Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Land to the North - Chapter 14

Once Eric was out the window, I helped Huana and then Christine, and followed them. For a moment we crouched on the soft grass hidden behind a flowering bush at the base of the palace. Eric then moved to the right, along the wall, letting it and the vegetation screen him. At the corner he stopped and stooped, surveying the long open field that separated us from the steps that led up and into the jungle.

“Isn’t there another way to do this?” I asked Christine in Spanish.

She shook her head. We could either move deeper into the Inner Earth by crossing through the town, or we could try to get to the river that would probably lead us out. And right now it was important for us to get out.

Eric looked at us, waiting for someone to say something. I finally told him, “It’s never going to get dark. Now is as good a time as any.” Mentally, I added, “Especially with those guards lying dead in our chambers.”

Eric shrugged and then took off, running across the open field, his long legs eating up the distance. Huana chased after him, falling to the rear as she struggled to keep up. Christine left next, soon caught Huana and passed her. I brought up the rear, but stayed close to the slower woman, ready to help her if she needed it. The problem wasn’t that she was out of shape. She just had no speed. Her arms and legs were pumping as she tried to run faster, but she just couldn’t move any quicker.

Ahead of us, Eric had reached the stairs cut into the side of a cliff. He stopped and crouched there, watching us, and searching the area behind us, looking for a pursuit. As we approached, he started up them, taking them two and three at a time. At the first landing, he stopped, bent over, breathing hard. We finally caught him there and took a break.

Neither Christine nor Huana seemed to be terribly worn by the run, but Eric looked as if he was on the verge of collapse. Sweat poured from his face and soaked his clothes as quickly as if he had been running through the rain. The breath rasped in his throat as his chest heaved. He looked at me, as if wanting me to make some rude comment, but I didn’t have it in me. The run had sapped most of my strength too.

Then, behind us, came the shrill blast of a trumpet. It sounded like a horn warning of a coming storm or of an escape of prisoners. I glanced back and saw that the plaza was filling with running people. Guards and soldiers swarmed from the pyramid, almost as if it had been more than a religious structure and prison that we knew it to be.

“We’d better get going,” said Eric more calmly than I would have. He didn’t wait for a response. He began a rapid climb, leaning forward so that he could use his hands as well as his feet. He ran up the stairs looking like a pale primate from our distant past.

The bedlam below increased. More trumpets blared and I could hear shouting behind us. I looked back and saw a dozen soldiers racing across the long grassy field, heading toward the steps. When I looked a third time, there were fifty people behind us and a few had reached the steps.

Eric stopped again, let us catch up and then said, in a voice tinged with exhaustion, “I don’t think we’re going to make it.” With that he spun and started to climb again.

We kept going up. I felt the pain build in my lungs and radiate outward like a fire that was consuming me. It hurt to breathe, the air suddenly hot and quite humid. My throat was filled with razor blades and my legs ached. With each step, I thought I was going to collapse and found the strength for one more. Upward, I ran, like a man caught in molasses. It was slow motion and when I glanced at the top, it seemed to be farther from me than it was when I started.

And still we kept going. At a landing, I had to rest. I went to one knee and stared at the ground by my foot. Suddenly I was hot, the sweat drenching me. There was a shout below me. A shout of triumph as the soldiers chasing us saw me resting there. It inspired me. I was up again, running forward, finding a reserve of strength that I didn’t know I had.

It was just enough. I staggered the last few steps, but found myself at the top. Eric was sprawled on his back, his eyes closed as his chest heaved. He sucked in the air greedily.

Christine was on her hands and knees, trying to rise. Huana had found a large boulder and was trying to force it to the edge of the cliff. I saw what she had in mind and tried to help her, but my muscles had turned to jelly. Still I pushed on the rock. Christine joined us and all three of us were able to roll it to the cliff.

We shoved it over. I saw it hit the steps once in an explosion of dust an then it bounced. The men chasing us scattered, trying to avoid the stone. Two of them lost their balance and fell, the screams of terror rising to us.

“That might slow them,” I said, “but we’ve got to get going. The river?”

