Ansgar and Aminata together rode over a final rise and at last were greeted by the sight of the ancient city. Ansgar's excitement reached a feverish pitch as he gazed out across the moldering ruins. Walls of roughly hewn stone zigzagged between circular huts whose thatched roofs had long since rotted away or beneath grand terraced buildings that bespoke a once refined and elegant population. Crumbling stone pillars now served as nests for flying reptiles and long vines reached between the now vacant buildings like giant strands of spiderweb. Ancient walls were plastered with moss or overgrown with creeping vines. Here and there trees actually grew out of some of the huts or stone edifices. A few stubbornly resisted the silent assault of the jungle which sought to reclaim it and stood several stories high, topped with proud towers and domes. Some squares appeared like small fortresses, ensconced in high walls flanked by ominous-looking rounded towers that reminded him of termite mounds. It was a chaotic display, and yet somehow elegant and fascinating.
Although Ansgar had no idea of what African architecture looked like, he was sure that this was not the work of Spaniards, past or present. It bore none of their signature holy crosses or flair for natural art. He had visited their fortress-like missions and adobe haciendas. No, this was the work of a vastly different people.
As if reading his mind Aminata spoke up. "This is the legacy of my ancestors who came here hundreds of years ago. Abubakari the Second came here across the ocean in a vast fleet of ships. It was here that he landed, on Bakouma, and where he began to forge a new empire." She spoke as if she were seeing the event take place, almost breathless. "Yes, here he and his loyal followers built these grand monuments and tilled the earth, heedless of the beasts that haunted them. He subjugated the natives under his yoke and together they built this. Yes, it must have been glorious!" Her eyes were alight and vibrant. Her gaze seemed to pierce time and space into the past, beholding the city in its halcyon days. But then her eyes dimmed and her head hung.
Ansgar waited on her words anxiously. "What happened to them? Why was the city abandoned?"
The young priestess didn't speak for a moment. "Some of those natives who had already lived here chafed at the my ancestor's presence. They hated them and wished them gone. But in force of arms they could do nothing, for our warriors were far superior. So it was they resorted to cowardly means. They poisoned the river." She turned her eyes on him. They were hard yet tinged with sorrow. "You saw what but a small bit of my voudoun did to the river crocodiles, yes? The ones who poisoned it then used far more. Thousands drank of it and died. The fish died and their meat was no good to eat. The animals stopped drinking at it and drank elsewhere. The soil itself seemed to die and would give up no crops. To stay was to die. My people scattered to other parts of the island, to other cities that lacked the beauty of this one, but had food and fresh water. In time it was forgotten except in legend. The heart of our people was forgotten and the villages lapsed into ignorance. It is here that the Spaniards believe ancestors of their own built a city and filled it with gold. As you see, this is not true. But that does not stop Captain Lorenzo and others like him from seeking it."
Ansgar nodded, pursing his lips. A sad story indeed. So much potential, gone in such a short time. Yet it was the way of things. People rose and fell like the ocean tide. But the moment of melancholy passed and once again excitement rose up in the pair. They sat straight in their saddles and rode to the very outskirts of the city which loomed up high and imposing before them.
"This way, we can hide our animals here," Aminata whispered. She led the way to an old stone hut. Unlike the the others the top was a round dome of solid stone.
Perhaps at one time it had been a place for storing grain or wealth, for the walls were unusually thick and the gaps filled with crude cement. There were no windows and only one door. Ansgar led the animals inside. A stout shaft of wood was driven into the earth and to this the animals were secured. As if sensing the security of the location the animals relaxed, but only marginally. Their ears were ever listening for sounds of danger. The hunter check his rifle again, then stalked out into the winding paths of the dead city. A faint breeze stirred his dirty yellow hair. He smelled many living things here. Rodents that bore tunnels beneath the crumbling columns. Dwarls which nested in the rocky reaches. He caught sight of a sinuous, glistening shape sliding into a tunnel. A snake. The jungle had indeed reclaimed most of this once mighty city. But so far no signs of the jakura.
"Where does this blind beast next exactly?" he asked quietly.
"It dwells near the center of the city in the great palace. I have never been inside, but once I saw the beast enter. It might be that it only sought relief from the heat of day, but I can think of no other place that would be better to start looking. I have seen other ruins where the young ones have been raised. But the blind one does not seem to use them. We must hasten. If it is there now it will not be for much longer. Already the air begins to cool."
She was right. The oppressive heat was slowly lessening. He led the way swiftly but cautiously, careful to not make sound or disturb the other animals that dwelt here. Suddenly both froze as a crackle of gunfire erupted in the distance. Ansgar spun in the direction of the shots, eyebrows knotted. They were from where they had crossed the river. It was sporadic fire, the snaps and booms of pistols and rifles. Not muzzle loaders. Too fast. Revolvers and single shot rifles. Possibly even lever actions and sliders. He gave Aminata a questioning glance, brow raised. She shrugged but loosened her pistol in her sash. Whoever it was, it had to be who he felt was following them before. But who? And why? No vaquero would be stupid enough to cross the river in search of cattle. They were brave and foolhardy, but not stupid. Yet no one else could afford such weapons on these islands. The natives didn't have enough money for them, and there were no other white men. Nor was it only a few men. From the sound of the shots it was no less than eight. Likely far more.
Aminata tugged at his arm and pointed at one of the buildings nearby. They were near the center by his reckoning, and here the buildings were all much larger and closer together. Perhaps this was where the wealthy and powerful citizens had dwelt. He followed Aminata into the building she indicated and were swept up in darkness. A series of pillars in front let bars of light penetrate most of the shadows. It was enough to let them grope their way to a set of stairs that led up to the second level and onto the veranda. From there they looked out across the rooftops to the path they had taken. A few periodic cracks broke the stillness of the air like bullwhip snaps. Ansgar stared accusingly in the direction of the river.
