Tuesday, November 30, 2010

He Who Kills, part 1

Diary of Janice Prishwalken, March 1918:

When it all came to a head, the Reptilians were there for us in a way we could never have anticipated.

The Germans had backed us into a corner, trumping our platoon of Gurkhas with two good companies of German infantry, supported by light artillery. But despite all their cleverness and planning, their grim efficiency at exploiting the dark mysteries of this island, we had something they did not – we had Stalks-at-Dawn, first a curious onlooker, then a guide and yes, a friend.

And finally, our savior.

We’d heard about it for months, this god of theirs, ominously named “He-Who-Kills,” who lived in the deepest jungle and held sway over that mysterious place. It is said that no human who set foot there had ever come out alive, and I’d not met anyone who tried. Even the Savannah Lords and the armies of the local powers on the island avoided venturing into this deepest and darkest of all the island’s jungles, even if in force. The sheer thought of it was madness to them. The feathered reptiles themselves built their nests a respectful distance from the domain of He-Who-Kills.

Precisely what He-Who-Kills was, Richard and I had pondered many times, occasionally even imagining, upon encountering some new monstrosity, that we had perhaps this time run into He-Who-Kills himself, only to draw looks of bald amazement from those who knew better. On several occasions Richard asserted to me that it was but a myth held in reverence by savages, but he listened attentively all the same when the Reptilians referred to their spirit master in that oblique way they reserved for him alone.

Whenever humans from the island were asked about He-Who-Kills, they invariably said that they did not know and did not want to, for anything that put fear into the Reptilian Hunters was something they wanted to avoid at all costs.

Only the Reptilians would slip into that deepest recess of the island and return to tell the tale. Or at least, sometimes return. Young braves, now old enough to join their tribe’s hunters on foraging expeditions, had first to pass a test. To prove their bravery and skill, they had to bring a small wooden ring into the domain of He-Who-Kills and leave it on a certain branch of a certain tree, then take the ring that the previous young Reptilian had left on that same branch, perhaps years previously, back to the tribal elders. Some of the young Reptilians never came back from that fateful journey, and in this way the tribe assured that only the surest and quietest of their number would sweep forward on the daily hunts.

Our efforts to coax a description of He-Who-Kills from the Reptilians were always frustrated, and we eventually resigned ourselves to the thought of leaving the island with this particular mystery remaining unsolved. But it was not to be, and in the end we had all our questions answered.

* * *

We had learned much of Captain von Schrecklichdorf’s master plan -- to gather a dozen egg-laying females of the dreaded “bayawak balahibo” (feathered reptiles) and bring them back to Germany by means of the huge transport U-boats that crept into Madawan Cove. In the platoon of Gurkhas that had joined us just in the nick of time, we thought we had the means to stop him. But von S. was not a man to be taken for granted, and to our astonishment we discovered that he had brought superior force to bear, no doubt carried on the U-boats that came to retrieve the feathered reptiles in their wood crates. Von Schrecklichdorf wasted no time in sending his little army after us, and our brave Gurkhas, vastly outnumbered and outgunned, could only fall back as the German forces pressed us.

It got worse, for we soon found ourselves surrounded, two squads of the fearsome stormtroopers having crept into the jungle behind us as we fell back. This was just as Stalks-at-Dawn had predicted when he had mysteriously left our party in great haste. The Reptilian Hunters had rapidly familiarized themselves with the “bang-men” (their term for stormtroopers because they use grenades so frequently) and knew they’d have something up their sleeve. He had tried to warn me about this two days before, as the Gurkhas were joining us, but he could not quite find the right words, and I could not let his vague cautions interfere with doing our duty, which was more urgent now than ever. Eventually he stopped pressing me and gesturing, looked at me for what seemed a long time, told me he would try to do what he could to help, and disappeared into the jungle.

He was right, as he always had been, and our moment of triumph had turned into our moment of doom, for neither Richard nor I had any intention of leaving the Gurkhas and planned to share their fate whatever that might be, Richard firing his Webley with his normal deadly accuracy, his pith helmet off but his tie perfectly straight as always. I looked at him there, crouching behind a tree, splinters flying everywhere, and as I stuck another clip into my .45, my own adventures on his astonishing island flashed before my mind’s eye ….

…dinner at the table of the Brothers Hamyldon, the vampires Georg and Vlad, Georg insisting that I wear an evening gown that appeared exceedingly antique …

… negotiations with newly-sentient penguins to join our cause …

… a midnight game of hide and seek in the jungle with those crazed, gibbering cannibals, the Getinmahbeli …

… pursued across the grassy interior of the island by the colossal Savannah Lords …

… more than one face-to-face encounter with that dashing gentleman, von Schrecklichdorf himself, who always asserted with a smile and a shrug, his uniformed stosstruppen around him, that he was simply a German gentleman on vacation, and here only for the hunting …

… and all the while, through the highs and the lows, Richard and I never gave up hope that right would prevail in the end. But now here we were, trapped and outnumbered, mortar shells exploding around us as the Gurkhas fought and died tenaciously for every inch of jungle, fire coming at us now from behind as well as front, ever closer.

But what was that sound, a sound like living thunder? All fire ceased as that roar drowned out even the mortars, rattling the bones of every man, Gurkha, German and Briton -- and my American bones too, the only woman present. Squinting toward the enemy line, in the distance I made out Captain von Schrecklichdorf as he rose up slowly amongst the grey helmets bobbing in the bush, his handsome Broomhandle Mauser in hand, peering in the direction of those thunderous bellows, which were now mixed with the sound of cracking tree limbs as something surged through the jungle.

I felt a familiar presence and Stalks-at-Dawn materialized from the bush, panting. He crouched, pointed in the direction of the sound, and said, “He is here. He-Who-Kills is here.”

To be continued ....