Obediently, the librarian disappeared down the side passage. Peter wanted to maintain some distance from the monster as he led Irene along, so he was unsure as how to follow it into the new passage.
He paused and took note of the slightly shimmering trail of slime left behind in the creature’s wake. If it had any jointed bones or muscles in its body, Peter did not know about them, but he did recall a bit of invertebrate physiology from a book in general zoology that he had once been assigned to read as part of his deficient anatomy training. The term “foot” had been used to describe the single muscular structure upon which a snail or slug would traverse the terrain. The librarian, as alien as it was, did seem something like a mollusk, and Peter could easily (but not pleasantly) imagine its columnar body sliding along the ground on one lubricated muscle. Alas, there was no shell – only a shawl.
Irene kept staring at her feet, clad in shoes that were never meant for spelunking, and shuffled carefully along after Peter. Without looking up from her feet she could see that beyond the unlit corridor, beyond the resting mass of joints and legs and shells that made up the styrgae’s bodies, the faded luminescence at the end of the main passage seemed to flicker. They were unmistakable now: the grayish light and the soft sound of fluid crashing and washing upon a distant shore. That light reflected from the hard carapaces of the bugs and from the polish on Irene’s shoes. There was a homely quality in it that reminded her of early morning on a northern shore. There was something drawing her towards that place.
Having allowed the librarian to go ahead of them a little, Peter traced its path by following its slightly glowing trail of mucous. The unlit corridor described a broadly arcing curve. After a length of a hundred yards or so, Irene and Peter both realized that they were traveling at a slightly downward angle. After a hundred more, they discerned that they were walking a slowly tightening counterclockwise spiral. Peter first, then Irene following behind him with her hand in his, the pair walked the spiral down.
Two voices rang at once from the unlit path. “Down here, pardner!” they both exclaimed, overlapping only slightly.
“Halp!” yelped one voice.
“Down here pardner!” cried the other.
Irene had chalked the first pairing of voices up to an echo effect, but the two separate calls coming at once was proof enough that there was a fourth party in the passage. She barely kept her head from jerking up.
Yet Peter had been assured of the presence of another party from the moment he had heard the librarian’s new accent. Not for the first time did he wonder why the librarian had only used his own voice, and the voice of the ephemeral Henri. If it remembered or recorded vocalizations, then its limited repertoire of human speech seemed to indicate that it had only recently encountered humans at all. Though he could not say how long the creature had dwelt in the library, nor what other kinds of being it may have had encountered during its existence, the fact that its acquisition of human vocalizations seemed significant.
It was only slightly bothersome to Peter to think that he was considering the librarian now as rationally as he would any other problem. He had grown familiar with the thing, in some sense.
The New Yorker had just disappeared in front of him, and the wanderer had been left with nothing but a goddamn sea of bugs. So he had done the only thing he thought he could: he had just plum taken off into, then up, and then down that chopped-out cave in the cliff face and kept going. Didn’t know which direction to run; just took to running, and that had been good enough to keep him ahead of the bugs for a few minutes.
The wanderer hadn’t realized that he was plunging deeper and deeper into a corner. He had been so panicked by the onrushing tide that he simply had been unable to understand the predicament of his surroundings until the coils of the pathway downwards had gotten so small that he had started to feel dizzy. It took him almost to the moment where he realized that he could once again see the dim topography of the cavern walls to understand his danger. Then he saw that the dark had subsided and that a silver light was reflecting from the metal of his gun, which he hadn’t been so stupid as to fire, and he finally realized that he was headed to a dead end.
So he went down anyway. This was not the first time in his life that he had felt assured of his end, but he was unhappy that death would come in the form of a bunch of clattering, squeaking bugs – a goddamn sea of bugs. He pressed on as forthrightly suicidal as ever.
When he reached the end of the line, it was beautiful. But he had seen it before, and he knew what it was. It was the very same shit that had gotten him here, what shit had made that bear go crazy. (That beast what had killed, more than killed, fucking annihilated Colonel and the horses. Shoot, then. Maybe these bug things and the loopers and the coot and the New Yorker had something in common.) What shit was now shifting and seething in a vent in the wall of the cell-like room wherein the spiral path had terminated. It was hardly what one would have called a lode. A “lode” was copper or gold pulled like taffy through rock. A lode was solid. A lode was valuable. Lodes were what prospectors wanted to find. The reason the wanderer couldn’t think of it as a lode was because it was moving. It shifted like molten metal in this concave space in the rock wall, but as light and viscous as mercury. And it shed that silver light. And it had enveloped him.
When he had found the lode, he didn’t have the time to think about what to call it. He pressed his back into it as the insects poured into the chamber. He drew his other revolver. His trigger fingers twitched as the bugs covered the floor. Flowing like oil, they swam up his boots (stolen from a dead ranger in the shadow of the great Arizona crater), climbed up the legs of his pants (bought in San Antonio), filled his blouse (sewn by a Cibecue in Nuevo Laredo), and squirmed in his britches (the only thing left from San Francisco). They had covered him like a blanket, then like a thick beard, and finally like another layer of skin. A few entered his ears and his mouth. One bold and blasphemous beetle sprawled over the business end of his revolver.
They settled on him and rested. They did not bite him. The wanderer held his position, leaning against the wall, and stayed very still. Soon they, like the tide he had first mistaken them to be, receded. They withdrew painlessly from his orifices, fell away from his clothes, tickled as they climbed out of his underwear. He did not draw a breath until they had moved away from him, until the swarm had disappeared back up into the wider regions of the spiral passage. Why hadn’t they devoured him as they had done to the looper?
A shiver ran down his spine. The wanderer hunched his back and then straightened out, hoping to shake off the cold. It remained. He crossed his arms over his chest and held himself, meaning to rub some warmth into his shoulders. He began to realize what had happened.
Peter knew that he was finally nearing Agasthiya’s steed. But things were potentially becoming very complicated. Neither Peter nor Irene could be sure which voice was crying out.
“Halp!” cried the first voice. “Is someone up there?”
“A goddamn sea of bugs, pardner!” replied the other.
“Shit! Git down here fore they come back!”
“Sea of bugs pardner! And proteins, goddamn!”
There was a pause as if the first speaker was having a difficult time understanding the second’s meaning. He continued, “Come an’ cut me out!”
“Let’s go!” called the librarian in a more enthusiastic version of Peter’s voice before returning to the Western American drawl. “Goddamn sea of salts and ribbons of proteins!”
“What? Who are you?”
A holler alerted Peter and Irene to the meeting between the librarian and the man whose voice it had been borrowing. It was something like the braying of an ass and the despondent yowl of a feral cat, and it would have been an utterly silly sound under most other circumstances.
“What are you?”
“What are you!”
“Nother fuckin’ step an I’ll kill you.”
“Nother step kill you. Fuckin’.”
“You darin’ me dude? Won’t be the first man I shot today. Now, get that sheet off yer head.”
Irene had still not lifted her gaze from her feet, but she noticed that there was now a light source, a dim silvery light. It was unlike the grey radiance from above, which was suggestive of an overcast day. The silver light reflected from the faint slime trail between her feet. The twinkling gave the impression of silver tinsel; Irene thought of Christmas.
Looking ahead in the tunnel, Peter saw, in the same light, the long shadow of the librarian twisting around the tightly curved tunnel wall.
(Peter and Irene can tell that they are within a few yards of the terminus of the downward spiral. If they just press on a bit more, they’ll end up in the chamber ahead, which is where the librarian and an unknown person are at this moment engaged in some kind of standoff.
Peter passed an idea roll in part I.)