"It must be Captain Lorenzo. No one else on Bakouma has that many men and guns," he grunted. He glanced at Aminata and for a moment thought he saw her smiling in satisfaction. But as he looked at her fully the look was gone.
"Yes, it must be. As you said, no others have so many guns. But how is it that he is here? Surely he did not know of this place before or he would have come long ago."
"He must have followed us. The mules left an easy trail. Blast it! The jakura will hear." He chewed at his mustache in heavy thought. There was no way to know how the animal would react. It might come for them. It might just as easily vacate the area. Man-eaters were difficult to predict. And a blind one was even more difficult to guess. But what to do about Lorenzo and his men? They were undoubtedly being attacked by the crocodiles and other predators in crossing the river and swamp.
"We must hasten then! We cannot wait here! I know Lorenzo. He has not come to help us. Undoubtedly he believes this city is filled with his ancestor's treasure, but even the blind beast can see that this is false. But that will not stop him. If he and his men kill us then the village and others will continue to suffer!"
"If we wait, then perhaps Lorenzo and his army will kill the jakura," the hunter mused. Aminata looked at him with wide eyes and parted lips. But in her eyes he read more than shock; Admiration at his cunning. "I was joking."
"Oh, of course." She looked down, seemingly embarrassed.
Ansgar regarded her cautiously, eyes narrowed. She hadn't disliked the idea. Had she thought of it before? He wasn't a cruel man. He had threatened the Spaniards yesterday, certainly. But that was when they were menacing an unarmed woman. They were bigoted and arrogant yes, but were they terrible men? He didn't wish for them to die. The hunter disdained the blood of man being spilled, even in defense of others. This was a grave complication. If they had indeed arrived with the lust of gold upon them, they might very well attempt to slay him and the priestess. He would avoid killing them if he could. But all too often he was forced to preserve his life by taking others. He cast a scathing look in the direction of the gunshots. He wanted to help them. But time was running out to kill the jakura while it was in its den. To abandon his mission now might mean the deaths of others long from now. It was a choice between who would die. The hunter gritted his teeth. He hoped the Spaniards would turn back after their disaster fording the river. He couldn't turn back from his main goal now.
Aminata glanced at him with pleading eyes. She had the same idea.
"Alright. Let us go to the jakura's den. Hurry!"
She nodded thankfully and led the way, moving as quickly as stealth would permit. The hunter followed on her heels, but pursued by the feeling that much more was taking place than a mere hunt for a man-eater. Something else was afoot and he didn't like it.
The pair loped beneath crumbling arches draped with vines and through ancient stone huts, snakes and rodents skittering through dusty pottery and decayed furniture. The musty odor of age mixed with the stench of rotting vegetation. Ansgar silently marveled at the uniqueness of the architecture. He had seen many styles of building on the mainland and some of the islands, but none remotely approached this. It was wholly unique. The painted walls bore none of the angular stick-figures most often used by the tribals but instead consisted of gloriously complex zigzags and swirls that were most pleasing to the eye. Many of the larger buildings were of a different design as well. They were almost pyramidal in shape but sloped gently to their peak with dozens of wooden rods protruding regularly, giving them a uniform and orderly appearance yet somehow still primitive.
The gunshots faded away and then vanished altogether. Ansgar hoped that they had turned back. Ahead loomed what could only be described as a palace. Although all the buildings here possessed an air of sophistication beyond their age and an artistic flair, none rivaled this central domain. Grand pillars supported beautifully carved statues of unmistakably black warriors bearing oval shields and spears. A wide stair led to the porticoes which were etched with gorgeous patterns that bespoke of regal taste. The chief entrance yawned before them and stood more than twenty five feet high and wide, ample for a large number of people to enter. Or a large dinosaur. The two stood before the entrance way, humbled by the grandeur. Carved negro faces stared back down at them as if scolding them. Bushes sprouted from between the stones. But Ansgar knew that this was where they must enter. Many of the steps, in spite of their intense weight and the workmanship in fitting them together, were broken out of alignment and pressed unnaturally deep into the earth. Broken by the many passages of a great body. And even with almost no wind he could scent the acrid odor of a jakuras.
Bones littered the steps amidst piles of fecal matter around which clouds of flies buzzed. This was undoubtedly the lair of their quarry. Ansgar waved the priestess back and tucked the rifle to his shoulder. The rest of the world seemed to fade away as he focused upon his task. He had never hunted a man eating jakura inside of a building before. It would be more dangerous. There was less room to maneuver and hide. He glanced inside and spied verandas and upper floors. They were high up, but still within reach of a two-clawed jakura. Even so they might offer some defense. But no stair was in sight. He entered slowly, letting his eyes adjust to the darkness. Every column and wall was adorned lovingly with intricate art which even after centuries managed to withstand the reclamation of jungle and wilderness. To the left and right additional pillars and twenty foot tall statues supported the massive ceiling and verandas. Behind those were spaces and alcoves. Some of these held pedestals with grand statues posing proudly. Some were of brave warriors brandishing spears while others were of fearsome bests of the island.
A screeching cry almost made him jump as a shadow streaked from the darkness above and over his head. But he didn't flinch. It was only a startled dwarl. He let out a slow breath. Aminata followed quietly behind him. Her eyes were wide. A dark hand rested on her dagger hilt. He motioned for her to stay back. It would be easier by himself. She shook her head and continued with him. No time to argue. He strode through the gallery with its high vaulted ceiling, avoiding bits of rubbish that had accumulated over the course of time. Vines crept over the flooring like a nest of pythons, muffling their steps. Something crunched softly under Ansgar's foot. He stopped, bent down and touched it. His sensitive fingers told him it was a piece of egg shell. Big. They were on the right track. Diffused light trickled from crags in the ceiling above, granting them some feeble sense of sight.
