Perth, Western Australia, October 31st 1997, 6 am Western Pacific Time
It brought indescribable comfort to hear a voice – even a disjointed, crackling one – from civilisation.
“Who’s that? Is that you, Catalina?”
For a moment the girl could imagine how people in countries that had been overrun by the Nazis must have felt as they tuned in to the free world on their hidden crystal sets. “Dirk, oh thank God – yes, it’s Catalina.”
The signal must have scrambled again.
“What’s the matter girl? I lost that.”
“It’s bad, Dirk, it’s bad!”
“Shit, what’s wrong?”
“Some members of the party are dead.”
The signal was coming through like someone was standing at the top of a mountain in a high wind. So much for sat-phones, thought Dirk; a good old-fashioned radio would have been no worse.
The Aussie’s blood ran cold. “Repeat. Did you say somebody’s dead?”
It was getting worse, but he had heard enough. “Sit tight. I’m coming to get you.” He cut the link; it was playing havoc with his nerves and tricks with his ears.
Fuck! What the hell had gone wrong? He’d been planning to check over the plane tomorrow, but he’d have to get over there now, even though it was early morning. That way he might be able to get to them in ten hours or so. He shook his head. If he had heard correctly someone was dead and…no, stop, he told himself. Deal with the facts. He was Australian, for Chrisakes!
But then again, there was no point denying the intuition, the creeping coldness that had touched his skin when he had first set eyes on those forsaken islands. It had been more than the fear of boredom, which had made him fly home again – he squeezed his eyes shut – to his shame. Overall he liked to think that he had bottle, but some places just felt wrong and Mother Nature, for whom he had the utmost respect, had her reasons for letting certain things lie hidden. No, he would stick with what he knew, which was checking over his plane and conducting this rescue mission.
Scorpion Archipelago October 31st 1997 1.45 am
From a distance the boat might have appeared to be skimming from wave-top to wave-top like a giant orange pebble, but in reality the impact of each crest jolted through the passengers and threatened to hurl them into the choppy waters. They each hooked an arm through the safety rope.
“So what’s the plan?” shouted Jim above the crashing waves.
“Fuck knows,” said Cobus without letting his eyes stray from the target ahead.
“Actually I have one,” said Pete.
Cobus was again impressed by the man’s ability to stay focussed under such trying circumstances. Perhaps that calmness was what adrenalin sports gave you. “Shoot,” he said.
“Well yes, that’s part of it.” Pete gave a wry smile. “Of course, we may get there and find the temple’s now guarded. But, making a big assumption here, which is that we can get in there and still follow our trail through the labyrinth, I suggest the following: everything we’ve heard suggests that strange artefact we saw on the altar is the key to the lives and the worship of these bastards. So, we get in there; plant some of the explosive on the altar. Then we show them a bit of what we’re capable of – a touch of firepower; take a few of them down. They’re like the bloody Jocks, still wearing kilts and waving swords. They’ll be terrified of the sound and the effect of guns. When we have their full attention we make them bring us Jane. I’m sure we can make ourselves understood.” He looked at Jim. “You’ve also got a smattering of some Central American languages, if I’m not mistaken.”
“Yes,” said Jim, “but going back to what you just said, what about Robbie?”
“I’m afraid it’s too late for him.”
“What?” He looked at Cobus for clarification.
“Ja, sorry mate,” said the Afrikaner, “we didn’t want to say anything in front of Catalina or the Professor, but if you’re unlucky you’ll see what’s become of Robbie.”
“Yes, that’s one Jock who’s not going to be waving a sword anymore,” said Pete.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake, Pete,” said Jim.
“Sorry, old man, but I’m all out of compassion. My fears are now just for my wife.”
“Ok, look, I can understand that…hey, why don’t we just take all these freaks out and then hunt through the tunnels ourselves; search the rest of the island if need be?”
“Man, we’ve been in that labyrinth,” said Cobus, returning his attention to the approaching shoreline. “You start wandering round in there, you’re likely to be doing it for a very long time.”
“So what do we do if they refuse to bring us Jane?”
“Exactly what we do if they hand her over – kill everyone and blow the fucking place to pieces,” said Pete.
“And if we don’t find her?” Having to shout above the engine and the sea gave their conversation an added air of desperation.
