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Posts Tagged ‘Wild’

The next in my line of neo-pulp stories.

Wild explores the theme of the jungle hero, but from a different perspective than you might be used to.

The jungle still holds secrets. Some of them are dangerous, even deadly. Some of them defy our modern understanding. Some of them, like the pale, ghostly girl who runs through the trees, can save your life.

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Coming to Amazon and other outlets within the next 24 hours or so. Search for my name or the title.

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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.

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It pissed her off, again, but he had to stop. It was easier in the dark, cooler, if wetter and they were making better going but Bernard wasn’t sure if he could keep going all night long. He hauled out Divine’s tablet and fired it up, wrinkling his nose as he scraped some flakes of dried blood from its surface. It lit him up in the dark and killed his night vision, making her twist away with that hissing, tooth-sucking sound she made when she was annoyed.

The little satellite symbol blinked in the corner of the screen and finally went solid. The map on the screen swung drunkenly and zeroed in on where he was. The damn thing had barely worked right on their way in but Bernard was damn glad it was working now. Of course, a little arrow in a sea of green wasn’t that much use to him so while she fussed around him he dabbed at the screen, zooming out until he saw something recognisable. The river. They’d get there by morning if they kept going. He was sure she knew her business but it was another thing to see it on the screen and it made him grin and relax for the first time since the attack.

“Alright, alright,” he pushed the tablet back away again and stifled a yawn with his fist, following after her with a new spring in his step.

Places like this you could pass within three or four metres of something and never see it. The darker it got the harder she was to follow through the trees and every time she was out of sight his heart leapt in his chest. He hated to be so dependent on someone he couldn’t share but a couple of words with.

This time when he caught up he took hold of her wrist. She looked at him like he was a snake but he insisted, giving her arm a tug. “What’s your name?” he tapped his free hand against his chest. “Mine is Bernard. Burr-Nard. What is your name?”

She blinked and then touched her hand to her breast. “Kiezi,” she answered, haltingly, as though it wasn’t really her name. Perhaps it was something that those who saw her called her. It would do.

Bernard let go of her arm and let her pull away. She seemed to resent the touch and the intrusion, but he felt better to know her name, nickname, title, whatever it was. She wouldn’t go too far. Somehow knowing her name made him trust her more. He picked up his step and jumped after her, almost smacking into her back as she had stopped, abruptly.

They’d stepped through the screen of trees and undergrowth into a sudden clearing. A big circle of empty, clear, flat earth surrounding a singular, enormous tree whose great leaves covered the clearing like a tent, shielding it from the sky. It was too dark to make out anything more than the vague shape of the tree and the strange growths upon it.

Shadows moved in the darkness. Unsettlingly familiar, hulking, big, human and animal combined. There was a brief flash as Kiezi’s blade found her fist and she crouched, ready to fight. Bernard brought his gun up, one foot forward, braced, ready to fire but what could be seen in this jungle night? Almost nothing.

From behind him tree-trunk arms bound his arms to his chest and crushed until his ribs creaked. “Run!” Bernard called, struggling and kicking as he was lifted bodily from the ground. Kiezi hissed and spat, but she seemed to take him at his word, ducking away and fleeing into the trees with that graceful loping stride he couldn’t match.

Stars were in front of his eyes as the shadowy creature squeezed harder and harder and he yanked down on the trigger in a blind panic. In the strobe light of the rattling gun he could see a mob of the creatures around him with their golden spears and chains. Bullets riddled the leg of the beast holding him and churned up the ground beneath him. It roared loud, over the sound of the firing and dropped him flat onto the deck. Bernard landed hard, flat on his face, the gun – empty – spinning from his grip, leaving him gasping for breath, every wheeze a stab of pain in his sides.

He looked up and saw the hulking brutes part around a thin and imperious looking man. He was as bald as the creatures but was only a man, dark of skin and clad only in the same golden metal that Kiezi wore. He barked an order in some language Bernard couldn’t begin to understand and pointed toward him with a golden stave. There was a crack against the back of his head and everything went black.

***

Bernard was awake. He wasn’t expecting to awaken to that was a plus. When he opened his eyes and found himself tied to a stake in the clearing wasn’t so certain that it was a plus after all. These nightmarish creatures were everywhere and now there was light to see, fires, small, burning in little pits dug into the earth.

The dancing flames revealed a scene from hell. The great dark brutes knuckled around, their spears fastened to their arms, tearing apart the body of the one he had shot in the leg and biting bloody chunks from the bone. It was foul to watch but the man in the gold didn’t seem to care and left them to it. Every one of them bowed its head and moved aside as the man paced, apparently talking to himself.

Above and behind the pacing man was the great tree and it was like nothing Bernard had ever seen before. Every branch seemed different, sprays of leaves that mimicked the plants and trees that surrounded this clearing, dense enough to channel the water to the outer edges. That and the fires meant the ground here was dry and ashen, unlike anywhere else in the jungle.