Then came what Ansgar presumed was the throne chamber set against a back wall whose surface still bore the elaborate paintings and splendor that had once reigned throughout the city. The remains of tapestries hung in moldy tatters. Braces that once held burning torches crumbled with rust. And a mighty throne of finely wrought stone sat atop a mighty set of steps and flanked by statues of voluptuous women and proud warriors bearing spears and shields. But at the bottom of the steps was a large gathering of fresh vegetable material set about in a rough circle. Around it were splinters of bone and shards of crushed egg shells. The nest! But no jakura; It was gone. Ansgar's pulse raised slightly. Stepping as if walking through a nest of vipers he felt the matted foliage. It was still warm. The jakura had left not more than a few minutes ago. But where had it gone? He glanced about. It was difficult to tell in the darkness but he could see no other avenue from which it could go besides the main entrance. He made out a few other passages on the far walls, but none were large enough to admit its bulk.
"Is is gone. We must find where it went," the hunter whispered. But Aminata didn't respond. Glancing back he saw her approaching the throne.
"Here is where our ancestor and king once sat and ruled this kingdom from," she whispered, touching her hand to the seat. Her words were almost that of a trance, as if she had forgotten where they were and the danger they were in. "It must be here."
"What must be here? We can't waste time. The jakura could return at any time. Let us get to the upper levels and wait for it there in safety."
She didn't seem to hear him. The priestess set about examining the throne closely, pressing every carving and image carefully, her brows knotted in concentration. The shredded remains of cushions and cloth were torn away and discarded, exposing the stone beneath. With every movement she grew more feverish, a sweat breaking on her skin as if she were exerting herself. She stood, glaring at the throne accusingly, then turned her eyes upon the statues. To each one she went, feeling them over and examining them with the attention to detail a doctor would pay to an ill patient. Each one she examined then passed to the next, growing increasingly frustrated.
"No, not this one... No... No it's not right..." she muttered under her breath.
"What are you doing?" Ansgar asked, perplexed.
She waved a hand at him dismissively. "Do not wait here on my account, hunter. Go and seek the jakura. I have business here!" She didn't even glance at him.
But he didn't go. For a time he had sensed something else taking place. The situation had seemed straight-forward enough, but too much was happening that was not normal. Why were the Spaniards following them? Why was the priestess now so intent upon the throne room? Why did she no longer care about the man-eater? A low flame of anger began to burn in his chest. Something else was happening. And he wanted to know what. It was only with an effort that he unclenched a knotted fist and suppressed his frustration.
"Aminata." His voice was steel. "What are you looking for?" His tone was steel. He would not be turned away.
Now she glanced at him, her eyes bright white in the darkness of the palace. They were edged with a determination he hadn't seen before. She watched him for a moment, judging him. She must have read the hardness in his posture and gaze, for she sighed and some of the tension went from her body.
"Very well, hunter. I seek something here. Something that belongs to me. To my people. Long has it been lost. Ever since the trouble that killed our kingdom we have forgotten how to get it, but we have known it was here. I beg you to help me find it! There must be a hidden room near here. Abubakari would not have left his inheritance far from his throne." She gestured to him to approach. "The makers of this palace were clever in their craft. Much has been forgotten, but I know that somewhere here is what I seek."
Ansgar regarded her for a moment, then nodded. Whatever it was, if it was this important to her, then he could spare a few minutes helping. He rankled silently however. Was the hunt for a man-eater only a ruse to escort her here? Was this hidden room her goal all along? His blood boiled at the thought. And yet he couldn't deny a certain curiosity towards this mystery. Long had ruins and ancient things interested him. He approached the throne and statues, slinging his rifle over his shoulder and drawing his hatchet. The throne was set flush against the wall, not an inch of space separating the two. First he tapped gently at the nearest statues, ears keen for sounds of being hollow. But they were solid. He tapped along the wall from right to left while Aminata began searching the steps themselves and the pillars that flanked the courtroom. Suddenly he heard what he'd been listening for; A faint reverberation indicating an empty space! It was just above the throne. Yet the throne itself seemed as solid as a boulder. It appeared almost as if it were one with the wall.
Taken in by the interesting development Ansgar forgot his mission and focused more intently on what lay behind the throne wall. His imagination conjured images of what might be hidden beyond. Perhaps ancient books of the city's history? Or a gleaming hoard of gold? Such would be the obvious possibilities. Perhaps it was something else far different. Systematically he tested each stone block around the throne. Yes, there was a distinct arch around it that was hollow while the rest was solid. But how to enter it? Risking more light he struck a match and touched it to a chunk of wood. The jakura would surely smell them and the fire when it returned, but if they were careful to reach the other passages they would be safe. Although now thoroughly engrossed in his work he forgot the beast for the moment. The mystery before him kindled his adventurous spirit. No longer was his brow hard with anger, but his eyes glinted with childish excitement and curiosity.
The throne was a large structure, the back some six feet high, far higher than any man save a giant required. The throne had to be the key. Ansgar tried to imagine what this room had once been like long ago. He set his rifle across his legs and sat in the throne, imagining himself as a great king with a great secret to hide in plain sight. He closed his eyes and hung his head, placing his arms upon the rests. The fronts of the arm rests were carved into the faces of great lions with bared fangs. His fingers settled naturally into subtle grooves, his fingertips upon the eyes. He pushed them faintly. They moved! It was only a faint wobble that only his sensitive fingers could detect, but they pushed in ever so slightly.
A grin split his face as he jumped from the seat. "Aminata! Come quickly!"
She was at his side in a moment, her eyes wide with excitement. "What have you found?" she demanded breathlessly.
"Look." He touched her warm hand and pressed her fingers to the eyes as he had.
She gasped as she felt them move. Sprawling before the throne she pushed the eyes in and a great click sounded like that of a giant clock. Suddenly the back of the throne moved back slightly on one side.
