The scream woke me from a deep sleep. A piercing scream full of horror and pain and my first thought was that Huana had been right. The Husyna were attacking us.
As I leaped from my cot, my hand clawing at the pistol still tucked into my belt, I realized I was wrong. Huana was lying on the floor, her hands over her ears, the terror bubbling in her throat. Christine was kneeling near the door, her shoulders shaking as if she was cold. And Eric was at a window, the short sword stolen from the city in one hand.
When he saw me awake, he said, “I don’t believe it. I just don’t believe it.”
The scream came again and then there was the beat of leathery wings. Something solid slammed into the thatch of the hut, raining dust dirt and debris on us. There was a thrashing outside like something trying to tunnel through the roof. Curled fingers with long, sharp nails punched through. A second later, there was sunlight streaming in, nearly blinding me. A shape blotted out the sun and then something slammed into the floor.
I felt chills on my spine as I stood, staring into those hideous eyes. Without thinking, I raised the pistol and fired at point blank range. The round punched through the brown fur on the creature’s chest. It staggered as the blood began to spurt, staining the floor at its feet.
It looked dumbfounded as it reached towards its chest with its long, clawed fingers. It looked as if it was wrapping a cape around itself for protection.
I fired a second shot that smashed through the tough leather of the wings. It stood upright for just a moment longer and then fell as if its bones had suddenly disintegrated. There was a rattle in its throat as it drummed a hand on the hard wood of the floor as it died.
“My God,” I said when I could again speak.
“They’re all over the place,” said Eric.
I didn’t understand what he meant and leaped toward the door, shoving Christine to the side. I didn’t want her to become a target.
Outside was a scene of bedlam. Some of the men were running through the streets. A couple of them carried weapons, bows and arrows or a short blowgun-like thing. The creatures were circling overhead like vultures waiting for something or someone to die.
One of them folded its wings back like a falcon and plunged toward the ground, aiming at the back of a running man. At the last second, it spread its wings, slowing the dive. It struck the man on his spine, bowling him over. As he tried to get up, the creature clubbed him to the dirt, flipping him. It bent its head, the long sharp teeth bared, and then like the vampire of legend, tried to rip at his throat.
He had gotten his hands up and was holding the creature’s head away from his neck, but the strength of the beast was slowly winning the battle.
I aimed at the creature’s head and squeezed the trigger. I felt the weapon fire, the pistol jumping in my hand. I saw the round strike, exploding the beast’s head like a ripe melon. The man gave a shove, throwing the lifeless body to the right and scrambled to his feet. Then, looking neither right nor left, fled, his weapon left behind.
Another of the creatures appeared in the doorway. It held a small bundle wrapped in its arms. I could see a tiny foot. I wanted to kill the beast, but was afraid of hitting the child. Its mother leaped into view and swung at the beast with a large, thick stick. The creature took the blow, turned and swatted the woman, tumbling her out of sight.
I jumped from the hut and ran across the open ground. The creature dropped to the dirt and was running toward the gate. It didn’t see me. When a was close, I leaped, tackling it and it fell, rolled and lost the now screaming child.
As the creature turned, its evil eyes on me, I just grinned at it. It opened its mouth wide, showing me its already bloodstained fangs. I raised my pistol and fired, my eyes on those of the creature. I saw them go wide in surprise and then pain and finally go blank. The beast dropped into the dirt and didn’t move.
Eric was out of the hut now, running toward me. I saw one of the creatures staring at him like an eagle eyeing a mouse. It folded its wings and begin its dive. I aimed and fired, missed and fired again. The bullet hit the creature and it jerked, tried to open its wings to flee but failed. It hit the ground thirty feet from me with a loud, disgusting sound, like that of a melon dropped from great height.
At the noise, Eric spun and as he did, another of the creatures came at him. Instead of raising his sword, he dropped to his back. As the creature slowed and landed near him, Eric thrust with the sword. The razor-sharp blade sliced through the tough leather of the creature’s skin. Blood spurted and flowed and the beast toppled and died.
I whirled then and jumped back with my back against the thatch of the hut. I was wrapped in a cloud of dry, choking dust.