Pete said nothing for a while, just looked into the distance, and then said: “That’s something I’ll have to live with.” Now his gaze refocused and he gave an intense, rather telling look at Jim. “But if you want my honest opinion, I suspect she’s dead already.” There was nothing the others could say. “We’ll still look for her of course. At least we’ll know, if we’re to believe the legends, that in destroying the k’ib, we’ll destroy the horror of this priesthood.”
They were silent again in the roaring darkness, then Jim said: “God knows how the Professor must feel. This place has been a dream of his for half his life; how he must be wishing it had turned out to be a chimera. Instead of which it’s a reality that might have cost him his daughter and another young life.”
“And his credibility,” said Pete coldly.
“How can you say that, man?” said Cobus, with an abrupt turn of his head. “Look, I know that you’re upset, and that’s totally understandable, but wasn’t that a bit harsh?”
“No. The man’s a scientist, but he treated this thing, this endeavour, like his own little secret; brought an ill-prepared team to an uncharted part of the world…”
“It’s called exploring; the spirit of adventure,” interrupted Jim. “With all your activities I thought you’d appreciate that.”
“Yeah, well my activities didn’t risk the lives of those I hold dearest. Or anyone else’s loved ones, come to that.”
Something about Pete’s protestations of love for his wife was grating on Jim, but there was nothing he could say. Part of him wanted to scream, “She didn’t love you! If fate hadn’t taken her, I would’ve,” but a combination of guilt and decency prevailed. Besides, what did he know? One lust-fuelled hump by a waterfall did not a romance make. What was it he experiencing now; a frisson of frustrated sexual jealousy, exacerbated by the fact that, though she might have grown to love him, he would never have proof of that, not even the memory of the words from her own lips? Was he being consumed by the knowledge that, like a secret lover at the funeral of a mistress, he could inflict eternal damage with one damning word, but would be the more damned for doing so? There was something discordant in Pete’s grieving avowal of revenge, but until Jim could be sure that his own judgement was not impaired, he would have to stay silent.
It was gone two o’clock in the morning and dawn was already starting to lift a tired eyelid as the boat scraped onto the shingle. Cobus led the way, less cautious now, through the trees towards the temple. A few yards back from the clearing they dropped down and the Afrikaner crawled forward to take a look.
“Still no guards,” he said. “Still at worship. And I thought the Dutch Reformed Church was devout.” He came back, removed his pack for a moment and unstrapped one piece, an automatic rifle, clunking the magazine into the place and stroking the barrel with satisfaction verging on recidivism. “Ja, that’s what I’m talking about.” He loaded a semi-automatic pistol and slid it into his belt. Then he grinned at the others and said to Pete: “Ill-prepared, were we? C’mon, tool up.” They followed his example, caught up a little in his energy field. Cobus then checked that the PE4 plastic explosive was in the rucksack before pulling it on again. “I suggest we make our way to the tunnels and have a listen. I’m not totally happy with what we’re doing here; we don’t really have that good a plan – it’s all a bit haphazard – but we can’t wait. But I tell you what,” he patted the semi-automatic again, “I’m happier than I was.”
“What happens if we meet any of them in the tunnel?” asked Jim.
“Then that’s the decision made for us,” said Pete. “We kill the bastards, and then we carry on killing.”
“As Cobus said, we haven’t really thought this through, have we? We’ve just come rushing over here like Rambo, armed to the teeth…”
“Well what would you suggest?” Pete was out of patience. “Wait for them to have their first course off the second menu. Well I, for one, couldn’t just sit around. What we do have here, at least, is the element of surprise. After all, we haven’t got a fucking clue what we’re doing, so they’re never going to guess.” He gave a perfunctory grin and added: “Anyway, Rambo usually does alright.”
“He’s right,” said Cobus. “The last thing they’ll be expecting is for us to come over here; come into their labyrinth. It doesn’t looked like they’ve even realised we’re onto them. We are literally taking the war into the enemy camp. Plus we’ve got twentieth century technology on our side.” They all looked at each other. “Okay, whatever we’re doing, let’s do it.”
They left the cover of the trees and crossed the clearing towards the looming temple door at a trot. As they looked up at the glowering architrave, Cobus and Pete exchanged glances, realising that what they had taken for carvings of skulls before were the real thing. Then as they stepped inside, Jim stopped in amazement, unable it seemed, despite the circumstances, to keep the lens cap on the photographer in him. But the magnificent statues held no fascination for the other two, with the claustrophobia of the labyrinth and its grim secrets still fresh in their minds.
