck.
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