Bones of the Conquerors: A Grey Hawthorne Adventure
By Heath Lowrance
Silver sunlight glinted off something half-buried in the thick jungle foliage, and Grey Hawthorne stopped in his tracks to look at it. Weberly, walking so close behind that he nearly collided with him, complained in his needling way, “What? What is it, Mr. Hawthorne?”
Hawthorne ignored him for the moment and stepped toward the glittering object. Wiping the sweat away from his eyes, he bent down on his haunches to get a better look.
It was made of obsidian stone, blue-gray in the muted green light of the jungle. Tentatively, he brushed aside thick wet fronds and picked it up. About the size of his fist, carved with precision, so recently that the chip marks were still shiny and smooth.
“What have you found, Mr. Hawthorne?” Weberly said, letting one hand glide over his round belly. Two weeks on the island had done little to diminish his girth. “Is it edible?”
“No, Mr. Weberly, it’s not edible.”
It was an idol of a bizarre, serpent-bodied creature with a skull-like head, staring soulless eyes and sharp teeth that jutted like bayonet points. The workman-ship was fairly typical of islands in the South Seas, but Hawthorne had never seen anything even remotely resembling the creature depicted.
Despairingly, Weberly said, “Then what good is it? For God’s sake, Mr. Hawthorne, let us continue on.”
Hawthorne continued to ignore him—his sense of propriety had diminished somewhat these last two weeks—and gazed at the jungle around them. For two days, they had slogged through this hell, both aware that something wasn’t quite right but neither willing to say it until that morning, when Weberly had suddenly succumbed to a case of nerves and broke down. “There’s not a sound in this place!” he’d cried. “No birds, no animals, nothing! A jungle should not be this quiet!”
And he was right, of course. Grey Hawthorne had experienced other jungles in his thirty-three years of life, and the one thing they shared in common was the almost overwhelming noise of life. Monkeys squealing. Birds squawking. Unseen predators and prey moving stealthily along the jungle floor.
And still the sinister silence prevailed. The heat pushed down upon them relentlessly, each breath they took a scorching fire in their lungs. The smell of damp hot decay, sickly-sweet like a dead pox victim, stung their nostrils.
Hawthorne looked again at the obsidian statue, feeling a vague sense of anxiety about it, before putting it in his makeshift bag and rejoining Weberly.
They pushed on.
The freighter vessel Constellation had left port from Shanghai on November 8, 1890, a mild and breezy day. It plowed a course through placid Pacific waters for nearly a week before blithely piercing the edge of a monstrous storm that threw the sturdy ship off course. The storm grew worse, slamming the Constellation with waves the size of city blocks over and over again, and despite the best efforts of captain and crew the good ship was ultimately sent to the bottom of the sea. The entire crew perished.
Hawthorne and Weberly survived. They were both Americans but were not acquainted. By chance, however, they had both booked passage on the Constellation from Shanghai and as such were the only passengers. Together, they had been swept off deck at the height of the storm’s attack, had flailed helplessly as gigantic waves tossed and tore at them. The Constellation’s main mast had snapped free of the ship, cracking into several pieces, and they had snagged a part of it in what Hawthorne considered a futile effort to avoid drowning. He managed to secure himself to the mast with his belt, and with shouts and gestures instruct Weberly to do the same.
As unconsciousness came over him, Hawthorne remember thinking bitterly of the tasks left undone, the vengeance left unfulfilled. He’d left Shanghai only weeks behind the man he pursued and could almost feel the throat between his fingers, nearly smell the man’s fear. Two years, it had been. Two years of trekking across the world, following the faintest of trails, and he cursed God for the storm.
They spent nearly two weeks on the beach where they’d washed up, spearing fish and crabs and whatever else the ocean brought up to them. It didn’t take long for Weberly—so stoic and tough-minded as a passenger on the ship—to show the weak-natured stuff he was really made of. The first night, lying exposed on the sand, Hawthorne heard Weberly sobbing to himself, and the next day every word he spoke was sharp and bitter. By the third day, he had become given to histrionics, and Hawthorne couldn’t help but think he’d be better off stranded with one of the high-strung society women he had met in New York. He found himself disliking his fellow castaway more and more.