They hurried Jim along, though he, like them an hour or so earlier, stood in shuddering awe before the colossal, malign edifice that guarded the entrance to the labyrinth. Again they nudged him, till they stood once more at the greedy mouth of the tunnel that they knew had consumed one, possibly two, of their party.
Jim swallowed hard. “Looks grim,” he said. Then a graveyard grin twisted his lips. “You can lead.”
“I found another of these in the equipment,” said Cobus, handing Jim a head-lamp.
Then Pete said: “Hey Cobus, is this mother of a statue also made of rock-salt?”
The Afrikaner went over to the carved monster and, taking a knife from his pocket, cut its surface. “Ja, like all the others.”
Pete looked up the colossus. ”That’s a hell of a lot of salt. If that came down, it would block this entrance, wouldn’t it?”
Cobus gave a nod of complicity. He then removed his rucksack and pulled out some of the PE4, which he placed at various points around the base. When he was done he ran the wire and detonator round to a few yards in front of the statue, before coming back and slapping his palm on its bulk. “Let’s hope they don’t follow us out. It would be a shame to destroy something so old.”
Pete shook his head. “Followed or not, we’re bringing that bastard down. Let ‘em live on in their tunnels if they want, but they’ll have to mine this salt all over again if they want to come out to prey.”
With that, they switched on their lights. Cobus moved to the head of the tunnel and listened. “Nothing yet. Let’s go.”
Moving forward, they were relieved to see that the pieces of black and yellow tape were still in place. They stopped every few paces to listen. Then Jim whispered: “What if we meet this thing you say you encountered?”
Cobus tapped his rifle. “I reckon this will take care of it. I think we were probably a bit spooked by everything. In fact the tunnels don’t feel so bad the second time round.”
“You’re right,” said Pete, “they’re only terrifying.”
Sometime later Pete stopped and said: “I think we’ve come further this time without hearing anything, though I couldn’t swear to it. I wonder if they’ve dispersed, and if so, where?”
They looked behind them in the tunnel, and then Cobus, who was leading, said: “Well, I think I hear something now. Voices.”
“Yes,” whispered Pete. He strained to listen. “But that’s no incantation.”
They continued forward, till they came to what they believed was the crawl-hole in which they had hidden. Cobus said: “Let’s count how many paces from here to the hall. If we need to duck down here again we’ll know where it is in the dark.”
They switched off their lights and saw, somewhere ahead in the darkness, the glow that they knew emanated from the torches of that horrific inner sanctum. Cobus moved forward on foot, counting as many paces as he could before he needed to drop from the potential sight of enemy eyes. The others followed suit.
They were about to crawl to the edge when they froze at the sound of one voice that crawled under their skin and emulsified their blood. When they could force themselves forward again they lay flat and peered into the chamber – they had given up thinking of it as a sanctum – in time to see two dripping heads, which, it was clear, had only recently taken time off from their bodies, being placed on either side of a pulsing object by a tall, powerful man of immense and frightening presence.
“Jesus!” said Cobus and Jim together as they recoiled. The former crossed himself. His voice was shaking as he tried to bolster his wits with some irony. “I tell you, man, I’m going to give up looking over that ledge. Not that I’m planning to make this a regular trip.” He tried to smile, but was brought up short. Two heads! But Pete’s words helped him realise Jane’s wasn’t one of them.
“Incredible,” said Pete, who was the only one still looking, “the heads are still talking! And that thing – what did Tariq call it, a kib or something – seems to be getting brighter.” The others crawled forward again, their faces looking only marginally healthier than the two on the altar. “Hard though it is to swallow, the story must be true. That thing must be keeping them alive, just like it did the old man.”
Now Jim noticed the other horror on the impaling stake and put a closed fist to his mouth before managing to talk. “I saw some shit in Rwanda, but this…who is this freak?”
That was when something occurred to Cobus. “Hey, we forgot to mention this kib thing to the Professor. I guess with everything else going on…”
“I didn’t forget it though,” interrupted Pete. The pulsing light was bright enough now to throw alternate light and shade on his features – a touch of Hitchcock in a real horror story. Then he broke away from looking, though a gleam, reflecting more than the k’ib, still shone in his eyes, and said: “That thing means fortune and fame, guys. But you’re right; it hardly seemed the right time to mention it in camp earlier. Anyway, to answer your question, Jim, I think Cobus and I have a feeling we know who this is.”
