The machete blade bit into the succulent green of the tree and stuck fast. White rubbery goop seeped out of the trunk and gummed around the blade, already sticky. Every time he cut Bernard had to stop, wipe the goo from the blade and start over. The trees here were too big, too dense, to cut through and the undergrowth was all this rubbery tangle. The stuff smelt like a mix of school glue and semen, which really wasn’t that pleasant at all.
He stopped and rubbed the gluey mix from the blade, turning to look to the rest of his team. Christ was a local doctor and bore the joke-making of his name with remarkable stoicism. He wasn’t that good at cutting through the undergrowth but with all these blades flying about you wanted someone who was a dab hand with a needle. Divine, French educated, Congolese by birth, was a scientist like him. Her shock of dark, curly hair was yanked back into a tight braid. She was strong, drenched with sweat as she clove away at the undergrowth with the rest of them. Ray and Fred, their guards, all he’d gotten out of them were their first names. They didn’t deign to help chop, but that wasn’t their job. They scanned the dense jungle – even though they couldn’t see very far at all, AK-47s slung back over their shoulders.
Fred had his boots off, hung around his neck, walking barefoot over fallen tree trunks and deep leaf litter. Bernard looked down at the mass of crawling insects, thorns and other creatures down around his boots and shook his head. You wouldn’t catch him doing that. Far too many scorpions, centipedes, ants, snakes and other stinging, venomous, poisonous creatures waiting for a nice chunk of prime Belgian flesh.
“Mr Vandenbosch!” Divine’s heavily accented French called from the side of the little trail they’d been cutting. It was damn slow going.
“Yes Miss Kayembe?” he stopped and turned, wiping his brow, the sweat never stopped flowing down into his eyes.
“I think I’ve found one of the plants that were in the report,” she was hunkered down now, the hacking replaced by a gentle parting of the foliage.
Bernard carefully paced over to her, leaving the Doctor to make what little headway he could by himself against the combative plant life. There, between Divine’s calloused fingers was a tiny little flower, four petalled, delicate, but the scent was strong. Just as had been described. This was why he was here and area, relatively unexplored, the potential for new pharmaceutical chemicals, synthesised from the plant life of these areas was enormous.
“There’s another one…” Divine parted the rubbery undergrowth and there was a treasure-house of the little flowers, their antiseptic smell suddenly making the jungle smell like a doctor’s waiting room.
“So many… I wonder why nothing’s eating them,” Bernard reached back into his pack and fished out a sample jar and a trowel, stabbing it into the dirt to work out one of the little white jewels and its roots.
“We’re in the right place at least!” Divine smiled a broad white smile and held back the plants as Bernard dug around the roots, brushing aside the dried out husks of dead insects to get at the loamy soil beneath.
A bare foot, thick with rough skin, appeared next to him as he dug and he looked up, blinking to Fred, standing over him and sucking his teeth. “It’s getting dark quick Mr Vandenbosch. We need to find a place to make camp.”
Bernard nodded and lifted the plant into its container, screwing on the lid. He turned to Divine as she stood, knees cracking as she did so. “Make a note of the location on the GPS so we can get back here at first light. I’m going to want a few more samples.”
Divine nodded and took her tablet out of her cargo shorts. She tapped at it with the stylus and then abruptly stopped, giving a strange and sudden grunt. Bernard stood, immediately, staring at her as she dropped her tablet and lifted her hand to her chest. A scarlet stain was spreading across her vest, soaking through the fabric. Her knees began to buckle and she tried to form a word, blood trickling from her lips before she was yanked back and up arms and legs thrown forward, her body hauled out of sight into the leaves and the trees.
“Merde!” Fred and Ray unslung their guns and worked the bolts. There was a whooshing sound and Bernard saw a golden blade, like a broad spear tip, pierce Christ’s head, emerging through his mouth in a shower of gore and then yanking back, taking his head off above his mandible and spraying gore over the leaves as his body fell back.
The rattle of the AKs was deafening, even if he was used to the sounds of battle and Bernard hunkered low, arms over his head against the sound as Fred and Ray opened fire, blind, into the jungle around them. The stink of gunsmoke took over now and hot brass fell all around him like rain, bullets tearing up the jungle, blowing red hot splinters of fractured wood into the air.
It was brief an deafening, over as quickly as it started, spent magazines dropped in their haste to reload, slamming them home and knocking them to shake the bullets into place.
“Stay down Mr Vandenbosch,” Fred half crouched to press a hand against Bernard’s shoulder and then crept, hunched over, a metre – perhaps two – down the trail.
Bernard scrambled for his machete – better than nothing – he couldn’t root in his pack, there was too much going on. “Klootzaks…” he hissed under his breath, scrabbling, putting his back to a tree trunk for cover.
There was a single shot from Ray, a bright flare against the darkening jungle and then he too was gone, pulled into the undergrowth with barely a chance to scream. There was only Fred left. Barefoot Fred, creeping down the trail, eyes to the canopy big and white and alert.
Fred didn’t see it though. The giant shadow, more ape than man. Sleek and bald and dark as night, naked as a newborn. Bernard only saw it because of the golden gleam of its spear in the waning light. It was walking down the side of one of the great trees, long toes wrapped around the trunk, silent for something seven feet tall. Bernard tried to open his mouth, tried to shout, to scream but nothing would come. The great black shadow dropped silently down behind Fred and with one massive hand twisted his head on his shoulders until the blank white eyes were staring back at Bernard.
“Merde!” Bernard found his voice now, scrambling for his pack, tearing it open as more of the shadows slipped down from the trees hulking brutes, muscled and sleek as leopards, fanged teeth showing in toothy grins. “What the fuck are you?”
They stepped closer, closer, loosening those strange short spears in their hands, each attached to a golden chain, wrapped around their bulging forearms. This was it. He was going to die. He couldn’t get his gun out in time. It was wedged beneath the laptop, the sample pots, all the useless paraphernalia of science. He was dead, dead, dead.
“IAIAIAIAIAIAIAIAIA!” a banshee scream came out of the jungle and made itself heard, even through the deafness from the gunshots. A white streak came rocketing out of the dense jungle and smashed into one of the great black giants, carrying it over to the ground with sheer momentum. There was a flash of gold and a fount of blood and only then would his eyes focus.
Straddling one of the dead giants was a girl, white as a ghost, naked as her enemy, her hair a shock of gleaming white dreadlocks. She was unadorned save for a belt and necklace of gold and now her white body was smeared with red blood that matched the feral gleam of her eyes. She stood on the fallen giant and screamed at its brothers that same deafening ululation. “IAIAIIAIAIAIAIA!”
The giant shadows took a step back and one swung up its spear, hurling it with terrible might towards the wiry girl. She moved like a snake, twisted and snatched the spear by its haft, yanking it forward with such brutal force that the chain stripped the skin from the giant’s forearms and sent it screaming and bubbling to its knees with pain.
The last turned, and ran. It leapt into the trees with unnatural speed hands and feet gripping together, propelling it into the deepening dark and the thick of the wilderness away from the ghost that had killed its fellows.
The red and white demon girl stepped down from the body and casually stabbed the whimpering, kneeling giant through the top of his skull with her curved golden dagger. Yanking it free with the same casual ease and leaving the body to fall into the rotting loam. The blade went away, clinging to her belt as she slunk with cat-like, careful grace and crouched before Bernard, offering him her bloodied hand.
He gladly took her hand and let her lift him to his feet. She was as tall as him, a six foot Amazon of a girl, broad hipped, red-eyed, flat of nose with a sumptuous mouth that formed no words. She simply led him, silently, by the hand and he went, gladly.
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