Covering its great broad trunk were strange flowers, huge and thick, waxy leaves gleaming in the firelight and seeming to pulse like monstrous organs inside a flayed open body. Bernard yanked against his bonds but they would not give, icy cold, metal, it felt like chain and just would not give. He barely dared move that much in case the beasts noticed him and he still didn’t know why he was still alive.

There was a movement from the tree an he watched, in growing horror, as one of the great black beasts took up a burning brand from the fire pit and moved closer. The flower was pulsing, moving and with a great, convulsing, silent retch the labial petals parted and in a rush of fluid another great black ape-man was spilled into the dirt in a caul of sticky goo. It pulled its way free, fully formed, huge and sleek like its brethren, though unarmed.

What was this nightmare? How could something like this even exist without being known of? How could these things hide from satellites, planes, global positioning, wars and rebels. A plant that gave birth to monstrous animal-men? A whole biological technology beyond the wildest dreams of genetic science. It was insane.

Did this man, this shaman, this jungle scientist intend to transform him? To use him? To ‘cross breed’ him somehow? He didn’t want to wait to find out and while the beasts and the gold-clad man tended to their newborn brother he leant forward hard, bracing the chain against the pole, lifted his feet against it and began to push himself up.

It hurt. The chain bit into the skin of his arms and tore the hairs from them. He clamped his jaw shut tight, so hard he feared he’d crack a tooth but inch by inch he made it to the top of the pole and toppled from it, landing with a heavy thump in the ash and dirt. The chains full away from his bloodied wrists but the thump had drawn attention. One of the inky monsters turned, white eyes and teeth standing out as its great mouth opened and bellowed an alarm. It was a word, not just a noise, they were intelligent, tool using, speaking, monsters.

Bernard scrambled back as hard as he could as the tide of creatures turned towards him and the man in gold raised his rod and barked an order. In any language, the command to ‘kill’ was unmistakable.

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Bernard woke with a start a sudden sting against his shoulder making him hiss and jerk upright. He felt like he was coming out of a dream, a nightmare, that lurch as you feel as though you’re falling. He wasn’t and it hadn’t been a dream. The pale, naked girl drew back from him as he sat up and mutely pointed to his shoulder. He twisted his head to look and found his shoulder was caked with blood. She’d torn the sleeve from his shirt while he slept to expose the wound he didn’t even know he’d had. It was clean lined, like a razor cut, scarily so. She pointed, mutely, to the wound and he simply nodded. Let her do whatever she wanted, he was at her mercy out here.

He caught the smell of those white flowers and watched her pop their flowers into her mouth, chewing them loudly, mouth open, white teeth clicking together. Then she drew the paste it made from her mouth on her fingertip and smeared it against the cut. It stung and he doubted it was sanitary, but she must have known something. As she slipped away from him again, crawling across he floor of… wherever he was, he finally thought to look around him. He’d been in shock and it had been dark when she’d brought him here, he’d passed out when he got her – he thought – but now he could see.

It was a dome, geodesic, half in, half out of the ground he thought. It was overgrown with creepers but some of those creepers were the very thing casting light inside here. Pods on the creeper were glowing with a yellow bioluminescence and more plants of different kinds wound and tangled over the golden, metallic surface. The ‘door’ was a hexagon, overgrown like he rest of the dome and there, where she parted the creepers, the dim natural sun of the forest floor shone through.

He swung himself from the bed, there were two, side by side, and stood. He moved his arm, stretched his shoulder. The pain was already gone and he moved closer to her. She seemed even paler in the light, chalky skin and feral red eyes as she twisted back to look at him. Rested and calmer now he noticed she was a woman and he flushed and glanced away. “Thank you. You probably can’t understand me but thank you. You saved my life.”

She smiled and made a pointing gesture, over-arm, as though pointing far into the distance.

“I think I understand. Yes. I came from a long way away. I need to get back there.”

She nodded as though she understood and pointed to where his pack lay. There were other packs and satchels too. Those of his dead colleagues. Covered in their blood. Bernard winced and crossed himself, offering a brief prayer to the dead and then hunched over the packs, rooting through them. Water, food and medical supplies. Everything else could be left. He couldn’t do anything if he didn’t survive. If he did… well, then he could come back in force. A whole new hominid species, new plants and a golden metal that cut like a straight razor. He had to survive to come back.

Water bottles, food, there was one more thing, just as important. Perhaps more important. The AKs hadn’t done Fred and Ray much good but still, a machete wasn’t going to cut it against those things in the jungle. He emptied his bag out and clutched the FN P90, the sub-machine-gun he hadn’t been able to reach the night before. He only had a couple of magazines but he’d feel better lugging it around. Just in case.