"It's a door!" the pair exclaimed simultaneously, both breathless with anticipation. Aminata in particular seemed to radiate with inexplicable joy. She mounted the seat and pressed the door open. Stone growled against stone as it moved sluggishly at her touch, but moved in to reveal a dark chamber.
Ansgar gathered up a branch and wrapped a bit of old cloth to it, touching another match to it which sprang to life in flame. He passed it to his companion who thrust it into the darkness. And the chamber erupted into golden brilliance that almost hurt to look upon. Treasure! Heaps of it were piled up from one side of the hidden chamber to the other. Gold ornamentation wrought in glorious animal shapes from both the old world and the new with gems for eyes.
"Well... A lot is making sense now," Ansgar murmured.
"It's here... it's all here!" Aminata whispered. She took the torch and entered the chamber, grabbing hold of a harp made of polished bent bone and inlaid with silver. This she placed down and examined a gem the size of a peach. But this too the rested where she found it. She cast her eyes about intently, seeming to look beyond the astonishing wealth before her. Then her eyes fixated on something something nestled in the corner of the chamber between a golden bowl and an ornately carved statue of ivory. She snatched it up as if it were made of pure diamonds. "Here! Here it is!"
"What is it?" He expected something somehow even more intricate and valuable even than the hoard before them. But to his surprise it was a stack of short wooden tablets arranged in the shape of a book and bound with leather straps. Set into the border were a number of gems but of lesser value than those around them.
"This, hunter... this is the heritage of my people, written by the griots. The songs and legends that could not be passed down through voice are recorded here." Her voice grew thick. "How much was forgotten during the poisoning? How much was lost when we were cut off? What did we lose with the death of the griots?" She bit her lip. "This will restore what we lost. And the rest of this?" She glanced up at the golden hoard. "This will help us regain some more of what we lost."
"So I was never brought to kill the jakura," Ansgar snorted, his anger burning again.
The priestess turned back at him, eyes bright. "You were. It must be slain, but not only preserve the villagers from death, but from ignorance and poverty. The world is closing in upon us like a tide. Without this we will be swept away. Too long we have forgotten who we are and where we came from. But with all of this I can-"
"Give it to me," a new voice hissed.
The pair spun around only to face some twenty five men with bristling weapons pointed at them, spread in a line, striding through the court. They strode like ghosts, they're featured hidden in shadows and silhouetted by the bright sunlight behind. But his adjusted eyes perceived their features: Dark-skinned men with thick mustaches and gaudy clothing, broad sombreros upon their heads. Inky black locks of hair curled around their heads and spurs jingled at every step.
"Captain Lorenzo!" Aminata exclaimed.
Ansgar glanced at his rifle. It was just out of reach, resting against the wall by the throne. Fool! Why had he let it get out of reach? If it had been only a few guns he would have dared to leap at it. But twenty five? Even in this poor lighting they couldn't fail to hit him. He glowered at them. Many bore the deadly slide action rifles. A salvo from those would turn the entire chamber into a beehive of whining lead. And they all covered him.
"So good to meet you again amigos, and in a much better abode," the captain crooned, his own slide action cradled in his arms. As he passed under the cracked roof a beam of light illuminated his crooked grin beneath a bristling mustache. "But you, bruja..." His muzzle flicked up towards the priestess.
"How did you get here?" Ansgar interrupted. He had to play for time. Somehow, he had to think of something.
Lorenzo spat. "You left a clear trail, cazador. You are not as skilled as people say. Unless perhaps you meant to lead us through that nest of crocodiles." His eyes narrowed and his finger stroked the trigger of his rifle. "Ten men I lost through the river and swamp. How is it that you managed to get through unharmed? That bruja's heathen magic! That alone is enough to grant her death. But I can thank you at least for leading us to this..." His hungry eyes feasted upon the trove within the hidden chamber. The cabal's eyes glittered with unvarnished greed.
"It does not belong to you! Even you can see this city belongs to my people and not yours!" Aminata seethed.
"And what of it? Gold is gold, and it cares not who spends it! And it belongs to me and my amigos now." The group was now at the foot of the stair. All grinned and lined their rifles, pistols and shotguns.
Aminata slowly stalked from the chamber, torch and book in hand, her eyes blazing with righteous fire. Lorenzo strode up the steps before her, hand extended.
"And now, if you please, the first of the treasure I will claim is that worthless book. I will pry the jewels from it and use the rest for firewood!"
"If that is what you desire... then take it!" With a flash of her arm Aminata threw the book high above them, almost touching the roof. All eyes spun to follow it, even Lorenzo, stepping back down the steps to catch it. Greed was upon them, and in their greed they momentarily forgot their caution. But in that moment the priestess snatched a handful of powder from her satchel and blew it through the torch. The dust blazed into a shower of radiant sparks and billowing smoke that swathed the chamber in murk. Several men caught fire, howling and screaming. Rotting foliage caught afire and added to the smoke. Lurid flame cast hideous shadows. The palace chamber was now transformed into a madhouse.
Neither Ansgar nor Aminata hesitated. The hunter caught up his rifle in a single movement and fired several rounds into the line of men who dove for cover amidst a crackle of pistol fire. The two bounded down the stairs like a mountain wind, through the cloud of smoke and confusion, straight for the entrance. All this happened in but a few short moments so that as the book came back down the priestess was there to meet it. She reached out. Caught it. Clutched it to her chest. And without breaking stride the two ran for salvation. The Spaniards stumbled from the billowing smoke, coughing and hacking, lurching after them while spitting poorly aimed shots that whizzed by harmlessly. In reality they had no need to follow. The gems upon the wooden book were but trinkets compared to the hoard they now held. But greed had seized their hearts, and they coveted even the least of the treasure as if it were the greatest.
