The Hunting of the Chrysopithecos

Sam Guisbourne

In his youth, when the Emperor had visited the far southern province of Gnerrultan, there had been talk of Formigiddan Asphuul acting as assistant guide to an imperial hunting-party; and given luck he might have come to the favourable notice of a chamberlain or secretary for the sharpness of his eye and quickness of his bow and received an invitation to take up a post in the imperial household, whence he might have climbed in the years ahead to some modicum of wealth and fame.

But the emperor cut short his visit to Gnerrultan on receiving news of the birth of his first son, the present Emperor, to his third-favourite concubine, and he never again returned to the province or its capital, the heat-drowsed, canal-divided city of Phlagmosis. It is on such threads that the fortunes of men depend, and when the threads snap prematurely Formigiddan Asphuul did not believe that it was man's place to objurgate the gods, if indeed the gods ever paid heed to the ant-like doings of men, as he sometimes, in his private meditations, took leave to doubt. Instead, the hunter put his disappointments behind him and continued to ply his trade as his forefathers had before him, slowly saving sufficent silver to choose a wife; and now, as the first stiffenings of middle age touched his joints and he began to harvest light hairs amid dark as he drew his bronze razor over his prognathous chin, he was content with his lot and had foresaken ambition in all but one regard: that one day before his death he might avenge his father, who had disappeared many years before whilst hunting the golden ape of Tormelios.

This creature, half-mythic for its longevity and the beauty of its pelt, inhabited the jungle filling the crater of an ancient and but partly extinct volcano three days' journey from Phlagmosis. Some said that it was the spirit of the volcano itself, or at least in league therewith, for it was believed to possess the secret of fire, which it had employed the previous year to escape a party of hunters who had trapped it, so they thought, in the hollow bole of a superannuated arfengyum tree. What is certain is that somehow the dried leaves and moss filling the bole were ignited, sending up a dense cloud of mildly hallucinogenic smoke, and that the ape escaped in the confusion, while three hunters were on their bellies for a fortnight with wounds received when their companions loosed shafts at the golden forms that seemed to flit through the smoke all round them.

Formigiddan Asphuul, who had hunted the ape each year since his earliest youth, and caught no more than distant glimpses of it, did not wholly credit the tale, but he was convinced that the creature possessed a wisdom and cunning far beyond that habitually allotted to the brute creation - for had not the same ape been spoken of and hunted in his disappeared father's youth, many years before? Yet the narrowness of its escape from the hunters of the previous year was something out of the common too, for the ape had never before been known to give a hunter even a chance of a shot, let alone allowed itself to be cornered by a dozen experienced bowmen. Thus it was that Formigiddan Asphuul felt the creature's limbs and eyesight were at last paying testament to the length of its years, and thus it was he prayed that his might be the bow to bring the creature finally crashing to the loamy earth of the crater floor.

Like all the hunters of Phlagmosis, he employed agents in the villages of Tormelios who supplied him news of creatures worthy of his bow; and one morning, as he repaired his crocodile-skin buskins and his young wife prepared the midday meal with their new-born son on her hip, there rattled into the apodus cage of his hut on the steamy banks of the eighty-third-and-twentieth canal of Phlagmosis a bird whose breast bore the scarlet-and-yellow stripes of the village of Azdroban. He took the bird from the cage and untied the roll of hhamek-bark attached to one of its vestigial feet; and with the aid of a roughly lenticular tourmaline crystal he had deciphered the minute ideographic scratchings on the bark within a half-hour. Saying farewell to his wife and son, he set off for the volcano Tormelios with a great excitement filling his breast. Three nights running now the golden ape had been observed by villagers to bathe in the pools of Tandigalos, where water heated by subterranean fires rose to the surface, and a hide had already been constructed for him overlooking the central and deepest pool.

The nocturnal balneation, hitherto unremarked amongst the creature's habits, was, he felt certain, an indicium of encroaching senility, for did not the elderly inhabitants of the village themselves bathe in the heated water to soothe the aches and stiffnesses of their joints? His greatest fear was that some other hunter would receive word of the matter too, and would race him to the village to claim the prize that waited there. Formigiddan Asphuul hired the swiftest canal-boat he could find to take him across the city to the paths that led south to Tormelios, and spent his silver ktayans freely on hiring two bearers to accompany him not to Azdroban but to the neighbouring village of Ladaovan, whence, he hinted, he just received news of the recent arrival of a migratory flock of qaluoph. When the three of them began their journey through the steaming jungle that encircled Phlagmosis, he soon found it easy to pretend that he had trodden on an old kramalan-thorn, and sent the bearers on ahead of him with the strictest adjunctions to secrecy, telling them that he would catch them up when he had worked off his lameness.

They would gossip with wayfarers and shrine-attendants all the way to Ladaovan, he knew, and he trusted that the apodus-cages of all the unemployed hunters of Phlagmosis and its environs would soon be rattling with news of the qaluoph flock. Against the possibility that some hunter had already received news of the golden ape he could take no steps, but he felt that he had done the best he might to ensure his own success; and finding the path to Tormelios he strode along it with good hope. As he reached the first of the many rivers that crossed the southern jungle of Gnerrultan, however, he cursed himself for his confidence, for there it was that he set eye to a wickerwork shrine of Aold-Niqq and realized that he had quite neglected to offer up a prayer for success before he left Phlagmosis. He hastened to repair the omission, and tipped the shrine-attendant more even than was his generous wont, when on an expedition for which he had especial hopes of success or fears of failure.

He stopped again at the wickerwork shrines of Aold-Niqq on his second river-crossing, and desisted thereafter only because he judged that his purse, already lightened by the hiring of the two bearers, would not stand further outlay if he wished to reward his informant in the village of Azdroban for the information that had been sent, and to hire men in the village to accompany him on his watch on the pool where the ape had been reported to bathe. Perhaps he offended Aold-Niqq with his frugality; perhaps Aold-Niqq caroused in the feasting-hall of the gods quite oblivious to the transactions taking place in his name among men; all that is certain is that two days into his journey to Tormelios, with the slopes of the crater rising on the horizon, Formigiddan Asphuul did in truth what he feigned at the beginning of his journey: that is, he stepped atop a caltrop-thorn of the kramalan-tree.

The sharp point of the thorn passed clean through the sole of his crocodile-skin buskins and ran deep into the sole of his foot, and by worse luck still the thorn was but newly fallen, and full of poison. Quick as he was to pluck it out, he could soon barely walk and was hard put to it to restrain his cries as the lancinating pains of the swelling grew. The poison of the kramalan is very rarely fatal, but the cries it provokes very often are, for the tree collaborates with the great striped weasel known as the glatorr, a pair of which invariably dwells in a lair delved into its roots. The four-spiked poison caltrops of the tree are flung many paces in all directions when the ripe pods explode in early spring, and they harvest many victims in the following months, whose cries of pain attract the glatorr and whose bones nourish the tree when the glatorr, having dragged their prey home, have eaten off the flesh.

No wise hunter, therefore, would ever utter a word in complaint when he treads atop a kramalan-thorn, reserving his breath rather to make his way as speedily as he might away from the tree and its sub-dwelling glatorr, if he be able to discover in what direction these lie. Formigiddan Asphuul, who could see the glaucous leaves of the kramalan nodding quite close at hand to the north-west, accordingly struck off into the jungle south-east, cursing his own carelessness beneath his breath and grimacing back the increasing pain in his foot. His hopes of reaching Azdroban in time to kill the ape were now gone, for he knew that in a few hours, when the swelling had reached its peak, he would be laid up for a week, and his informant in the village would surely inform another hunter of the ape's presence if he did not arrive within the next two days.

Those few hours were soon passed, and between groans of agony - he had put enough distance between himself and even the sharpest-eared of glatorr to be safe - he busied himself making a temporary shelter of the leaves of giant ferns, where he would stay, feeding himself on roots and lime-trapped birds, while his foot recovered. When the shelter was complete night was falling and he swallowed a few berries of the aesphequë-tree, long a specific against tooth-ache and similar sleep-annihilating afflictions, and curled himself up to sleep with a prayer of thanksgiving to Aold-Niqq for sealing his lips when he was within earshot of the glatorr. The misfortune of stepping atop the kramalan-thorn itself he overlooked, for to complain either of the god's malice or the god's neglect was bootless, and mortals can never hope to receive by querulation and reproach what they might by gratulation and flattery.

He had dwelt in the shelter the expected week and the morning of the seventh day, with his foot nearly recovered, found him seated outside it, digesting a meal of parrot and jungle-thrush and debating with himself what next to do. He might push on to Tormelios in the faint hope that the ape bathed unmolested yet in the steaming pools of Azdroban, or return to Phlagmosis in the near certainty that his apodus-cage contained news of some other, if lesser, prize. He was still undecided when, to his surprise, he caught a howl of pain rising in the distance, soon repeated from a nearer point, and then again nearer yet, so that he might hope to catch a glimpse of whoever was responsible within a quarter-hour, if that worthy followed the same little-frequented path as he had himself.

As the howls grew nearer, however, he realized that they were not uttered by human lips, being both deeper and more uncouth, and he hopped back to his shelter to recover his bow and quiver, with which he then hid beside the path, watching through fronds of trailing errish-vine for the creature to approach. He had decided by now that it too had been a victim of a kramalan-thorn, for its cries were of a remarkably similar tone to that provoked by the kramalan's poison in man. And indeed, was it not likely that this path had been trodden out in the jungle by creatures fleeing the kramalan-tree and its attendant glatorr exactly as he had done himself?

Scarcely had the thought occurred to him when another howl of pain swelled in his ears and the creature for which he had waited stumbled into view through the fronds of errish-vine. Such was his astonishment at its identity that he could only gape in silence, and it was not until the creature had passed and was stumbling away from him that he slipped from hiding and drew an arrow from his quiver to set it to the string of his bow. Even in its pain, however, the creature evidently retained its feral acuity of sense, and some slight noise he made in drawing the arrow forth made it turn in its tracks and then, with a grunt of disdain, plunge off the path into virgin jungle, leaving a gleaming patch of its hair on a trailing strand of the viscous-leafed faowwul.

His heart still hammering in his breast like the forges of the divine smith Hakklawa, Formigiddan Asphuul ran down the path, ignoring the renewed pain in his foot, and lifted the hair from the faowwul. Had it not been for this he might have thought he had dreamed, but here, between his fingers, were seven golden hairs, and he knew that he had indeed seen the golden ape of Tormelios pass but moments before before his disbelieving eyes. Pausing only to tuck the hairs into the fire-making pouch he carried on his belt, he plunged off the path in pursuit, ears pricked for further howls of pain.

But the ape was now silent, evidently recognizing the danger of pursuit, and Formigiddan Asphuul required all his skills of tracking and jungle-craft to keep on its trail. The pain in his foot was soon at an almost unbearable pitch, but he fought it down with the reflection that the ape must be suffering even more from its more recent injury and might even be forced to stand at bay as the swelling increased. As hour succeeded hour, however, and he caught fewer and fewer glimpses of the creature in the leaf-gloomed distance, he realized that it was calling on its last reserves in an effort to shake him off its trail. The sun reached its zenith and began to fall into the west, and he knew that he would soon be unable to distinguish the bent stems and faintly disturbed earth by which he was tracking the creature.

A distant howl gave him renewed hope, however, for it was evident that the kramalan's poison was now working its worst effects, overcoming the ape's determination to preserve silence, and he pushed on with extra speed, hoping for a chance of a clear shot before nightfall. None came his way, but he made a shelter for the night from tree-ferns with a quiet confidence that dawn would find the creature not too far distant, and its trail not too difficult to trace.

SO it proved, but that second day too gave him no chance of a shot at the ape, nor the two that succeeded it, and dawn of the fourth day found Formigiddan Asphuul in regions of the jungle unknown to him even by repute. Some of the very flora he encountered now was unfamiliar, and he gave it a wide berth, even at the cost of losing a minute or two on the ape's trail, for he was unwilling to trust that its pollen or fragrance were benign. By now he had had many hours to ponder the significance of his encounter with the ape so unexpectedly and so far from its decade-long seclusion in the crater of volcano Tormelius, and he believed that he had the key to the riddle. Finding no cure for the aches and stiffness of its encroaching senility in the heated pools of Azdroban and recognizing in some dim fashion that it was marked for slaughter should news of its infirmity reach the ears of the hunters who had long pursued it, the ape had determined to seek out a new haunt far from all human habitation, and by chance the first stage of its journey had brought it to the environs of the same kramalan-tree as that to which he himself had succumbed.