Over the course of the first several days, many things washed ashore from the wreckage of the Constellation. A shaving kit, which Hawthorne employed immediately and Weberly ignored, a large tin of salt pork—which Hawthorne hid from Weberly and rationed out sparingly—and, most fortuitously, several bottles of brandy. Along with the bounty from the sea, they kept well fed. The brandy was no substitute for water, but what it lacked in the ability to hydrate it made up for in more profound ways.
The corpse of one of the crewmen also washed ashore, on the fourth day. Crabs had done unspeakable things to the man’s body before Hawthorne discovered him, but the sailor’s knife was still firmly tucked into his sash. He took the knife and buried the sailor in the sand, giving him the closest thing to a proper burial as could be managed.
And the whole time, the ominous jungle hung over them, deathly still and quiet. They were hemmed in by it on one side, the vast black ocean on the other. The narrow strip of gold and white-flecked sand was the entire world.
From the very beginning, Hawthorne knew they would have to enter that jungle at some point.
Weberly wheezed, struggling to keep up. “So… where do you… where do you think we are, Mr…. Mr. Hawthorne?”
“I can only speculate, but if I had to hazard I would say somewhere in the chain of islands known as Micronesia.”
“The South Seas? How can you… be sure?”
“I can’t be sure, Mr. Weberly. But,”—he risked a glance back at the other man—“I’ve seen a bit of obsidian rock here and there. Volcanic. And the Micronesian isles are well-known for their number of active and semi-active volcanoes.”
Weberly scowled. “Seems like scant evidence to go on.”
Hawthorne kept walking, but allowed himself a grim smile. “Indeed,” he said.
Weberly breathed harshly, finding it difficult to talk and slog through the jungle heat at the same time. “Aren’t many of the Micronesian islands… inhabited? By… by savages?”
“Savages is a relative term, isn’t it?” Hawthorne said. “More than one Chinese in Shanghai told me that all white men were savages. Devils.”
Weberly snorted. “Filthy Chi-nee. When one considers… considers all we’ve done for them. Modernizing their… backward culture.”
Hawthorne decided not to respond to that. He kept moving, pushing through the jungle, ripping away vines and low-hanging branches that seemed bent on halting their progress. A machete would have been useful. But then, the temptation to use it on Weberly would be nigh overwhelming.
Weberly said, “So… you’re a Southern man, aren’t you? Kentucky?”
“Ah. What were you doing in Shanghai then, Mr. Hawthorne?”
“I’ve already told you. I was there on business.”
“Yes, but what sort of business? You seem… you seem downright reluctant to speak of it, if I may say.”
“Very perceptive of you, Mr. Weberly. A gentleman would cease to ask.”
“I’m hardly a gentleman.”
“This has been established.”
Silence for a moment. And then Weberly said, “I couldn’t help but notice, a few days ago… when you were bathing. The scars on your back. Where did they come--”
Hawthorne turned around to glare at Weberly. “This,” he said, “is the last time I shall say this. My business is my own, Mr. Weberly. If you persist in pestering me, I shall give way to my base desire to pummel you senseless. Do we understand one another, sir?”
Weberly looked surprised by the threat. Hawthorne saw his instinct for bravado and bluster flash briefly on his face before evaporating meekly. He nodded.
“Very well,” Hawthorne said. He turned around and resumed the tortuous trail.
What little sunlight that managed to penetrate the thick green foliage eventually faded from jagged silver to pale blue as the evening darkened. Shadows stretched through the thickness of the eerily silent jungle, and Hawthorne realized with a start that, for some time now, he’d not been paying attention to his surroundings. The journey had begun to dull his mind.