“Ja,” said Cobus, “or at least what it feels like to be stalked by him.” He shuddered, then said, “and I bet our recently deceased friend the king knew only too well how it felt. Man, what a nightmare.”
“Of course! Tariq’s letter mentioned him. Yes, from the way the others are grovelling before him, he’s the high priest all right,” said Jim.
“Do you understand what he’s saying?” asked Pete.
“No idea. Like a lot of ancient languages, we can only guess at how they were spoken.”
But now they were alert and focussed again, as the priests turned in silence and headed towards the two tunnel entrances on the opposite side of the chamber.
“Where do you think those lead?” asked Pete of no-one in particular.
“Maybe to some sort of monastic cells,” answered Jim. “I hope it’s not a short cut back to the temple; otherwise we’ll be outflanked. Let’s hope this is some sort of idiorrhythmic set-up – when they’re not all kidnapping and sacrificing.” He gritted his teeth. “Poor Robbie, dying in this god-forsaken darkness at the hands of these bastards. I just hope…” He stopped himself, looked at the back of Pete’s head, and said nothing.
“What’s idio…whatever that thing was you said?” asked Cobus, changing the subject.
“It was the way of life for certain ascetic monks from centuries ago. They would live in their separate cells, then gather once a week. I’m hoping these bastards are…”
“Hey, you two.” Pete’s urgent whisper drew their attention and they ducked down just as the hooded figure below lifted its head to look around. They could almost feel his gaze probing the darkness like a searchlight. When they dared to look again he was still standing in that pose. Then, as if he had made up his mind about something, he strode away and followed the other priests down one of the tunnels.
“This is our chance,” said Pete, getting to his feet.
“Those fuckin’ heads are still talking,” said Cobus.
“I’ve got a couple of their CDs,” said Pete. The others looked blankly at him. “Talking Heads.”
Jim turned away, his features unreadable.
“You’re a fuckin’ enigma, man,” said Cobus, disbelief in his voice.
“Not one you want to solve.”
“I dunno. We’re surrounded by blood and gore, looking for your missing wife and you crack a shit joke like that. I put it down to a defence mechanism, but I tell you what, if that’s the famous British stiff upper lip, I’ll just let mine quiver.”
Pete looked down. “I…maybe you’re right. I hope I didn’t offend you.” There was silence for a moment. “Anyway, I want my wife back more than you can know. It just doesn’t feel like she’s here. That might sound strange.” There was no response. “But let’s find out for sure.” He started to move towards the head of the steps.
“Does this smell like a trap to anyone else?” said Jim.
“Maybe,” said Pete, “but what choice do we have? C’mon.” The last word was impatient and he made his way with extreme caution down the steps. Then he stopped and looked at the tunnel entrance behind him. “Hey, it looks like they’ve had to put some wooden supports there. Perhaps the rock’s not that stable. Let’s make sure we put some explosive here. And these steps are wooden. Obviously this chamber was carved naturally and the tunnel simply dropped into it.”
“You’re right, man,” said Cobus. “I’ll put enough PE to blow the steps as well, and then our arses are covered if they try to chase us.”
“Good man.” Pete helped the Afrikaner off with his rucksack as if to show Jim that the two of them were still in tune.
They waited till Cobus was finished, not wanting to split their strength, before coming down to the altar, all the time looking both at the tunnel they had just exited and the ones to their left. They approached the k’ib, with its gruesome sentinels.
“Wish I knew what you guys were saying,” said Pete to the heads. He turned to the others. “More PE4 I think.”
Cobus cut further strips of lard-like plastic explosive and they placed two narrow strips of it either side of the k’ib. Now, after discussion with Pete, he led wires back to the foot of the steps and placed the detonator there.
Jim had been distracted; his attention drawn like a fly to the tattered, ripped remains of what had once been Robbie McCulloch. When the image of the processed meat in a doner kebab shop came to him unbidden, he knew his mind was starting to claw its way towards the edge of reason. The incessant murmuring of the two severed heads only strengthened the impression of lurking insanity. With their vocal chords torn, their words were the sibilant ranting of lunatics. Jim tore his gaze away towards what the others were doing with the detonator. “Shouldn’t we put that right at the top of the steps? Don’t want to bring the roof or the steps down on ourselves before we have a chance to get out.”