Christine point at the trail and I shook my head. “Too easy. They’ll catch us.”

Huana reached around a lacy fern, and pointed. “Through here,” she said.

Eric, with a Herculean effort, got to his feet. He stumbled forward, and stepped around the bush. He caught his foot on something, an exposed root or stone, and fell heavily. Again he got up an pushed on. Huana ran passed him, showing us the path.

I let Christine go first. I held back, looking for signs that we had decided to go cross country, but the fern hid our trail well. I hoped the soldiers would believe that we had followed the path and chase down it without stopping to look for signs that we hadn’t.

Huana had found some kind of game trail. The vegetation wasn’t as thick as it was through the middle of the jungle, so we made good time. Vines and branches grabbed at us, snagging our clothes and scratched our exposed skin. In minutes my shirt was shredded and the backs of both women were slick with sweat and blood from a hundred tiny cuts.

We halted for a minute to catch our breath and listened for the sound of a pursuit. I stripped my shirt and draped it over Christine’s shoulders. She smiled as I did it. I think she was surprised by the kindness.

Eric nodded his approval and did the same for Huana. When it was obvious that no one was after us, at least on this trail, we started off again, moving slowly. Now it wasn’t so important to hurry. It was important to be quiet. We didn’t want to give the enemy a clue as to our whereabouts.

As before, the deeper we moved into the jungle, the darker it became. Even with the sun overhead and rarely any real clouds, the vegetation was so thick that sunlight couldn’t easily penetrate. We were moving through a densely packed area of dim green light, steaming humidity, and oppressive air. We closed the gaps among us so that we wouldn’t lose sight of one another and even with Christine only three or four feet in front of me, she was just a vague shape in the verdant twilight of the jungle.

After thirty minutes, Eric halted us. I crept forward to see what the problem was. He pointed across the game trail and up into a tree where there seemed to be black pods three or four feet long hanging under the branches. I shrugged, telling him that I didn’t see a problem.

“Vampire bats,” he said, nodding at Huana who’d given him the information.

I felt a chill on my spine. These were not the small, nearly harmless things of the South American jungle. These were the huge creatures of which horror stories were made. These were the things that had swooped in on the plaza as the children were sacrificed. These were why there were so many blood rituals here and I knew that waving a cross at them would do no good.

“What do we do now?” I whispered, afraid that I would wake them if I spoke too loud.

“Back track quietly and veer to the right, away from them,” he said.

I nodded, doing as he told me. As I reached Christine, there was a high pitched scream and the flapping of leathery wings. The granddaddy of the vampires spread his wings and let go of his upside down perch. As he swooped down, turning and twisting to avoid the trees and branches and bushes, I saw that his wing span was ten or twelve feet. He landed on the game trail, his eyes roaming over it as each of us froze, hoping to avoid that blood thirsty stare.

That creature was six feet tall, if it was an inch. The face was hideous, covered with brown hair. It had a pointed snout and pointed ears so that it had a wolf-like appearance, but there was something in the red, glowing eyes that suggested insanity. I couldn’t pull my eyes from those of the creature and remembered Bram Stoker’s tale of Dracula. He had the power to hypnotize with his steady gaze.

Behind me I heard Christine whimper. A quiet, heartbreaking noise. The beast heard it too because it turned to look in her direction. Slowly, I raised the barrel of my pistol, feeling that the bullet would do no good. If there was a supernatural explanation for vampires, I was staring it in the hideous face.

The last thing I wanted to do was shoot. The sound of the shot would awaken the whole colony. Hundreds of them, probably lusting after fresh blood, would be in the air. We wouldn’t be able to fight them all.

And if that didn’t stir them, it might alert the soldiers who were chasing us. My gun would be good only to kill ourselves because to pull the trigger would be to sign our death warrants.

The creature now stood only a few feet from me, its black wings still wrapped around it like the cape demanded by the legend. It was still for a moment, its head cocked to one side as if listening for something.