In front of me was one of the creatures, holding a limp woman in its hands. There was a splash of blood on her shoulder and down her chest.
The evil beast looked up then, locking its eyes on me as if trying to cast a hypnotic spell on me. It seemed to grin, showing its bloody teeth. I aimed carefully and fired. The round snapped the beast’s head back. It threw its arms up and dropped the woman. She crumpled to the ground and was still.
The beast landed on its back, its legs kicking spasmodically. With one hand it clawed at the dirt, digging deep lines near its hand and then it was quiet.
And then there was a shrill cry. A high-pitched sound that cut through the fighting. A single searing note. For a moment there was the ringing of metal on metal, metal against flesh, and then echoes of my last shot, and then nothing. The creatures were fleeing, Some were flapping their wings, pulling themselves into the sky. A few, carrying small bundles, ran for the gate and the safety of the jungle beyond.
I dropped to one knew, steadied my gun hand, with my other and aimed. I felt the weapon kick back and one of the running beasts sprawled forward. Its burden, wrapped in white, rolled free. The tiny shape was then sitting up, wailing in fear and pain. A woman broke from one of the huts, running toward the crying child.
Eric was beside me then. “You okay?” he asked.
Slowly I got to my feet. I looked at the scene around me. There were bodies scattered over the whole village. Men, women, children, cut down by the vile creatures. They lay sprawled near the doors of their huts, in the streets or near one another. Mingled among them were the corpses of the creatures, many of them looking as if they had already been wrapped in shrouds. Several small fires burned, throwing smoke into the bright blue of the sky. Slowly the people came from their huts, out of hiding and looking at the damage around them. A few fell to their knees, crying in anguish, looking like the figures of a terrible flood or a sudden tornado.
I turned in a slow circle, taking it all in. During the war, I had seen battlefields when the fighting had ended, but this was worse than anything I remembered. There weren’t many dead, fifteen or twenty at the most, but it was how they had died. And it was who had died. There was no justification for killing children and yet five or six of the dead were kids.
I looked at Eric and saw his eyes were hated filled. “We should hunt them down and wipe them out,” he said.
I understood the feeling but said, “How? With one pistol and a couple of bows and arrows?”
“Then we wait right here and ambush them on their return.”
“What about your family?” I asked. “I thought we were looking for them.”
He seemed not to hear me and said, “We get out of here and go buy rifles and machine guns. We then come back here and help these people defend themselves.”
He stood staring for a long time. I don’t know what he was seeing just then. Finally he nodded, as if regaining consciousness and said, “Yes. We could get guns. That would certainly put an end to this.”
I didn’t tell him that if we armed this village, the creatures would just find another to attack. One that couldn’t protect itself, but then I realized you couldn’t bleed for the entire world, or rather inner world. You did what you could for those you could help and hoped there was someone else somewhere else who could pick up the slack.
Before I could said anything, one of the men who had brought us to the village walked up. His eyes were fixed on my pistol. He stopped near me and said, in Spanish, “We thank you for your help. We drove them off with only a few people hurt. Now we must go into the jungle to find those taken.”
“Will that do any good?” I asked.
“Sometimes we can save one or two. Sometimes not. But it is something that must be done.”
“All right,” I said. “We’ll go with you.”
The man grinned broadly, showing white teeth that had been filed to a point. It was the first primitive custom that I had seen. He reached out a hand and grasped my shoulder at the same time. “Good. Very good.”
Eric stared at as if I had lost my mind and said, “You’re not serious, are you?”
I shrugged. “What can I say? If there’s a chance of saving any of those people...”
“But to go after those things. On their home ground with the limited weapons we have left.”
I waved a hand to indicate the others and said, “They’re going into the jungle after them. And they’re going in the direction we want to travel. We can help them find their missing friends. On the way, we might find our way out of here, or we might find an indication about your family. No matter what, we’ve got ourselves an escort.”
Eric hesitated and then nodded. “I guess I’ll go and tell the women.”
“Huana should be happy about it. She’ll be getting away from the village.”
“Somehow,” said Eric, “I suspect that this will be like getting out of th frying pan and into the fire.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I know what you mean.”