“No, here is good,” said Pete. “There’s a ten second delay once we’ve pressed it,” he looked at Cobus, who confirmed this fact with a nod as he finished with the wiring, “so we’ve got time to get away. They won’t understand what we’ve done and they’ll chase us. By the time they get to the steps, they’ll walk into the explosion and the blast from the altar will take them out as well. With luck the force of it won’t get to us up there.”
“With luck?” He shrugged – he was not a munitions man. “Okay, but what if the blast doesn’t get them or destroy the steps?”
Pete showed the two rifles he was carrying; his and Cobus’s. “That’s where these babies come in. Even if the blast doesn’t kill them, they won’t know what the hell’s going on. They’ll be terrified and confused and we can pick them off. In the meantime we hit the other detonator at the top of the steps and leg it.”
“Won’t that blast follow us down the tunnel?”
Cobus chipped in. “Nah, man, I’ve put the PE4 so it’ll bring down some rocks from above the tunnel, but the blast will go out into the chamber.” He fingers opened like an anemone to illustrate the path of the explosion, then he grinned.
Cobus grin faltered and he looked at the floor in atonement.
“Look around you, Jim.” It was Pete. “We can’t exactly go wandering around looking for her. If they don’t bring her, it’s for one of two reasons; either she’s not here, or she’s already dead. I have to accept that as her husband. Why can’t you? Whatever we do, even if we come back when the dust has settled, even if she is being held in some dungeon in a drug-induced trance, we have to get rid of these monsters first.”
Jim wanted to say so much, but it was not his right and he just gave a curt nod.
“Okay,” said Cobus, looking at the lower tunnels and wanting to move on, “let’s do something to get their attention.
“Right,” said Pete. With that he launched a tae-kwondo kick at the front of Jim’s right kneecap, shattering it. “That should do it,” he said as the photographer collapsed screaming. With a swift movement he grabbed the rifle that fell from Jim’s grasp.
“What the fuck…?!” shouted Cobus and started to advance on Pete.
“Uh-uh.” Pete sounded to his own ears like he was admonishing a naughty child, though the gun he raised in Cobus’s direction would have been considered a bit over the top as child-care goes.
“Oh God!” In a horrific, slow-motion moment of clarity, the Afrikaner reached for his rifle and rucksack only to find them both in Pete’s possession. Pete saw in Cobus’s eyes that the myriad pieces of the puzzle, meaningless on their own, were linking, too late, into the semblance of a picture.
“Yes,” said Pete, the gun still pointing at Cobus, but his words directed at Jim, “you didn’t really think I was going to let you get away with fucking my wife?”
Jim was groaning, words still impossible through the blaring pain.
“What’s he talking about, man?” asked Cobus. Pete saw confusion in the big Afrikaner’s eyes, but something else too; the shame that came with an undeniable frisson of hope – that one’s own life might yet be spared at the expense of another’s.
“I saw them, yesterday evening, up at the waterfall.” He looked at Jim for a moment. “Good, isn’t she?” He was met by another groan that might have been an oath. “Well, I hope it was fun while it lasted.” He caught a movement out of the corner of his eye and brought the gun around again towards Cobus. “Believe me, I’ll kill you,” he warned him.
“Hey listen, man, it takes two to tango.” When Pete nodded in agreement with Cobus’s statement, he saw further enlightenment dawning on the big South African. “But you already know that, don’t you? That’s why you’re not bothered about saving her.”
Pete pursed his lips as if considering. “Partly. And partly because I’ve already killed her.
Even Jim rose for a moment from his sea of crashing pain. “What did you say?” he gasped; just for a few seconds, the psychological trauma outweighed the physical agony.
“Yes, she’s a lovely, permanent addition to the island now.”
“You’re sick.” Jim’s words were meant for Pete, but addressed to his own knee – the pain could not be ignored.
“And you’re dying. You know that now, don’t you? You’re not leaving this chamber alive.”
“For fuck’s sake, man,” said Cobus, “is it worth that?”
“Oh absolutely,” Pete assured him with almost surreal sincerity and politeness.
“How did you do it, man? We were on guard last night.”
“Ever the opportunist, I guess.” Pete broke off to look across at the lower tunnels, but there was no movement, so he continued. “I happened to be awake, contemplating exactly what I was going to do about the star-crossed lovers, when I heard some noise and looked out to see the two of you run off.” He considered something for a moment. “You know, tai chi may look gentle, but it teaches you how to kill very swiftly and silently, and it’s one of many martial arts I’ve studied. Once I’d done with her, I just carried her off, dumped her deep in the woods and returned; funnily enough, just in time, I think, to frighten off our two other would-be kidnappers. By the time you guys came back I’d got my breath back and…Bob’s your uncle.” Again he broke off to look across at the tunnels. “Well, for some reason your screams don’t seem to have attracted much attention.”
“Why do you still want their attention,” asked Cobus. “You’ve done what you set out to do.”
Pete ignored him. “Time we made a bigger noise – although on second thoughts, I’ve got a feeling this might do it.”
He stepped across to the altar and picked up the k’ib. There was an immediate horrible, ominous roar from one of the lower tunnels; like nothing on earth, it seemed to freeze the very marrow in their bones.
“Yup, that did it,” said Pete, stuffing the artefact into his rucksack, though not without feeling the peculiar pulsing. “Time we weren’t here.” Cobus stepped towards Pete with intent. “No, Cobus, don’t do that. Instead, please press the detonator.” Cobus looked shocked. “Do it for your old friend Jim’s sake. You wouldn’t want them to find him alive.”
“You fuckin’ cold-hearted bastard, I’m not doing it!”
“Simple then, I just kill you and do it myself. There’s your choice.” He relished the Afrikaner’s dilemma. “I thought so.” Then Pete’s face set into a snarl. “Do it.”
The initial preternatural roar from the tunnel had been reinforced by others.
“I really would advise you do it now, Cobus.” Pete’s words were dry; he had thought things through and seemed calm. “There’s only a ten seconds delay don’t forget.”
Cobus looked at Jim in utter helplessness. “I’m so sorry, man.” Then he turned to Pete. “Oh for God’s sake, shoot him! There’s no guarantee the explosion will kill him.”
Pete pointed the gun at Cobus’s head. “You’ve got two seconds.”
He pressed the two red buttons together and the two men tore up the steps towards the tunnel, throwing themselves flat just before a blast wave hit them, as the altar and steps were blown apart. Behind them, like a freakish hailstorm, shattered rocks clattered to the ground.
Pete got to his feet in a flash. “Get up, Afrikaner.” Cobus rose, looked back to see dust and stones filling the space of the chamber, and then stumbled on down the tunnel. Pete pressed the second detonator. “Move!” Both men raced on, hoping that Cobus had done his work well, and the blast from explosive at the tunnel entrance would not follow them. There was boom, followed by a wave of hot air, but it seemed their plan had been successful. Only one of them took any satisfaction from that.
Then, despite the ringing in their ears they became aware of voices ahead of them somewhere down the labyrinth.
“Somehow I don’t think we killed all of them,” said Pete, though his ironic tone could not mask the chill inside him.
“Give me my gun, man,” said Cobus. “At least I can help fight them.”
“Oh yes, of course, what a ridiculous oversight.” He pointed his rifle at Cobus. “Just get fucking running,” he growled.
They switched on their head-lamps and ran past several junctions where they heard voices but knew they had got past their pursuers for the moment. Of course the priests might have known ways through the network of tunnels – short cuts leading from the lower levels – but it seemed for a moment that the two men had got away. Then a group of figures emerged from a side exit just as they ran past it. Grasping fingertips brushed them; they heard the slap of bare feet on rock as the hunters chased them. Pete stopped, turned and levelled his gun. Before he fired, he saw cruel, grim faces from another time, with dark eyes framed by straight black hair, living versions of the statues in the temple – six or seven of them. He fired a burst, which sent chunks of flesh and gouts of blood flying into the darkness; bodies staggered and fell. He fired at those coming through from behind, but even as they, too, collapsed, the ones who had been hit first started to haul themselves to their feet. He opened fire on them again, and they jerked and juddered once more. Yet the others were recovering now.
It’s the k’ib, thought Pete. If it can help two severed heads to have a conversation, what are a few bullet wounds?
He sent one last merciless burst of fire into the pack. He turned, to see Cobus standing watching the horrific spectacle open-mouthed. The two of them ran for their lives.
“They’re never gonna stop, man,” panted Cobus over his shoulder with still some element of satisfaction in his voice. “You want the k’ib, you’ve got them as appendages.”
“Not if I can get far enough away from them. They’ll die without it. Look at our friend the king.”
The sound of feet behind them was growing louder. The way ahead seemed clear, but they had lost track of how far they had still to go, they were slowed by the need to watch for the coloured tape way-markers, and the pursuers were, without doubt, gaining – driven, Pete assumed, by their absolute need for the k’ib. Without it, they were going to die. He guessed that focussed one’s attention. In distraction, he wondered what made these men – were they men? – want to continue living. But he, too, felt strong. Hadn’t everything he’d done tonight been the adrenalin fix to end them all? Fear always gave the ultimate turbo boost. Plus he had touched the k’ib; stood in its aura.
He dared another glance round – it was not a pleasant sight; not only were the priests still in hot pursuit and gaining, they bore the violent marks of where he had shot them, like bodies which had risen from a battlefield having been strafed. Set against the darkness behind them, they were the stuff of nightmares, gaping wounds barely concealing their insides. He had to slow them down, if just for a few seconds, though he wasn’t sure how many bullets were left in the first magazine. He pictured stopping to fire again, and the hollow click of an empty chamber being the last sound he heard before they fell on him, ripping the k’ib away and carrying him off to heaven knew what grim fate. He had listened to the Professor’s reading of Tariq’s tale with more attention than he let on, having already seen and set his heart on taking the prize, so knew that, without water to unleash its mysterious powers, the k’ib was just a bauble that could not help him right now. The pursuers must have built up reserves of strength through centuries of exposure to it, and that was what kept them coming on, as if their batteries were still charged.
Pete still had Cobus’s gun, of course, but he didn’t know what lay ahead in the temple, so would not to waste those bullets here. He had also been picturing different scenarios during the boat crossing, so had a contingency plan. What was it they said about successful people? They were good at visualising their achievements in advance. At a tangent, he remembered the old joke about the two men being chased by a lion, and one stopping to pull on running shoes; when his companion said: “You’ll never outrun a lion,” he’d replied: “I’m okay as long as I can outrun you.” So now he fired three shots, two of which hit their target, ripping into the back of Cobus’s legs, causing the Afrikaner to collapse with a startled shriek of pain.
Pete’s momentum carried him past the stricken South African and he looked back at him for a moment, then beyond him to the group of blood and gore spattered priests, who had stopped in respectful fear of the death stick; they had felt its venom and could feel it still. “Test your scrummaging skills now, you fucking rock-spider,” he said to his wounded companion.
Through his pain, Cobus said: “You’re gonna rot in hell, man. That’s three deaths you’ll be carrying on Judgement Day.”
“Actually two. Jane’s not dead. I just wanted Jim to believe she was before he died; wanted him to despair, and to recognise that I had the power; over her; over him. Anyway, I’ll take my chances with my judges. Meanwhile, I’ll get my skinny arse out of here as yours appears to belong to someone else.”
Before Pete turned, leaving Cobus to die, he saw the grim faces of the priests as they started to advance again, and fired the remaining bullets from his gun down the tunnel in their general direction. Then he ran, having bought himself perhaps a few valuable seconds while Cobus tried to fight them and they vented their rage on him, perhaps thinking even that he had the k’ib.
He had no idea how much further he ran – judging distance was an impossibility – but at last he saw a less dense darkness ahead and felt cooler air against his skin as he burst out into the temple, heart thumping, eyes bulging both with the effort of running for his life and of peering down the dichromatic kaleidoscope of the tunnels. He looked back towards the tunnel entrance and pointed the second gun towards it. But his pursuers were nowhere to be found. Now, for the first time, he experienced a more primal level of fear. These…priests, acolytes, whatever they were, had been following the k’ib. Why would they stop now? They would know by now that Cobus did not have it. Had they fallen back to make way for something worse than themselves? Did they perhaps fear what waited in the temple? He uttered a hysterical laugh at the way he was developing an imagination, but still, he could not shake the feeling, that ‘something worse’ – and there was only one thing it could be – was very much alive. Adrenalin junkie though he was, Pete had no desire whatsoever to meet the Grim Reaper.
And even as he thought about it, the temperature in the temple dropped. He looked around at this cavern of the grotesque, the features on the statues sliding and dancing in the uneven torchlight; was the reaper already here? Had he escaped by some secret passage to wait here? One thing was for sure; standing and thinking about it was bottom of the useful list right now.
It was getting colder – was he cooling down after the sprint through the tunnels, or was something else at play here? And had it become darker? After all, his eyes should have been adjusting to the half-light. But this was not imagination, because now he noticed that the torches around the walls of the temple had started to go out, beginning with those closest to him.