But the priestess's trick blurred their vision and strangled their lungs. Their shots were poor and their legs would not carry them as they normally would. The pair raced for the exit. Ansgar glanced at his companion. They shared grins. Their spirits were high and their blood hot with the thrill of adventure! Nothing could stop them now.
A massive shape then blocked out the sun before the portico, shadow stretching from the front all the way back to the throne, somehow blacker than the gloom that already lurked there. The pair scraped to a halt, eyes wide and cast up high. Silence blanketed the hall as even the Spaniards halted in shock. A deep, guttural rumble shook their bowels as a huge reptilian head was thrust between the pillars, snorting heavily. Ansgar's eyes widened. It was the jakura! The man-eater! Even in the darkness he could spy the tiny eyes set in the huge skull, milky white and unseeing. It was blind! The skin was pulled across its ribs as tightly as a drum. Starving. Hungry. And now it had a number of men inside of its lair. For a moment unnatural silence reigned over the entire city. Not even an insect dared disturb the moment.
And then the massive jaws parted and released a roar that shook the city to its foundations. Dust fell from the ceiling and flying reptiles for miles around took wing in terror. Pandemonium ensued. Gunfire erupted from the Spaniards. Rifles and shotguns were worked frantically, spitting streams of lead into the beast's chest which puckered red like bloody blossoming flowers. The jakura roared in pain and rage, swinging its great head from side to side as it charged forward, each foot step shaking the earth like a thunderbolt. The pair of adventurers dove aside, left and right, scrambling for safety among the pillars. All around them gunfire rattled. Some of the Spaniards remembered their quest and pumped shots at the pair.
Others found stairways to the upper levels and poured lead into the jakura and at the heroes.
Ansgar grit his teeth and fired at his opponents, beast and man alike. At the first shot dust fell from the roof. A heavy slug punched through a vaquero and knocked him off of his feet as if he'd been struck by a locomotive. Ansgar's rifle was no pencil-bore meant for men and small game. It was a powerful and deadly dinosaur gun stoked with the deadliest loads a gunsmith could concoct, potent red powder and hardened bullets. Even after the bullet passed through the vaquero it continued on, whizzing off of stone pillars like a metal wasp. Clouds of shot then poured at the hunter who ducked behind and faded into the shadows, seeking other cover.
The man-eater swung its great head this way and that, confused by the profusion of new smells and chaotic noise, overwhelming its sensitive ears and nose. Its tail swung in a great arc and struck a vaquero as he ran for the safety of the treasure chamber, uttering a single cry before he slammed into a pillar and fell lifeless to the ground, bones splintered. Another man howled and rattled off a pair of revolvers over the balcony of the second story. The man-eater swung towards him and lunged, jaws gaping. The man screamed and fell back. But too late. The huge head punched through the stone railing and locked onto his ankle with a nauseating crunch. He screamed, beat at the head with his fists. But to no avail. It dragged him off, flung him into the air and caught him like a heron with a fish, jaws slamming shut like a bank vault. The dull blaze of the fire cast chaotic shadows across the chamber, giving the jakura the appearance of a demon.
Ansgar ducked and darted behind pillars, taking quick snap shots, then ran to the next, cramming shells through the loading gate. His heavy shots reverberated through the chamber like thunder. The muzzle flash seemed like that of a cannon in the darkness. Occasionally a human scream rang out as one of his heavy bullets punched through flesh. Other shots cratered stone. The hall was a madhouse of stinging lead and screams. Now and then he glimpsed Aminata on the opposite side, slashing with her dagger. Once her flintlock barked and felled a Spaniard with a lead ball through the heart. So intermingled were the two that the less experienced Spaniards fired on one another by accident, mistaking the figures for the priestess or hunter. All the while the jakura smashed against the stone supports, roaring hideously. Its jaws dripped red.
The kenwari raked the beast with deadly rifle fire until the gun clicked dry. Empty. He crouched by a pillar in the darkness, feeding fat brass shells through the loading gate. Around the corner a trio of Spaniards came at a run. They saw him, raised their guns. Ansgar was faster. He snatched his five-shooter from its holster and punched out five shots as fast as he could work the hammer, heavy slugs punching through flesh and bone. The trio collapsed. But behind them another pair of vaqueros took positions behind the pillars and rattled off a dozen rounds in mere seconds. The hunter sprang from his hiding place and into an alcove across the pathway, lead wasps buzzing past him, several tearing at his poncho. His revolver was empty. The alcove he ducked into lead nowhere. It held only a grim statue. He poked his head out, fired two shots from his rifle, then pulled back just as more bullets sang after him. He was running low on rifle cartridges. His bandolier was more than half empty. And he needed every bullet he had to kill the jakura. It was madness!
He slung his rifle and jammed fresh rounds into his revolver. This process took several seconds. The .475 caliber rounds were more than ample for human opponents. Often it had saved his life as a last resort against beasts at close range when his rifle ran dry. He poked out, expecting the vaqueros to still be hiding at the corner junction. But they were almost on top of him! Taking advantage of his reloading they had boldly run up to his hiding place. His out-thrust gun was almost touching one's chest. The Spaniard grabbed the barrel and twisted just as Ansgar pulled the trigger, the bullet flying wide. A yank and he was pulled free of his cover.
"Shoot him! Shoot him!" cried the one who held his gun. The other struggled to aim his slide gun.
Ansgar grappled with his opponent, releasing his grip on the revolver, coming as close as he could. Both were experienced hands. The free one knew better than to fire for fear of hitting his companion. The two twisted and shoved, banging against the stone walls, unable to throw the other or break free. The sound of steel whispering against leather greeted the Finn's ears. A knife! He twisted just in time as a flash of silver came up in a brown fist and stabbed at his stomach. The blade tore through his poncho and caught on the cartridges in his bandolier. The hunter grabbed his wrist and twisted, bone cracking. The Spaniard screamed. Ansgar shoved him back and drew his own knife. He dove in, heavy blade slashing through flesh and bone. The blade came away smeared with red. Another four lightening flashes of steel and he fell, dead.