Then there was a flash of metal and the vampire’s head flipped into the air. Blood spurted in a great fountain of red as the trunk of the beast collapsed to the jungle floor. Behind it, Eric stood, holding the hilt of a short sword in both hands like it was a baseball bat.

His solution had been brilliant. He had killed the creature without giving it time for a warning cry. The others slumbered on, unaware that one of their number had been killed. I stepped from hiding to look at the body. There were so many human qualities about it that it was frightening. If one of these had gotten loose on the surface, the vampire legend would be confirmed to the horror of the whole world.

“Let’s get out of here,” he hissed as he stepped over the fallen creature. Huana didn’t need further encouragement. She started back down the trail at a trot, glancing repeatedly over her shoulder.

After we had gotten far enough away from the vampire bats that I felt we were safe, I stopped. The last thing we wanted was to return all the way to the edge of the cliff. We had to turn to the right and through the thickest part of the jungle, at least for a while.

Eric understood that but Christine and Huana wanted no part of it. They seemed to be more frightened of the terrors in there than the soldiers searching for us, or the vile creatures we had discovered already.

There was a whispered argument with Huana. She kept telling us that there were things in the direction we wanted to go that were more horrible than any we had ever seen. I liked the sound of that because it meant that not many people would have traveled that part of the jungle. We would be relatively safe in it. Safe from the soldiers who were chasing us and I didn’t know what could be more horrible than the colony of large, human-like vampire bats we had found. Without having to worry about the soldiers, I figured that a big fire would hold the bats at bay.

Finally, on the threat that we were going to leave her behind for the vampires and the soldiers, Huana agreed to accompany us. She was badly frightened, that was obvious, but she couldn’t tell us what scared her the most. It was some vague monster that lived in that portion of the jungle and ate babies. Having seen the murder of children in the rituals held on the ramp of the pyramid, I couldn’t understand her terror at some unknown creature that feasted on infants.

With Eric in the lead again, we worked our way through the jungle. It was slow going because we didn’t have machetes to chop our way through the thick clinging vegetation. Eric used his sword sparingly because he didn’t want to dull the blade. We found ourselves crawling under the obstructions, sliding around them, or climbing over them. Trees that had fallen, huge bushes covered with razor-sharp thorns and vines that grabbed and held us were all in the way. Invariably, one of us would become ensnared and would have to be cut free before we could continue. It made our pace maddingly slow.

I thought of the soldiers who were chasing us, hoping that they were still on that jungle trail, or if they had circled back, were now following the game trail we had abandoned. If they had found our tracks through the jungle, they would surely catch us.

But they didn’t. We kept moving, resting periodically, sipping at the wine that Christine carried in the decanter we had stolen, or eating some of the fruit that I had stashed in the makeshift ruck sack. Huana showed us how to steal the water from the broadleaves of some of the plants by rolling one into a slender tube and then sucking on it like it was a straw.

For hours we kept at it, wanting to lie down and sleep, but afraid of the soldiers who were giving chase. We pushed on, the rest periods becoming more frequent and longer. At last Eric sat at the base of a huge tree and said, “We need to sleep.”

Although I agreed with that, I said, “Then we post a guard and rotate that guard every hour or two.”

Eric nodded tiredly. “Granted. Every time we have failed to post guards, something has happened to us.”

I wasn’t sleepy. Tired, yes, but not sleepy. “I’ll take the first watch. If I hear anything, Ill wake each of you and we’ll decide what to do then.” I repeated the instructions in Spanish for Christine and Huana.

I moved off a short distance, finding a good spot to stand guard. It gave me a view of the surrounding territory including the way we had come. By sliding either right or left, I could hide completely.

The night passed quietly. Or rather, I should say that the rest period passed quietly. I heard cries of animals in the distance, and once there was a crashing through the jungle like a herd of elephants was stampeding, but I didn’t see them and they didn’t come very close. Christine took over the guard duties from me and then Huana replaced her. Eric had the last round and when he woke me, he said that everything had been quiet. It seemed that we had shaken the soldiers. It seemed that our immediate troubles were over. It seemed that way.

No comments: