Bernard’s feet kicked up dust and dirt as the beasts closed in on him and he scrambled away from them. There was nothing he could do, no gun, no knife, no chance. A flaming arc came flying over his head and smashed into the tree, bursting one of the foul pods and lighting its sap aflame. It spilled down the side of the tree like burning brandy and the beasts turned away from him, screeching in echo to the snarling rage of their master.
Bernard scrambled up to his feet while the ape men beat out the flames with their bodies, flailing wildly with their arms and howling a mind-warping cacophony. He felt a sudden grip on his arms and felt himself hoisted up and pulled back into the undergrowth. Was it them? No. It was her, Kiezi. She’d come back for him. She grinned to him in light of the spreading flames and folded her golden bow, tucking it into her pack and handing him his own.
There was no gun, but there was a spare magazine in the bottom of the bag. The food was gone, the ape-things knew what that was but not the bullets or the bottles. Kiezi yanked on his shoulder but he pushed her hand way and fished out the magazine lobbing it, underarm, into the fire.
Then, they ran.
Fear and adrenalin had given him something extra, as had a day following her through the tangles. He moved almost as swift as she did now. He clasped her hand tight and let her lead him, ghosting her steps as they ran, headlong into the night. The bangs of the bullets as they cooked off seemed strangely close, given the pace they were fleeing but maybe it would keep the bastard things off them a bit longer. It let him know they were fleeing the right way though, as far and as fast as they could directly away the sound.
She stopped, a moment, both of them gasping for breath, run ragged in their flight. Up close he got a look at her pack. It was like a life, it was metal, hard, but it seemed able to flex and move like cloth. Strange how moments of terror were also moments of clarity.
She shared a nod with him and they began to run again, to flee in what he thought was the direction of the river, leaving the crack-pop of the bullets and the howls and shouts of the beasts and their master further and further behind. Even things as swift as the ape-beasts couldn’t catch them now.
When the river appeared it was like it ambushed them. Even Kiezi was taken aback, two steps wading, splashed into the water before they both came up to a halt. She seemed panicked, twisting her head to and from but finally he was worth something.
“Kiezi, this way!” He stabbed his hand down river. The boat his ill-fated team had travelled on was there somewhere, tucked into the side. There were more supplies there, water at least, a medical kit. Moreover the boat had fuel and an engine. It could get him back into a world of refrigeration, beer, television, the things that made sense instead of a nightmarish world of jungle beasts and unnatural plants.
He waded along muddy the muddy bank, pulling her this time, both of them splashing their way along the bank of the river, heedless of crocodiles and leeches, snakes and whatever else may lurk in the river. Compared to the madman and his black beasts they were nothing. They were familiar, normal, conventional. He wouldn’t begrudge dying to a snake’s venom or the rolling maw of a crocodile.
Desperate eyes tried to pierce the gloom. Here, away from the flames the sky was a riot of stars and Moon and he could almost see. Everything was grey and white and he had to keep slapping the insects and the water from his face but he was sure it was here. Somewhere.
There. At the bend in the river, the shape of the boat. Tied up and pulled into the side, screened with bushes but he remembered where it was. He laughed with joy and let go of her hand, half running, half swimming to reach it. He hauled himself up, over the side, into the swaying cradle of the boat and just lay there a moment, basking in the feeling of safety.
Kiezi stayed back, up to her thighs in the sluggish dark waters, almost as though she were afraid to climb aboard. Bernard fished around for the torch he knew was in here somewhere and leaned over the side towards her, fumbling with the button but it wouldn’t come on.
He saw her freeze and he sopped fiddling with the torch, laying still, wondering what she saw or heard. She pointed back, behind him, her hand dropping down to the golden belt and resting there. She hissed and pointed again, harder, more insistently.
Bernard twisted around to look, dreading what he’d see but then his jaw dropped open in disbelief.
“Fred?” it was Fred, ridiculous Fred with his boots hanging around his neck same as ever. “I thought you died!”
Fred’s mouth hung open and a long dribble of spittle hung from his lip. Bernard could smell blood as he came closer, right up to the side of the boat. Arms outstretched.
The torch finally snapped on, all by itself and shone into Fred’s face. His open mouth was filled with a mass of white threads. They burst through his body where the spears had taken him and the flesh was bitten here and there from his body. He was dead, but he was walking. More of the unnatural growth, like the tree and the glowing vines. Maybe he’d stumbled here on some half remembered instinct and now he was trying to throw himself into the boat, to get at Bernard.
He was beyond the point where anything could really surprise him any more. Even this. He smashed forward with the torch and drove it into Fred’s face, splintering teeth and throwing him back into the water. He floundered like he’d forgotten how to swim. The sluggish current was to much fr his bloating, swelling body and he was carried further and further away reaching, always reaching to try and get to him until he vanished away into the dark, sinking beneath the water one last time.
“That should give the guys down in Soyo something to think about. Eventually,” he shook his head and turned back to her. She was still stood in the water, same position, hand to her golden belt. She hadn’t moved an inch and the water just flowed around her.
“He’s gone. Get in the boat Kiezi. Come on,” he beckoned, waving with his hand.
She twisted and flung. Hurling the wedge-like blade from her hip with deadly force twisting her whole body into it. He felt it whip past his ear and knew without bothering to turn and look that he’d forgotten about Ray. He didn’t bother to turn, or to look, he just heard the smack of the blade and the heavy splash of the body into the shallows.
Then she moved, wading past him, past the stern of the boat to pull her blade fro the twice-dead man’s skull and to push his body out into the water.
Bernard offered his arm but she shook her head, clipping the golden blade back to her hip, “Stay,” she said and pointed emphatically at the ground, wading out of the water to watch him go.
She was a mystery, one of many here. The man and his beasts, the strange plants. All of it was still out here and needed confirming, explaining, witnessing, recording. To do that he couldn’t stay here. His limbs were exhausted, trembling as he unhooked the rope and let the boat drift out into the river.
She stood, proud on the shore and watched him drift away.
He stood at the stern and watched her back. The strange chalky girl with the golden harness. Pale and gleaming in the moonlight until she finally faded out of sight. He grasped the pull-cord of the engine and braced as her heard her distant cry. The same war scream she gave when she came to his rescue.
The chug of the engine drowned out the sound of the jungle, even her shrieking cry and that was just fine with him. Let it drift. Let it carry him away. Let it take him from the nightmare and back to the world. He slumped over the wheel and left it all behind, let the river lull him to sleep.