At the same time a sound reached his ears; it was indescribable and getting closer – appeared to be coming from the tunnel, but he could not be sure. The guttering and then extinguishing of each torch continued and Pete decided to combat his growing fear by firing a few rounds into the tunnel, the deadly familiarity of the repeated explosions almost melodic compared with the soundtrack of this awful place. When the report died down there was silence again – until another torch went out with a soft pop.
A voice screamed, but this one in Pete’s mind, telling him to move or die. That was when he remembered the detonator and the plastic explosive they had left at the base of the huge statue. He ran round to it, pressed the two buttons, and then fled, yelling at the top of his voice and firing bullets around him wildly, half-expecting figures to emerge from their hiding places in the shadows of the other statues. Behind him, the torches continued to die. Any moment he expected a cowled shape to step out and block his path. So he was shocked to a standstill when he emerged unopposed into the nascent daylight beyond the temple door.
The delayed explosion roared, and he could just make out, in the darkness at the back of the temple, the first tottering steps of the monolithic statue as it started to collapse.
But there was no time for feeling relieved; he knew something was following him and could almost have believed it was the vengeful soul of the beast-god, released from the prison of its statue. On fatigued legs he ran, knowing the dark man was coming; feeling his fingers of shadow reaching out towards him; his ancient, stinking breath, putrid from gorging on human flesh, making the hairs on the back of Pete’s neck tingle in the delicious expectation of being touched. He knew that if he stumbled even once, over a root or rock, it would be all over for him. Not until he had scrambled down to the beach and across the shingle to the inflatable did he dare to stop and look around. He could see nothing, and nothing suited him fine.
He looked up and down the beach – no sign of life. Had any of them got away? He hoped his theft had drawn them all back into the temple or tunnels and their doom. Part of him wanted to go back and look through the temple portal, but what if some of them had survived and were watching him now from the trees, scared of his firepower, and waiting to destroy the boat so they could keep him here while they thought of a way to disarm him. There was no point in going back. All that mattered was that Jim and Cobus were dead. If some of those freaks had survived, they would not last long without the k’ib. Now he remembered his prize, opened the rucksack and removed it. What the hell was it, lying inert in his hands, made of some unidentifiable metal or element? When he had picked it up from the altar it had been pulsing, proving that water did indeed power it somehow. Maybe it also performed some complex ionisation of the air, affecting the oxygen you breathed. Pete shook his head; if that were the case, who the hell were these guys who, when they weren’t ripping each other’s heads off or eating each other, invented a machine capable of something he could not begin to understand. What a sucker punch – perhaps the most incredible invention in the history of mankind and you were too scared to let anyone find out, or unable to get off your piece of rock long enough to make it worthwhile.
He looked up, imagining several pairs of vengeful eyes watching him from the tree line. Nothing. He held the artefact up above his head and showed it to the island. “Your secret’s safe with me!” he shouted in mockery.
There had been no time to think over the financial benefits it might bring, but it was possible he would have eternity in which to work it out. The only problem he could foresee was if he ended up looking like the Caped Crusader back there; it seemed eternity had a price. But he would cross that bridge when he came to it.
Pete looked up at the lightening sky. A pall of smoke and dust had issued from the mouth of the temple and was rising against the dawn. The last of their merry band, old Sutch and Catalina – assuming Jane was in no state to feel merry – might have noticed it by now and be wondering what the hell was going on. Time to get away from this place of death
He saw the wooden boat sitting where the two would-be kidnappers had left it on their return, took aim and fired several holes into it. With the rifle-butt he smashed the holes wider, before getting into the inflatable. He knew it had to be low on fuel and for a moment regretted his rash decision to smash the other boat, which would have been easier to row back than his own, but to his relief the motor started up. With a last look over his shoulder at the scene of his greatest triumph so far, he set off back towards base camp.
The short trip seemed surreal, as if he was travelling forward through time from a forgotten, dangerous place into a world full of opportunity. The daylight having almost returned in this southerly latitude, he could make out the figures of the Professor and Catalina on the beach. He saw the old man sink to his knees. Had he realised that, not only was there no sign of Jane on the boat, there was just the lone figure of his erstwhile nemesis. Pete knew his return would be of no consolation to Sutch at all.
“Just the two of them,” said Pete to himself, in a tone that would have puzzled anyone listening.