He glanced over his shoulder and saw Weberly still behind him, his face a blank mask of mindlessness, his legs practically moving him forward of their own accord. When Hawthorne stopped, Weberly lifted his dead eyes from the jungle floor, as if just waking from a long, fitful sleep.
“Wha… what is it?”
“We’re going to rest now.”
Weberly nodded dumbly, dropped his sack and plopped down next to it.
Hawthorne squatted over his own sack, opened it carefully and pulled out a few pieces of salt pork and a half-empty bottle of brandy. He tossed a piece of pork to Weberly, who caught it absent-mindedly and began without ceremony to chew at it like a dog with a pig’s ear.
They supped in silence and after two or three modest swigs of brandy Hawthorne felt his senses returning. Foolish to go so long without rest or food. He knew better. But something about this island… the unnatural silence, the lack of any life save the twisted trees and creeping vines, had taken a strange toll on his mental facilities. Weberly counted on him to lead, to make sure they survived, and Hawthorne felt oddly guilty. As if he’d let the poor wretch down.
After draining the bottle of brandy, Weberly sighed and looked at him. His eyes were still dull and his features had gone slack with weariness. He said, “Mr. Hawthorne. We… we are going to die on this island, aren’t we?”
Hawthorne considered the question. After a moment, he said, “That is entirely possible, Mr. Weberly.”
Weberly nodded. “Hell of a thing, that.”
“Perhaps… perhaps I’ll just stay right here, then. Perhaps I’ll just stay.”
“We shall rest for awhile. Sleep. We’re both exhausted, that’s all, Mr. Weberly. When morning comes, we’ll set off again.”
Weberly’s face contorted and fat tears began rolling down his cheeks. “Another night in evil darkness. With… with silence all around. If only we could light a fire.” He shook his head. “I can’t do it, Mr. Hawthorne, I tell you I can’t.”
“You can, Mr. Weberly, and you will. You must. Here.” Hawthorne pulled the last bottle of brandy out of my bag and handed it to Weberly. “Have another drink, and try to get some sleep.”
Weberly said, “This brandy, you know, will not help us in the end. We need water.”
Weberly tipped a healthy amount down his throat, and nearly choked as sobs suddenly wracked through his body. He set the bottle down and wailed pitifully, hiding his face in his hands.
Hawthorne looked away.
And saw something move.
About ten yards away, a stealthy black shadow flickered across the thick fronds. At the same moment, he smelled something, the musky smell of a jungle beast. His hand immediately went to the knife in his belt and his heart froze in his chest.
Weberly sobbed. “I miss my Lila. My sweet wife. I’ll never see her again…”
Hawthorne hissed, “Shut up, man!” and Weberly looked up, surprised by the vehemence in his voice.
The shadow had ceased to move, but Hawthorne saw a glimpse through the foliage of what were unmistakably the thing’s flanks, breathing in and out like a blacksmith’s bellows. In the fading light, dark hair bristled along hard muscle and sinew.
Weberly followed his gaze but saw nothing. He said, “What? What’s the matter?”
Hawthorne stood up very slowly and pulled the knife free, his gaze staying fixed on the living shadow. He whispered, “We’re not alone, Mr. Weberly.”
“Do stay right where you are, and be absolutely silent.”
Weberly clearly didn’t understand what was happening, but to his credit he shut up and watched fearfully as Hawthorne moved away.
He stepped toward the shadow, his ragged boots making not a sound. With one hand, he pushed aside a long tree limb and took another step toward the half-obscured shadow. The hilt of the knife felt slippery and insubstantial in his sweating hand.
As he got closer, the bestial smell grew stronger, a thick monstrous smell that made him think of the horrid monkeys he’d seen in the Amazon. But no monkey had ever been this big—the shadow, the rigidly haired torso, seemed nearly as long as a good-sized man.
He made his way ever closer, and the shadow made no move toward or away from him. It stayed rooted to one spot, its flanks breathing in and out almost contentedly, and as Hawthorne took another careful step he could hear the low cat-like grumble of the thing’s breath.
