The Scorpion Archipelago (Chapter 16)

Off the coast of Temple Island, October 31st 1997

He knew that the k’ib was still there on the other island, and his strength had not yet failed him. After millennia taking the water of life, its effect would not fade so soon. Now, the nearer he drew, the more he could feel the dust in his veins stirring.

He had used his ancient wits, where the others had not, and though they might not yet be dead, they were trapped, and their strength would leave them. They were doomed. Perhaps it was best so. They were nothing now but decadent parasites, following him blindly without once questioning their purpose, while their traditions and beliefs neared extinction. But he was the keeper of the k’ib. He needed no other purpose. The k’ib was life. That was why he alone had escaped from the labyrinth, and why only he could reclaim the prize. He had been so close to his prey, but once the thief had used some more of this new world’s powerful magic to block the tunnel, `Ak’ubal had used his knowledge of the labyrinth to find his way back to the far side of the island.

In water lay memory, and though he had not left TempleIsland since that day of arrival long, long ago, some instinct in him seemed to remember that he had once been but a humble fisherman, before destiny had chosen him. It seemed the innate skill with the boat had never left him and he paddled with ease.  

   He could feel the call of his heart from the other island. For an instant, during his escape from the destruction in the temple, he had felt a faint pulsing, just a fluttering, and knew for certain where he must head, though he could have guessed. But it was as if the k’ib called him. Strange; it would survive without him, find a new master, but their fates had been intertwined for so long now, it was as if history would have to start all over again if they were torn apart.

And yet despite that, his senses were almost overcome by a powerful surge of memories reawakening in the daylight. For how long had he denied himself this air, this sea, as he guarded the darkness, scared of the light from a changing world? Once he had reclaimed the k’ib, he would think on the question; what next for Kaz’khar, the last survivor, the final remnant of prehistory?

****

Once they were back down in the camp, as both of them cast anxious glances out towards the still-distant but menacing figure, Pete said: “Kick some things around; make it look like there was a scuffle. I’m going to inflate the other boat.”

“Why?”

“Just do it.”

As the boat exploded into life, he watched her knock over a few pots and throw some items around. “That’ll do. Now help me put some stones into the spare boat – big ones; enough to sink it properly when we’re at sea. We’ll put the guns in there as well.”

That being done, he instructed her to grab something warm and the sat-phone.

Out at sea the hunter had closed about a quarter of the distance.

Catalina stopped and looked puzzled. “Surely we…”

“Just do what I say. It’s not just His Supreme Blackness we’re racing against here.” Pete searched for and found a first aid kit and a couple of bottles of water, as well as a GPS tracker. He showed it to Catalina. “Dirk’ll pick us up on this if nothing else.”

“But we have the sat-phone?”

“We’re ditching that.”

“Why?” She sounded confused and a bit panicky. “I’m not happy at the thought of bobbing around in a dinghy on the Southern Ocean with no means of communication.”

“They took it with them, Jim and Cobus, along with the guns.”

“Can’t we at least take the dry suits?”

“Nope. We managed to escape, but didn’t have time or the chance to kit up properly.”

A faint light of comprehension started to flicker in the girl’s eyes. “Okay, I get your drift…I think. Jim and Cobus saw what you would call fortune and glory.” She looked at the mess she had made in the camp. “There was a fight; we all ran, but they followed us. Two innocent people got killed; one of them by accident as she tried to escape, two got away, hid, then made their escape.”

“Clever girl. There’s just one factor I didn’t allow for.” He pointed across the sea. “We probably don’t have all that much juice on the boats, and he won’t stop coming after us if we just try to outrun him. So, we let him come to us a bit and then we sink him.”

“Why don’t we just kill him?”

“I’m not sure there’s enough bullets left in this.” He shook the rifle and looked out to sea again. It was not an encouraging sight to see a centuries-old, vengeful shaman coming to take back the holy relic that you had stolen from him, and just for a moment Pete was unnerved. “If the other priests were anything to go by, this one won’t die easy. He’d be like your worst nightmare, refusing to lie down.” He looked across at the approaching boat. “But I’m willing to bet he can drown.”

He turned back to their camp and saw Catalina looking at him. He knew she was pinning all her hopes on him keeping calm. Women, he thought; they believed they had turned things around in the twentieth century – even had you enslaved by sex – but the reality was, in certain situations they were as little use, and had as little power, as the days when this shaman had first stalked the planet.

“Ok, it’s time to move,” said Pete, “while he’s still far enough out.” He had attached the inflatables together with a length of rope. “Let’s get these into the water.” Once out into the shallow water they clambered into one boat. Pete fired the motor, and they skittered out into deeper waters. Soon they were within a hundred yards of the spectre.

The cowled figure stopped paddling.

Fifty yards.

Forty.

Pete killed the motor and they bobbed perhaps thirty yards from that vision of Hell.

With a sudden pseudo-theatrical sweep of the hand, the dark man threw back his hood. Catalina gasped and buried her face in her hands, while Pete felt his body shudder. The high priest reached a hand towards them, the gesture looking like nothing so much as the Phantom of the Opera when he was unmasked in the old Lon Chaney movie. Pete felt the darkness of that ancient soul touch him as it had in the temple a few hours before.

Now the cruel mouth was moving, and guttural sounds crossed the void of water and time. Pete’s skin crawled. “Catalina”, he said. Her face remained hidden and he nudged her with his foot. “Catalina!” She managed to drag her eyes upwards, but he saw she had put her fingers in her ears. “What’s he saying?” She ignored him and dropped her gaze again, shaking her head.