If so, Formigiddan Asphuul substituted benedictions for maledictions in the apostrophes he offered the kramalan for the pain in his foot, and offered up renewed thanksgiving to Aold-Niqq, for placing in his way this final chance of fulfilling a life's ambition. Indeed, by now the pain in his foot was beginning to fade and his progress through the jungle was markedly improving - he was clambering over fallen trees and squirming through patches of thorn with an ease and activity he had not known since his youth.

Yet concomitant with this rejuvenation of his limbs came, it seemed, a deterioration in his eyes, for on the same day he missed two easy shots at birds he had marked metaphorically for the pot; and he could not recover the arrows he had loosed, leaving him to pursue the ape with only nine in his quiver, and to appease his hunger by snatching such fruit from trees around him as he recognized as edible from the familiar jungle of home. That the ape too was seeking to nourish itself in this way he discovered from tooth-marks in the verrucose skin of a pawwaffa-fruit dropped as unripe on the trail he followed. He picked up the fruit and sniffed it, seeming to find the musk of the ape's fingers lingering yet, and then tossed the fruit aside and plunged on its trail with renewed confidence, beginning to offer up another prayer to Aold-Niqq.

Somehow, however, he found his tongue stumbling on the long-familiar words, and he was forced to resort to the wordless intoning of a hymn. That this was equally efficacious seemed proved when he heard the ape howl again in the distance, and even the discovery when night fell that he had forgotten in the rigours and fatigue of the hunt how to weave the leaves of the giant fern into an impervious shelter did not dampen his spirits; and he climbed aloft instead into the broad branches of a klambowwaan-tree as the habitual serein began to fall. At dawn he renewed the hunt, finding that he was following the ape's trail more quickly than ever, and to his gratification the trail began to give evidence of panic on the ape's part, for the creature was discarding all precautions and leaving traces of its passage almost as easy to read as those of a herd of jungle-swine or one of the rare wandering mastodons that occasionally pushed south to Gnerrultan.

Then, towards the middle of that fifth day of the hunt, he came across evidence that at least one another pair of human feet had pressed the jungle floor before his, for as he prepared to cross a jungle stream he saw on its bank an ancient and long-abandoned shrine to Aold-Niqq, of such a type as those fashioned by solitary hunters to offer up their devotions when on a prolonged and onerous hunting. At the shrine he had two surprises. The first came when he stopped to leave his bow and quiver on the threshold, and discovered that there was no bow and quiver to leave: he had abandoned them, he now remembered with a dull dismay, on climbing the klambowwaan-tree for shelter the previous night, and had neglected to look for them when he descended in the morning.

The second, and greater, surprise came when he entered the shrine and discovered that newly plucked fruit had been already laid before the roughly hewn altar, as though another hunter had been here within the day, or even the half-day. After a moment his surprise sharpened to astonishment, for it was evident that the offering had been made by none other than the ape he pursued: its feet were plainly impressed on the floor of the shrine and two of its gleaming hairs were caught on the altar itself, as though the ape had clasped it in traditional fashion whilst at prayer. Formigiddan Asphuul himself knelt before the altar to offer up his own devotions, and rose with renewed spirit despite discovering that he was capable of remembering the words of only the simplest prayer.

He then emerged from the shrine to continue the hunt, and felt sure that before nightfall he would have overtaken his prey. The offering of fruit was, he believed, yet another token of the ape's panic-striken flight: in its extremity it had recalled seeing a hunter perform the rite, and had imitated it with a dim apprehension of its significance. He splashed across the stream, stooping as he went to dash palmsful of water on his face and head, and plunged into the jungle on the far bank with all the eagerness of a boy. He seemed to fly over the obstacles in his path now, vaulting fallen trees like the bull-teasing acrobats of the imperial court and even able to swing from branch to branch across occasional patches of bog or marsh, where formerly he might have had to waste minutes finding some route around them.

His senses seemed to have sharpened too, and he no longer needed to watch the earth for signs of the ape's passage, for the uncouth musk of the creature was hanging on the air as plain as smoke and he clearly heard it charging through the jungle ahead of him, gibbering with fear and panic. The knowledge of this exulted him and he began to vent wordless howls of threat, secure in the knowledge that he would soon have overtaken it. So it proved: he splashed across another jungle stream to find water still dripping from leaves on the far bank where the ape had clambered itself but moments before, and now he could see the creature fleeing ahead of him between the trees.