And he heard something else. He heard the distinct sound of an animal feeding—tearing flesh, morsels dropping moistly to the ground, the wet chewing of a carnivore with a succulent meal laid out before it.
He swallowed hard, pushing back his revulsion and fear, and emerged into the small clearing where the animal fed.
Hawthorne expected to find a great cat of some sort, feeding on an unfortunate prey. But the sight that met him caused his blood to run like ice and his entire body to freeze with pure animal dread.
A sort of ape, with bristling black fur, was hunched over the body of a human being, feeding gorily on the stomach and groin. The monster’s back was to him, and its long clawed fingers were digging out chunks of flesh by hand and popping them into its mouth, like a child eating popped corn.
Squatting down before its horrible meal, the creature was as tall as Hawthorne’s belt buckle. Standing erect—assuming it could—it would be nearly the height of a man.
Hawthorne must have made some sort of small involuntary noise, because the creature whirled around with alarming speed and faced him, snarling.
Hawthorne had heard of explorers in Africa bringing back living proof of giant creatures—mountain gorillas—that for years had been dismissed as folk tales. He’d seen photographs of them, and they hadn’t been half as monstrous as the creature that now snarled and roared before him.
Matted black fur, shoulders at least twice as wide as a man, arms as thick as a man’s torso. But what made it more horrible than the legendary mountain gorilla was its face…
A skull. A screaming, bloody skull, with no flesh, only bleached white bone, long flesh-specked fangs, red eyes like blood-swelled grapes.
Roaring, it loped at Hawthorne with unnatural speed, and the Mississippian found himself rooted to the spot by uncomprehending horror.
In half a second it was upon him.
He came to his senses just as the bloody fangs snapped at his neck and the monster’s fetid breath assailed him. He lunged to one side, roared in agony as the fangs sank into his forearm. He twisted away, slicing at empty air with the knife.
One huge fist slammed against his temple, knocking him to the ground, and the monster leapt upon him and pummeled his face and chest, roaring and screeching madly.
The monster’s strength was unimaginable, and Hawthorne felt a rib bone shift, felt his fingers breaking when he tried to fend off blows. He jabbed at the thing’s neck and chest with the knife, but it seemed about as effective as poking a toothpick into a custard.
The knife glanced off the screeching skull face above him uselessly, and the fangs snapped like a bear trap against his wrist. He cried out, dropped the knife on his chest.
Without thinking, Hawthorne took it up in the broken fingers of his other hand and jabbed fiercely at the only vulnerable spot he could see—the creature’s eye.
The ape-thing howled in agony and fell back, the knife embedded. It screamed and thrashed, trying vainly to remove the knife. Hawthorne pulled himself away from the raging monster, every bone and muscle in his body aching, his ability to think clearly still veiled by terror.
He made it to the trunk of a tree, not far from the remains of the monster’s first victim, and turned in time to see the ape-thing’s struggles growing weaker. The screams of anger and anguish were dying down, and the mad thrashing more sluggish.
Finally, the monster whined with almost human despair and slunk off into the darkness of the jungle.
Hawthorne watched the spot it had disappeared into for some minutes, still hardly believing what he’d seen. The only sound now was the soft dripping of blood, his blood, as the matted jungle floor soaked it up.
Dizzy and weak, he looked at the remains of the creature’s meal. Hardly recognizable as a man anymore. Just a blood-soaked mass of miscellaneous flesh and bone.
Jesus God, he thought. And then--- Weberly.
He pulled himself up by the branches of a tree, and his ribs screamed at him. He nearly fell, the breath sucked out of him by pain, but managed to make his way back to where he’d left Weberly.
Weberly was gone. The bottle of brandy spilled all over the ground, the sacks with their supplies scattered, and blood soaking into the dirt.
Hawthorne saw the statue, the vile little obsidian figure with its serpentine body and skull-face and monstrous fangs, lying on its side in a pool of blood.
He took a step toward it, fell on his face, and the jungle spun away and into darkness.