She snorted, derisively, as he hefted the gun and checked it over and then unwrapped her own gear from a fur that sat on a golden trellis to the side. There was her knife and he saw now it clung to her golden belt by itself, as though magnetised and to it she added a pair of long-handled axe-like weapons. Finally, over her back, she strapped a pack that looked like a folded, burnished, copper leaf, it’s strap between her breasts making him flush again and look to the floor.

She checked her weapons, checked her strap and then beckoned to him with a grunt, bending low to duck out through the creepers into the jungle beyond. Bernard followed, blinking in the light of the clearing. None of this made sense. The chalk-white girl, the black beasts, the golden metal, even this dome. Maybe he was sick? Delirium, fever? It made as much sense as anything but there was no point fighting it.

The girl beckoned with another grunt and a curt jerk of her hand and he fell in behind her, following her footsteps as she slinked between the trees with an ease that made him jealous.

She seemed to know precisely where to step, how to turn, the rate she moved was incredible and despite following her as best he could he kept falling behind. Every time she ducked back to find him her scowl deepened and her mood became worse. He wished they could talk, that he could explain but there was no way to talk to her. He had just resolved to talk anyway, for the sake of his own sanity when she stopped, abruptly, making him bump into her and then pressing her finger to his lips. The universal sign for silence.

Bernard peered over her shoulder along the slender animal trail they were following and saw what had brought her up short. There was a sickly, sweet, rotting scent on the wind and before them on the trail was a fire-hardened spear of wood, impaling a half-dozen animals, human and otherwise, all in a state of rot but untouched by scavengers.

“The bad guy’s territory huh?” Bernard whispered and the girl clamped her hand over his mouth and butted his forehead with her own. She really, really wanted him to be quiet.

Inch by careful inch they took a path away from that territorial marker. Bernard realised that he recognised the body, what was left of it. Christ, the doctor, an ignoble end to be impaled as a warning but in sparing them a meeting with the shadow creatures perhaps he had done one last service.

Even with her speed it was slow going, especially now they were off the trails and especially with Bernard stopping often for water and for rest. She seemed to need little of either and was steaming with impatience, champing at the bit, stamping her foot irritably every time he stopped.

She was hissing and clucking her tongue at him for the hundredth time as he stopped again, swallowing a mouthful of water and leaning back against a tree when he tuned her out. What was that? What was it back there, in the trees? He frowned and focussed, squinting his eyes to pierce the growing gloom as the sun began to set again. He was exhausted and overheated, barely able to think straight. His vision swam and then settled, focussed in.

Two amber gemstones peered at him from behind her, buried in the undergrowth, perhaps eighteen inches apart, shining and bright. Then they blinked. Bernard raised his hand and pointed. Habit made him say “Behind you” and she did turn. Just as they eyes moved.

A great cat like nothing Bernard had ever seen before. It rocketed out of the shadow trailing creepers and vines, whiskers forward from its sable-furred face, lips back from great fangs liked furred scimitars, paws widespread with claws hooked forth to snatch at skin and flesh.

She barely had time to react and went down under the beast, dragged along under it as it thundered across the jungle floor. He saw her wrap her legs around the giant cat, her arm around its neck, snatching for her dagger from her belt.

He wasn’t going to stand there like a useless lump this time. He yanked the gun up to his shoulder and drew a bead on the animal as it stopped, shaking its barrel body to try and hurl her off.

The trigger didn’t pull. Safety catch.

He fumbled, panicked for the little button that would let the gun fire. She was clinging for dear life onto the beast, hand in its fur, yanking and pulling on it as she drove her sharp golden dagger deep into the cat’s side over and over before its wild shaking finally tore her free and sent her tumbling against a tree.

The beast licked the blood from its flank and gave a long, low, guttural growl. Head down, paws outstretched, tail back straight and twitching. It was going to pounce and for all her skill and for all the sharpness of her blade he didn’t see how she could win.

It leapt.

The gun shoved back into his shoulder, a staccato hammering as he put a dozen rounds into the creature’s side. It twisted in the air and landed, heavy, right in front of her and her brows leap up her head as the big cat came to a halt, panting, twitching at her feet until with tears in her eyes she stabbed her blade through its skull and brought it to stillness.

“I couldn’t let it kill you…” Bernard backed away as she came storming towards him with a look of deep upset. She pressed her finger to his lips and shoved him back further, with an exasperated shrug.

“BANGBANGBANGBANG?!” she shoved at the gun with her hand and rolled her eyes.

“It was going to kill you,” Bernard insisted, looking her in her unsettling red eyes, trying to put across his sincerity as best he could.

She sighed and then pressed her lips to his forehead. “Thank. You” the unfamiliar words fell from her mouth uneasily, but it still made him smile. Then she pressed her finger to his lips again and took his hand, leading him on down the trail. They weren’t going to be able to stop tonight.

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THOCK!

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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