Then Pete took a deep breath, raised his rifle and, not without a moment’s hesitation, or perhaps even unexpected regret, fired. The semi-automatic splintered the side of the wooden boat below the waterline and it started to sink. For a moment something seemed to drag at their own boat. Pete looked at his rucksack, wondering. Then he watched as the high priest looked around him in panic. His mouth opened, the bottom jaw falling away at an impossible angle, and an cry issued from it, which had no place on that earth, causing Pete to copy Catalina and put his fingers in his ears. With that, the corvine figure leapt into the water and started to swim towards them.

“Fuck!” Hurriedly, Pete pulled the cord of the engine. “C’mon; c’mon!” It misfired. Was it out of juice? Twice, three times – still nothing. And the priest, though weighed down by his sodden robe, was closing the gap. There was a keening sound, which seemed to be emanating from Catalina. Pete almost laughed; felt as if he was standing outside himself for a moment looking at a ludicrous B-movie, where the director was using every cinematographic cliché to crank up the tension. And as if on cue, the engine coughed into life. Pete took off towards TempleIsland. When he turned again, the bowsprit of the little boat was disappearing below the water and their attacker was nowhere to be seen in the choppy waves. He nudged Catalina, who surfaced from the world into which she had been trying to retreat. Pete pointed towards the wooden boat’s death throes, then sank down and started to laugh. He recognised the note of hysteria in the sound, and it infected the girl, who sobbed with relief.

Now Pete remembered something and looked up at the sky to the north and east.

“Catalina.” She looked at him through tear-stained eyelashes and he saw in that look his complete mastery of her. Better make the most of it, he thought, she’ll want to start pulling the strings soon enough. For a distracted split-second he was almost tempted to pitch her over the side, but decided he stood a better chance of avoiding suspicion if he wasn’t the sole survivor of this expedition. “We’ve still got plenty to do. First, let’s sink the other boat. We’re out over deep water now.”

She untied the rope. “Are you sure we should be doing this? What if anything happens to our boat?”

“C’mon old girl, engage brain. Jim and Cobus would have taken one boat for themselves. I can see we’re going to have to work on getting our story straight.” He looked over at TempleIsland; the pall of smoke and dust has cleared. “Remember, we don’t know where they ended up.  It doesn’t have to be TempleIsland they went to. No-one need ever know what they found, or where. They certainly wouldn’t have told us.”

Then Pete fired four shots into the spare inflatable and it was soon pulled down into the depths. “Time to lose these as well,” he said as he pitched the rifle and sat-phone after it. At least Catalina saw the sense of that – after all, the others would have just grabbed a boat and fled – and was about to throw her pistol away when Pete stopped her. “You’re a good shot. Shoot me.”

“What!”

“Remember, I’m supposed to be a bit of an action man.” He was pleased to see a sardonic smile flicker at the corners of her sensual mouth – the old Catalina was already surfacing. “I’d probably have made some attempt to fight back. Shoot me in the arm. I’ll get over it.”

“I knew shooting the heads off snakes would come in useful sometime.”

Catalina raised the pistol and took aim. They looked at each other. Something passed between them. An awareness, perhaps, of the fine thread that tied the twin eternities of life and damnation. By aiming to the right she could sever it with more ease than she had untied the spare boat, and one of them would have been drawn down into the void. The question was, who?

“Perfect,” said Pete through gritted teeth as she hit him in the exact spot he had indicated and the bullet exited, leaving a clean wound. He let it bleed for a while, soaking his shirt sleeve as it would have done if he had spent some time in hiding, then got her to dress it while he swallowed some pain killers. Catalina threw the pistol overboard. “Okay, old girl, now let’s head further out to sea.” He used his good arm to start the motor. “We’ll keep going till the fuel’s out, then we’ll just have to wait.”

“Can’t we go back to the camp and wait?”

“Either we’d have buried the bodies out of respect, or we’d still be hiding, fearing the return of gun-totin’ Jim.”

“You’re right, of course.” She sank back against the side of the boat, and then sat up again. “But there’s one flaw in your plan; why would he have left a boat behind for us to steal?”

Pete scratched his chin, and then said: “Because he got complacent. He took the sat-phone so we’d have no means of communication, not knowing you’d already got through to Dirk while he was off on his own selfish mission. Are you sure he’s coming, by the way?”

“It was a crap connection, but yup, he knows we’re in trouble.”

“So, as I say, our story is that Jim would have intended to make contact later, after he’d come back to finish us off. He’ll have assumed there wasn’t enough fuel for us to escape, whereas we, desperate, caught between the devil and the deep blue sea chose the latter, preferring to take our chances with the ocean than wait to be hunted down.”

“So why wouldn’t he call in, in a couple of days from now?”

“Who knows? Perhaps he dies. Goes mad. Sets off to try to get to one of the islands and sinks. Who cares? Just relax, Catty. As long as you and I stick to our story, we’ll be fine. After all, there’s nothing to link you and me prior to this. We’re just two members of an ill-fated, ill-prepared expedition. If our shared adventure brings us closer together after this, who’d be surprised.”

Catalina leaned back again against the side of the boat and there was a certain admiration in voice: “Well, I have to admit, you seem to have all the bases covered. You thought hard and fast there.” Pete saw her smile become arch. She pushed herself towards him and her hand rested at the top of his thigh. “Talking of hard and fast, have you got any plans for when the motor dies?”

 

Later, Pete enjoyed the unique experience of indulging in a little plane-spotting during sex. Otherwise, even his quick mind would have difficulty explaining that particular scenario to Dirk.

 

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