He put on a burst of extra speed with another howl of threat, and grinned with triumph as the creature turned and stood at bay. He no longer regretted the loss of his bow: he could triumph by the strength of his limbs and jaw alone, he believed. Then came the third and greatest of that day's surprises: as he rushed upon the creature, venting a howl of triumph, he saw that it was raising a bow to face his onrush, with an arrow fitted to the string. It was a prodigy against nature as great as though a fish had raised its head from the stream he had just crossed, to call upon him by name, and with a grunt of fear he ducked for his very life behind a tree.

Yet the prodigies of the day were unexhausted, for now, as he crouched behind the tree, he heard the ape begin to jabber to him, and he caught within its uncouth accents the unmistakable syllables of his own name and other words of the dialect of Gnerrultan, so that the ape seemed to say to him: 'Formigiddan Asphuul! Formigiddan Asphuul! Welcome, welcome, my son!'

When he heard the ape advance on his place of shelter, he tried to flee, but slipped on a patch of jungle-fungi and sprawled helpless on the earth. Then the musk of the ape was thick to choking in his nostrils and he raised his head to see it standing over him, an arrow aimed between his eyes by its hairy paws. Yet the ape did not loose the bow, instead jabbering to him again, and again in its jabbering he seemed to hear the words, 'Formigiddan Asphuul! Formigiddan Asphuul! Welcome, welcome, my son!'

'Avaunt, demon!' he cried, finding his tongue strangely thickened and irresponsive in his mouth, 'Avaunt, demon, in name...'

But he could not find the words he sought, and the ape was shaking its shaggy head.

'Nay, nay, my son. I am no demon, but your own father.'

'Nay, you demon,' the hunter returned. 'Demon of...'

But again words failed him as the ape shook its shaggy head a second time.

'No demon am I, Formigiddan Asphuul, but your own father. Do you not recognize this ring?'

And it released the string of the bow to thrust forward a hand on which, through the matted fur on the heart-finger, Formigiddan Asphuul caught a gleam of ruby. His surprise must have shown on his face, for the ape stepped closer, thrusting the hand nearer his face, saying this time, 'See! See the flaw in the ruby! 'Tis the ring of your father, Formigiddan Asphuul, and you know full well that it could never leave his finger.'

He looked from the flawed ruby to the ape's face, but could see nothing of its features beneath the thick yellow fur that covered it. Nevertheless, he was half-way to belief, and when the ape lowered the bow fully and stepped back, he did not seek to flee into the jungle. Instead, he rose to his feet, though discovering that he could no longer straighten his back and that the ape stood straighter than he did.

'My father,' he said. 'My father... dead.'

'No, Formigiddan Asphuul,' the ape returned. 'Your father lives, and stands before you now. I am he. But soon in truth I must die, and you must take up the burden of the curse that has blighted our family for two generations now. You, Formigiddan Asphuul, must become the golden ape of Tormelios, as I did before you, and dwell in the crater of Tormelios until the day when you stand before your son as I stand before you now.'

Formigiddan Asphuul shook his head, but the ape pressed on.

'Nay, Formigiddan Asphuul, I speak sooth to you, as you know in your heart. Yesternight I stole your own bow from you as you slept, and that is a thing no true hunter could have allowed. The transformation is upon you, and soon you will look as I do, and must return to Tormelios. Nay, it is sooth. If it is not so, call upon Aold-Niqq to succour you. See? You cannot do it. Words fail you, and will never return to you until shortly before your death, when you must tell your son what I have told you. Come, we have little time remaining. There are rare herbs and fruit in the jungle here that will ease the pains of your final passage to apehood, and enable you to retain the memory of your human days. Help me search them out while understanding of speech remains to you, for I must tell you more of the curse and of how my father brought it down upon our heads.'

Now Formigiddan Asphuul, convinced at last, nodded his assent, and the ape-that-was-his-father finally laid the bow aside and led him on the search for the herbs and fruit of which he had spoken. A month later the hunters of Phlagmosis heard that the golden ape had been sighted again in the jungle of Tormelios after its month's absence, and many of them in following days, buoyed by recent rumours of the ape's encroaching senility, renewed their attempts to claim its fabled pelt. But the ape evaded their designs as easily as ever, and all returned disappointed to Phlagmosis, where one of them, a blood-friend of Formigiddan Asphuul, could barely face the wife of the disappeared hunter and her fatherless son, for it was now widely believed that the ape was responsible for her husband's death and he had vowed to avenge her on the creature.

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