The other swore in Spanish and came at him, his own knife drawn. Killing Ansgar was a matter of honor for him now. It was unfitting to kill a man with a knife with a rifle. It was a duel now that could be settled only by sharpened steel The two met with a flurry of strokes that left their respective clothing in tatters. Ansgar marveled at his opponent's speed and dexterity with a blade. He was an expert and would not be beaten so easily. The two circled warily, sidestepping the bodies around them. The sounds of gunfire were now only sporadic pops. The jakura snuffled eagerly for fallen bodies within reach. But neither knife fighter payed attention. They were focused entirely on each other. A single wayward glance would afford a fatal opening. The two moved like wraiths in the dappled shadow, blades occasionally blinking in the thin beams of light. Then the Spaniard stopped in the light, a slight grin on his face. He tilted his blade and light reflect of the mirror blade, the light stabbing into Ansgar's eyes. He jumped back and blinked just as the Spaniard lunged, the long knife tip gouging his stomach. Warm blood trickled.
The hunter tried to blink away the image in his eyes, listening for the shuffle of feet on stone. But his ears throbbed from the banging of the guns. Even in the open the report of such heavy guns dulled men's ears. There! A chip of stone grating against stone. He struck out, felt his blade clash against steel. The blades locked just above the hilts. Ansgar could see again. The two leaned against each other, metal grinding against metal. The Spaniard grinned only a few inches away. So close was he that Ansgar could smell his alcohol-stained breath.
"Enjoy what life you have left! It will soon be over!" the Spaniard sneered.
Ansgar bared his teeth like an animal and snarled. His back was toward the open court where the jakura sought prey. In a flash the Spaniard hopped back, Ansgar falling forward with the release of opposition. The Spaniard yelped in delight and dove in, ready to bury his blade in Ansgar's neck. He had no time to dodge. Instead of recovering or rolling to the side he carried on forward, dove under the thrust and wrapped his arms around his enemy's waist. Planting his feet he heaved upwards and flung the Spaniard up and back, hurtling his opponent back with every ounce of strength he possessed in his iron-hard body. The Spaniard yell as he was flung head over heels, right into the ankle of the waiting jakura. The beast was on him in a moment and silenced his screams with a single bite.
The hunter paused and panted for breath. Where was Aminata? He hadn't seen her for several minutes. Had she fallen to a bullet? Or the jakura? His gut churned at the thought. Bones crunched out of sight between heavy jaws. But no longer did guns fire or men scream. Except for the horrible sounds of the jakura eating he heard nothing else.
A wave of dizziness swept over him and he found himself leaning drunkenly against the nearest column. He braced himself, regaining his balance, when he suddenly became aware of a massive bulk nearby. Slowly he looked behind. The snout of the jakura pushed into view, the huge nostrils widening as it inhaled the scent of blood. His blood. His pulse quickened and his eyes sought for his rifle. There! Some ten yards away. But between him and the gun was the jakura. He steeled his nerves and backed up, moving as if a single sound would bring instant death. No longer was his mind foggy with battle fatigue. It was clear and calm as a mountain stream. As he backed away he saw the feathered flank of the giant beast, the pillar-like legs and the sweep of its tail. Its feathers had fallen off in patches, revealing wrinkled scales. Small streams of blood trickled down its sides. But no bullet had penetrated deep enough to pierce its heart or lungs. Or at least not enough to kill it swiftly. It might take hours to die. Dragons bled slowly and died slowly.
The beast growled lowly and pulled its head back, snuffling after him. It came towards him. The gray eyes stared unseeingly and gave him the uncanny impression that he was facing a ghost. Behind him lay another pillar and a doorway that led elsewhere. It didn't matter where it went, so long as it got him out of reach of those jaws. Still he moved as silently as he could, even as the beast came within five paces of him, growling deep in its throat in an attempt to scare him into moving hastily. But he was too wise for such tricks. Just as he was about to move through the doorway a gunshot rent the air and a bullet sped past him close enough to tug at his vest. Another followed the first, this time close enough that he felt it burn against his skin. The bullets rattled down the doorway in a deadly ricochet. Ansgar dove aside as a third bullet came after him, rolling and taking cover behind the pillar. The jakura roared and snapped at the wall where he'd been.
"Bravo, cazador, bravo!" a voice called from across the court. "You move fast! But you cannot dodge my bullets and those teeth forever. I could maybe bounce a shot into your back from here, but I think it would be more fun for you to get eaten. Amusing, no?" It was Lorenzo. "Eh, you could always ask me to stop! Do you dare? Ha! I thought not. Look out senor! Here he comes!" A handful of swarthy voices joined him in laughter.
The hunter risked a glance at them. There, on the second level, was Lorenzo and his remaining six men, safely out of reach and watching them like gladiators in an arena.
Ansgar snarled quietly in frustration. Pinned by a sniper and a hungry jakura! It seemed to pay no mind to the voice, but instead sensed prey closer at hand, and this prey seemed unarmed. Then began a deadly game. Ansgar couldn't gain the doorway, but could only dodge behind the pillars as the jaws sought him out, twisting and biting from one side and then another like a terrier attempting to fix its teeth upon a rat. Back and forth he moved, as quietly as he could manage, but he couldn't hide his scent. Always it betrayed his location even as an occasional shot slashed past him. Lorenzo cackled gleefully. Every time he sought to gain his rifle or gain another means of escape a bullet stopped him. But even as he hid behind the pillars the jaws were after him again, forcing him to brave what was now a firing lane. He cursed savagely under his breath. This was a game he couldn't keep up forever. Sooner or later his speed or footing would betray him. He had to find a way to regain the initiative.
"Look at him run! Faster, faster cazador!" another vaquero cried out.
