(Blogger's note: Earlier chapters follow this.)
Eric was right! Unless we both had gone crazy, and given the circumstances that seemed like a real possibility, it was suddenly much warmer, nearly tropical. I reached for the compass that lay on the bottom of the boat, warm water washing over it and retreating with the motion of the waves. I turned it over and looked at the needle. It was spinning wildly as if we were standing over a lodestone deposit.
Eric nodded as he saw that and said, "There is no way that we could have drifted into the tropics and still be alive. We’re talking about thousands of miles."
It wasn’t until then that I realized what the warmth and the fog meant. I felt the excitement course through me like an electrical charge. I was light headed with a stomach that was flipping over. I reached out and grabbed his arms.
"We’ve done it," I shouted.
He nodded happily and shouted right back. "Of course we’ve done it. We had the tools and we had the knowledge."
"A drink," I said. "A drink in celebration." I reached inside my coat for the flask and realized just how hot it was. My shirt was soaked with sweat. I laughed and stripped the heavy parka. I wiped a hand over my face and stared at the perspiration staining my palm.
"Eighty or ninety degrees," he said. "With humidity to match that."
I pulled the top off the flask and held it up high. I was about to speak when the words deserted me. I had planned to christen our discovery Jansenland or may Olafland when I realized that we had discovered nothing, other than a warm passage. A warm water passage that no one had ever written about with any authority.
But I was thirsty, and I wasn’t going to let a technicality dampen the excitement, so I said, "To us. Discoverers of the land to the north."
I took a deep drink and felt the liquor burn its way to my stomach.
Solemnly, Eric took my flask and grinned at me. He too, held it high, but said, "We have discovered no land. Yet. But to us, anyway, two of the greatest adventurers who ever lived.
I liked the sound of that. We could call ourselves adventurers because that was what we were. Explorers suggested that we were in virgin territory, but adventurers implied no such thing.
I took the flask back and said, "To us then. Adventurers."
As I capped the flask, I asked, "And now what?"
"I would suggest that we try to get our bearings and figure out what is going on. The maps and compass are of no use now. We need to see the sun and the stars so that we can get a navigational fix."
I nodded and looked upward. There seemed to be a bright ball hanging overheard just visible through the mist. I thought of the sun on a foggy day, but this, somehow, didn’t seem to be big enough or bright enough to be the sun.
I turned my head, but could see nothing near me. I reached over the side of the boat and let my fingers drag in the water. It was quite warm and I lifted them to my lips. The water was fresh, not brackish.
"This is a river," I said.
"A river?" said Eric. "That’s impossible."
"This water is fresh," I said. "It’s not salt water and it’s not cold water. We’ve entered some kind of inland waterway."
"But the current would take us toward the ocean," he said. "There is no way that we could drift into a river from the ocean."
"Are you suggesting the current carried us here?"
"No. That makes less sense than anything else. I don’t know what to think," he said.
Which puzzled me somewhat. He was supposed to be the expert on finding the way into the Inner Earth. It was his family who had visited there before, yet, here he was, denying what we were seeing, or feeling, or experiencing ourselves. His attitude was a bit frightening, given the circumstances.
As we continued to drift, I became aware of the sound of the water against stone. A quiet, wet slapping that penetrated the fog and echoed around us. We had been talking in quiet voices, as if afraid of something hidden behind the mist, but I suddenly shouted, "Hello!"
A split second later my voice bounced back to me as it reverberated around.
"We’re in a cave!" said Eric, amazed.
I shouted again and that seemed to confirm it. Somehow we had floated into a giant cave that was hidden in mist. And then I noticed something else. There was a low, quiet rumbling, like heavy machinery or artillery in the distance. An indistinct sound that I couldn’t quite identify. And the longer that we drifted, the louder it became.
"Maybe we should try to find the bank," I suggested.
For a moment Eric sat stonily still, his head cocked as he listened to the rhythmic pounding. He shook himself, almost like a dog that had just emerged from a pond, and then looked at me.
"The bank? Yes. Let’s try to get to the bank."
I reached over for the oars, which had been dragging in the water. I sat on the bench, facing the rear and asked, "Which way?"
Eric shrugged and said, "To the right?"
"You mean starboard?"
"Whatever," he said. Even with his claimed Viking heritage and the sailing exploits of his father, he knew very little about the sea. He had been born in the Midwest, about as far from a major body of water as he could get.
