I continued walking for what might have been hours, days, or weeks. How long this went on I had no way of knowing, for all sense of time seemed to have deserted me. With every step I had the growing conviction that the light on the horizon was increasing, the glow encroaching further and further upon the darkness, black melting into blue, blue into violet, and violet into rosy red. But though the stars were fading, the Firebird shone before me as brilliantly as ever. Now at last my journey is taking me somewhere! I thought.
Soon the entire sky had grown pale. Streaks of red, orange, and peach lay along the horizon. When I looked up from my little book, I could not help thinking of the sky as I had seen it over the phosphorescent mountains surrounding the Valley of the Watchers – a Place on the Verge, as the Firebird had called it. I trembled with anticipation, as if I, too, stood on the verge of something wonderful and altogether unexpected. I sensed that the sun itself was now very near and marveled to think that it was not in fact rising but setting – that by this miracle of walking on the water, I was actually moving rapidly enough to catch it in its slow retreat and pass through its fiery eye.
After a long time the sharp silhouettes of two huge rocks rose up and blocked my view of the golden line on the horizon. The current beneath my feet picked up speed as it was sucked into the space between them. Before long the pull became so strong that, though I fought to stand still, I was drawn swiftly into the narrow gap. Over my head the great cliffs glowered at one another, shutting out the light in the sky, and I began to be afraid. But the Firebird flew straight on before me, very small and very bright against their black and glistening surfaces. I clutched my book to my heart and strode forward.
Down the darkened corridor I sped, watching wide-eyed as the shadowy walls, dripping and green with moss and algae, flew past me on either side. Here and there black holes stared like empty eye sockets out of the face of the rock. On either hand the water boiled and foamed and the salt spray flew over me until I was soaked to the skin. Looking up to where a thin ribbon of sky, bright with strips of red, showed between the summits, I suddenly realized that the Firebird was nowhere in sight. At the same instant a horrible sound, half like a human cry and half the screech of a beast, broke out behind me. I wheeled round to face it.
In the mouth of a cave not six feet from my elbow squatted a monster more hideous than anything I could ever have imagined. Apart from its gaping, drooling mouth, which was filled with rows of sharp yellow teeth, its face was all eyes: hundreds of eyes all fixed upon me and occasionally blinking in unison. Its body was as shapeless and undefined as a huge slug’s. From out of its slimy flanks grew long, snaky arms and legs like the tentacles of an octopus.
As I gaped upon it in terror, the creature sat up on its haunches and let out another scream. Then, like the tongue of a frog when it shoots out after a fly, one of its arms darted out at me. I leapt backwards, slamming against the opposite wall of rock so hard that the air burst from my lungs in a loud gasp.
Stunned and breathless, I slumped to the surface of the water and sat there gaping as the creature retracted its tentacle and prepared to strike again.