Several guns of smaller caliber lay discarded nearby. They weren't enough for the jakura. But they were enough to buy him space. As the mouth clamped shut near him he dove, caught up a slide action rifle and bounded behind cover just as Lorenzo shot at him. In a smooth motion Ansgar rolled to his feet behind another pillar and, bracing himself against it, fired off a string of shots at the Spaniards. They cried out in surprise and dove for cover. Then the gun ran dry. He ran, discarding the empty weapon and raced for his own. Behind him the jakura roared, shaking his bones down to the marrow as it thundered after him. Hurried shots chased after him. He strained every muscle in his body for utmost speed, flying across the root-covered floor. The stones vibrated under heavy steps behind.
Suddenly monstrous jaws slammed shut behind him, so close he could hear teeth grinding on teeth. But his forward movement was arrested. He was pulled up short, his feet flying out from under him as the teeth grabbed the tail end of his poncho. He was being dragged back. Out into the open. Away from his gun that lay only a few paces away. Horror washed over him along with the humid, fetid breath. He turned, saw the mouth within touching distance, scraps of rotting flesh and bits of clothing caught between the rail-road spike sized teeth. His heart jumped into his throat. It needed only to drag him far enough to throw him into the air and finish him with a single bite. The Spaniards whooped and jeered as victory loomed for them. But Ansgar wasn't done yet. He drew his hatchet. The blade and hook gleamed with insidious sharpness. Just as his feet were lifted from the ground he then twisted and, exerting every muscle he could bring to bear, buried the sharp hook within one of the sensitive nostrils. Blood spurted and the jaws parted in a pained roar.
He fell to the ground, watching the jakura's pained antics with savage satisfaction. Blood bushed from its sensitive nose, its pathetically small arms attempting to dislodge the hatchet. In its pained haste it backpedaled and crashed into the opposite wall, shaking the foundations and sending the Spaniards to their feet. Their shots at him were spoiled and only a few hastily aimed rounds flew harmlessly in his direction. He jumped, scooped up his empty rifle and desperately pushed fresh rounds in. He risked a glance from behind cover. The jakura wailed in agony. The mighty blow seemed to loosen the foundation of the entire palace. One of the pillars shook uncertainly, then tilted and fell. As Ansgar watched it fell in a drunken arc and struck the jakura upon the skull with a resounding crash. Both titanic bulks crashed to the ground. Ansgar allowed himself a savage grin and chuckled.
The Spaniards rose, lifting their guns to fire at him again. But unseen behind them a dark shadow seemed to rise, a keen blade raised. As one of the Spaniards shouldered his gun to fire he screamed, the knife plunged up to the hilt in his back, tearing upwards. The remainder wheeled in surprise and confusion as a flintlock barked, the head of another Spaniard seeming to pop as a lump of lead tore through his skull. They cried out in rage. It was Aminata! Ansgar witnessed her from a concealing alcove. The Spaniards turned to fire at her, but in turn ignored him. He raised his rifle and put a round through the back of another vaquero, who died before he even had a chance to scream. He worked the rifle as fast as it could go, a relentless pounding that would have put a cannon barrage to shame. In moments the remaining Spaniards were cut down, all save for Captain Lorenzo.
The Captain frothed with rage, a stream of obscenities flying from his lips as he discarded his empty guns and drew a saber.
"Die bruja!" he snarled.
"I think not Captain," the priestess retorted, her lovely lips split in a huge defiant grin. She dropped her flintlock and seemingly by magic produced a clump of powder in her hand. As the final Spaniard charged her, blade raised high to cut her down, she blew the sparkling yellow dust in his face and dove aside as he slashed down, the blade biting into stone and casting a spray of sparks.
As Ansgar watched the Captain didn't chase after her. He staggered back drunkenly, saber clutched tightly in his fist. But he looked about as if confused. His eyes were wide and pupils dilated. His head snapped back and forth as if he saw and heard things that only he could.
"What... what did you... do to me?" he gasped, a sweat breaking out on his face.
"I gave you a gift, my dear Captain," Aminata chimed impishly, her smile dark and menacing. "I gave you madness."
Lorenzo didn't seem to hear her. He blinked rapidly and groped with his left hand as if he were blind. Suddenly he swung his saber frantically as if he were charged by some unseen enemy, crying wildly. Then he swung at another. Soon he was a gibbering mess as he yelled and screamed, slashing wildly. He looked as if he were fending off a horde of ghosts but only touched open air. He stumbled and flailed about as if in a living nightmare. The dappled shadows passed over his ashen face only added to the sense of unreality and terror. It looked as though he were fighting all the ghosts of the city.
"Get them away! Get them away!" he screamed.
Ansgar watched in morbid fascination as the Captain went mad. What horrors was he glimpsing in his drugged state? Now the Captain gripped his weapon with both hands, swinging desperately at phantoms, but failed to see the guard rail behind him. A final twist and he flung himself against the stone rail, toppling over and falling amidst a horrified scream. He fell head first. And then with a nauseating crunch his screams ceased. Ansgar released a tense breath.
"Are you alright?" he called up.
"Yes, by the loa, I am well! And you? Heavens! You're bleeding!" the priestess replied.
"I will survive, just as soon as I- What the devil?" The gigantic bulk of the jakura trembled, began to rise from the rubble. Like a punch-drunk boxer it shakily got to its feet, swaying uncertainly on widely braced feet. Its skull was slightly misshapen from the impact of the pillar, but was still intact. Blood poured from a fleshy crater and the ruptured nostril. A piteous groan of agony poured from its mouth. Most of the teeth were broken. Ansgar's stomach knotted. How much more harm could it take before it fell? Its body was flooded with adrenaline, somehow keeping it alive even after it had taken more than thirty bullets. He silently skirted towards the exit. Had he been in a better position he wouldn't have hesitated to fire. But with almost no room to maneuver he had no wish to draw its attention to him while it was still alive and dangerous. A wounded predator was ten times as dangerous as an unwounded one. But still it must die.