I used the oars to turn us and began to pull for the side of the river. Eric moved to the bow and held his hand out into the impenetrable mist, almost like a blind man feeling for obstructions. When he realized that his hand wouldn’t provide much warning, he took one of the axes, holding it out, like some kind of probe.
It wasn’t long before the slapping of the water against stone became louder and I knew that we were approaching the bank, or maybe more accurately, the wall of a cave. I stopped rowing, content to let our forward motion drop off as the current caught us again, dragging us along with it.
A second later, the axe scraped solid stone. Eric pushed against the rock and slowed us so that we kissed the stone wall. It extended upward, into the mist, giving us no clue as to its height.
Eric used the axe to push off, and we continued to drift with the current. Eric had moved so that he was sitting near the center of the boat, in the bow, using the axe to keep us off the rocks. I had pulled in the oars and was happy to sit quietly because it was so hot and humid.
As I stared upward, through the mist, wondering what was hidden behind it, I noticed that the sun was becoming brighter. At first there had been only a dim, glowing ball over us, providing a little light, making the fog seem like a steamed over window seen from two feet away. But now the sun was becoming a glowing orb that hurt my eyes to look at. And I saw that the surface of the water around the boat was clear. I could see down into it, almost to the bottom. The cliffs climbed high to become lost in the mist, but I realized that I could see much farther.
Of course, I hadn’t thought about being able to see the sun while we were inside a cave. The glowing orb had to be the sun, but if we were inside a cave, it couldn’t be. At the time, I just didn’t think about that.
There was a sudden wailing, like a giant beast caught in a trap. A trumpeting that came and fell and then there was silence. I felt cold shivers up and down my back, hoping that the animal was not aquatic. I wasn’t sure how the small boat would stand up to assault from some of the larger animals.
From overhead there was a leather flapping of wings, like some giant bird, or more accurately, a bat. The shadows obscured in the mist were huge but unrecognizable.
"Sounds like it’s above us," said Eric.
I wasn’t sure if that made me feel better or not. Eric was saying that the animal was on the bank above us. I suddenly had the vision of a huge cat waiting in ambush, waiting to pounce on us, but that never happened.
And before I could worry about it, the fog vanished. We had drifted out of it. One second we were in the thick of it and the next we were clear of it. The rock walls seemed to have disappeared with the fog and to the right was a muddy beach. Behind it was a luxurious jungle growth of tall palm, teak and coconut trees. Broadleaf trees with deeply green branches. Below them were huge bushes covered with brightly colored flowers. Reds, yellows, and oranges punctuated the landscape. Farther away, was a meadow, carpeted with grass that didn’t look very tall. A breeze rippled it, making it look like the waves on a pond on a summer afternoon.
Eric moved to the center of the boat and put the oars into the water. He pulled us toward the beach until the bow scrapped on the soft mud.
"We’ve landed," he said.
"Yes," I agreed. I picked up my rifle and climbed from the boat. I dropped to the muddy beach and waited. When nothing happened, when no beast attacked, I took a step forward, toward the plain spread out in front of us.
Eric dragged the boat higher and then tied a rope from the bow to the nearest tree. That finished, he shouldered his pack and picked up his rifle.
"Let’s go," he said.
I turned and looked at him. I could see across the river now. It was wide and slow moving. Opposite us was another jungle, this one coming right down to the water’s edge so that the leaves and some of the trees and bushes dipped into the river. Overhead I could see a couple of birds windmilling on the air currents. Large, dark birds with huge, leathery wings that looked more bat like than bird. They were watching us and the ground under them, looking for easy prey. They were somehow both fascinating and disturbing.
Overhead, the sun had taken on a strange quality. It seemed closer and brighter than it should have been and I wondered if it was because we had traveled so far to the north. And then I realized I was standing in a tropical garden and not the frozen wastes that I expected.
I moved to the boat and pulled my pack from it. I struggled into it, shifting the weight until it sat on my shoulders comfortably. I fastened the straps, bent and picked up my rifle again. I turned, facing Eric and asked, "Now what?"
"We explore, of course."
When he said that, I suddenly realized what he believed. We had found our way into the Inner Earth and any doubts I once had were gone. Slowly, I examined my surroundings, so different than anything I expected and so different from anything that I had ever seen.
"Explore what?" I asked, although I already knew the answer to that.
"Explore the land we came to find. We’re inside the Earth’s crust now."
He didn’t say, "And to find my father." I wouldn’t learn about that until later.