Somehow it sensed him, turning its bulk in his direction and growling low in its throat. Its blind eyes seemed to burn with a livid fire. The beast roared and charged again, albeit with less grace and steadiness before. Its steps were slower now, uncertain, giving Ansgar a chance to race ahead and fire several hopeful shots into its chest. Aminata ran on the verandah above, reaching a balcony just as Ansgar cleared the portico and flew down the steps.
"Ansgar! The statue! There!" she cried out, stabbing a finger across the path.
He followed her finger and spotted a statue some thirty feet tall, like the others. It held a mighty war axe in its hands, blade outward at chest level. But more importantly one of the legs had half-crumbled in its exposure to the elements. A desperate idea formed in his mind. Towards the statue he ran, then, reaching it, turned as if at bay just as the jakura stumbled out of the exit, growling hideously.
"Here beast! Here!" he shouted. The statue loomed up above him, silent, seeming to stare at the jakura as if it were a long hated enemy. He fired at the beast again, aiming or the vulnerable arteries in the neck and lungs in the chest. It needed no more goading. It was driven half-mad by hunger and pain, seeking only to destroy in its crazed state. Without hesitation it rumbled down the steps and at the hunter, head lowered, jaws dripping with blood and saliva. It didn't check its pace in the least, pounding forward heedless of any perils. Ansgar watched, his mouth dry, as the avalanche of primeval power pounded towards him, steeling his nerves even as he reloaded and fired again.
At the last moment, just as it was only some five paces away, he reacted with the speed of a steel trap and jumped aside. And the man-eater ran headlong into the legs of the statue. The already worn stone foundation shattered under the impact and fell forward. The statue wobbled uncertainly in place. And then in a glorious gambit of fate the mighty stone warrior toppled upon the man-eater, the ancient axe cleaving through the flesh of its back and into its spine. The jakura roared again, but this time it was not of anger. It was a hideous, blood-chilling death bellow of a mighty predator feeling its life flee from its body. The two toppled to the ground in a resounding crash that shook the entire palace to its foundations and raised a cloud of debris. The statue shattered into rubble, half burying the jakura's pulped and lacerated body. It was almost cleft in half by the ancient blade.
The man-eater was dead.
Ansgar spat in disgust. "So much blood..." He sat upon a fallen block and hung his head. He rested his rifle across his knees and took a moment to enjoy the silence that now suddenly reined. Aminata found a way down from some unseen stare and approached him, the book in her hand. He cast her a stern glare, eyes hard. "You planned for this to happen." It wasn't a question. "You left that trail for them. Wanted them to come here. Why? Was I just one pawn in your vendetta?"
She regarded him with tired eyes. "I planned this, yes. I planned all of it, hunter." She sighed and sat heavily upon a block of stone, as if weighed down by her thoughts. "Bakouma has been under siege. Not from guns and knives, but from the outside world. I may be young, but I have seen and learned much. You know as well as I that the world is like the tide, ever rising and falling. My people have already fallen far from grace. And as the world has crept in we've fallen farther. We have long been cut off from our homeland until this is the only land we know. We suffer many threats here. And today we have slain three of them; The pitiless man-eater, the wretched Lorenzo and his bandits, but most deadly of all, we will have slain ignorance." She hefted the wooden tablets in her hands. "I didn't wish to deceive you. When we met I read in your eyes a noble heart, one which seeks not for glory or riches. You sought only to help those in need. But I knew also that you would not have come had I told you we would slay Lorenzo and his men. I lured them here, through the swamp to be eaten by crocodiles, and then fall prey to the jakura. But they came faster than I thought." She stood and pointed in the direction of the treasure.
"All of that? I could use it to live like a queen. But I won't. I will use it to help raise up my people. To buy that which is needed, to build us up unto a great nation once again. It will take time, but it may happen. We must prepare ourselves and hold against the rest of the oncoming world. There are many more men like Lorenzo. We must be ready for them. That is the heritage of our ancestors. It has laid here unused for centuries, but now it will help us emerge from our poverty."
Ansgar listened to her in slowly growing awe. She was brutal perhaps, but pragmatic. Her words seemed to hypnotize him. It was true, the people of Bakouma were poor. She had a very real chance of providing them with a new future.
"What is to stop your people from taking it from you though? Not all are so thoughtful as you. You know as well as I that there are some who will try to take it through bloodshed," he noted grimly.
She smiled broadly, although tired. He found her smile oddly refreshing. "They would not dare! You see, stories will flow through the island. I left with my voudoun into the jungle, and Lorenzo followed. And only you and I will return. The jakura lies dead too. They will believe that it was my voudoun that slew them! They will believe nothing else, even if you tell them. But I have read you. You won't do that. You don't wish for that attention. There is no need to lie. If you tell the truth it will only strengthen their faith that it was my power that brought this all to pass. We have long been steeped in superstition. And that I can wield as deadly as your rifle or knife. But we are weary and we must ride back. Do not worry too greatly over what will come to pass. You have helped Bakouma greater than you can know, and you shall be rewarded!" Her smile dazzled suddenly. "You still seek to hunt here, and I know the greatest places to do so! Now come! Help me retrieve our horses. We will load what gold I need and return to the village. We will deliver to them the jakura's teeth and Lorenzo's hat as trophies! And tomorrow you can hunt over Bakouma to your heart's content. I will have for you all the guides you wish and you can take shelter at any village upon the island! You have a friend in me... Ansgar. And you will always be welcome here." She smiled gently and then to his surprise, caught him in a gentle embrace. For a moment he stood stunned, then returned the gesture.
In spite of his exhaustion, this new plan sounded good to Ansgar. Very good. In the end, he had helped protect the people of Bakouma from terror and tyranny. He had another fantastic adventure under his belt. And he had a new friend.