Some time later, the darkness became shot through with bright flashes of green light. The light flickered softly, playing around the edges of his awareness almost soothingly. But after awhile the green became brighter still, until he grimaced irritably and wished it would stop.
And then the darkness was gone and the bright green light filled every void. He mumbled, “Stop it,” and raised a hand to fend it off.
Thin dry fingers encircled his wrist and his eyes shot open in alarm.
The green light haloed everything, so that the image before him seemed hazy and indistinct. A man, rail-thin and leathery, hovered over him. The man said something Hawthorne didn’t understand and gently let go of his wrist.
Hawthorne found he didn’t have the strength to speak. The light was so bright, and his head throbbed incessantly. The strange man said something in a weird guttural language full of consonants and Hawthorne fought it, but his eyes began to close again and the green light faded out.
When consciousness returned again it did so with considerably less pain and disorientation. He became aware of a thick, pleasant smell, like peeled oranges and heady spice, felt someone lifting his head and the touch of a wooden cup on his parched lips.
A warm liquid, fruity and strong, poured down his throat, and his chest and stomach felt wonderfully hot. His head was let down again onto a thin blanket of leaves. He opened his eyes slowly.
The emaciated old man was still there, grinning down at him with teeth rotted from malnutrition. He uttered a few strange syllables, nodding, and his unruly black hair fell down over his face. Another person, female, swam into view, and Hawthore saw that she too was bone-thin, skin like hided brown leather. They were both completely naked.
Hawthorne said, “Hello,” in a creaking voice, and the two bone-and-leather people laughed with short, harsh barks. They were clearly pleased with themselves.
He ran a hand along his torso, felt a brace of wood, held in place by vine. Two fingers of his left hand were also braced. He found, with some slight embarrassment, that he was as absent of clothing as they were.
Gingerly, he pushed himself up to a sitting position and found that it caused very little pain. The man said something that sounded like un-ga-tay-woon. He motioned for Hawthorne to lay back down, but Hawthore said, “No, no. Thank you. I believe I’m all right. Thank you.”
While the two strange people who’d nursed him to health made barking sounds at each other, he touched his face. His beard had grown about an inch, and he thought, My God, how long have I been here?
He lay on a bed of leaves on the ground, in an open-walled hut, simply a roof of thick frond-leaves about six feet high held up with tree branches. Other people, as thin and brown and naked as his rescuers, began gathering excitedly from the scattering of other huts. He counted perhaps twenty in all, mostly women, with only a handful of men and children.
They all converged on him, speaking loudly and cheerfully, and long thin fingers brushed over his face and body, touching what to them must have seemed bizarrely pale skin. They pinched and prodded, assailing him with the strange language he didn’t understand, tugging at his hair and beard, actually prying his mouth open to look at his teeth, and he felt the dizziness returning. They seemed particularly interested in the latticework of scars that crisscrossed his back. He said, “Please… stop… thank you for saving me, but stop… Goddamn it, stop!”
He slapped the hands away, fell back on the makeshift bed, and the people fell silent and moved back a few steps. The old man who’d tended him snapped angry commands at his fellow villagers, ordering them away and they reluctantly dispersed.
Again, Hawthorne slept.
Over the next few days, the strange man and woman tended to him, feeding him the frothy orange-like concoction four times a day, wiping sweat from his brow, and keeping the other villagers at a distance. Hawthorne tried several times to break the language barrier, unsuccessfully. He know many languages, having traveled the world extensively, but the tongue the villagers spoke had absolutely no precedent as far as he could fathom. It seemed like random sounds, sharp and heavy, and try as he might he couldn’t decipher it.
The first day, after coming to again, he tried to ask the old man about Weberly, if anyone had seen him. But if the man understood he gave no indication. He merely pointed at Hawthorne and mimicked a drinking gesture.
Hawthorne realized shortly that the ape-thing had given him a concussion as well as dislocating a rib and breaking his fingers, but once underway his recovery developed quickly. After four days, he donned breeches, boots, and what was left of his shirt, and was able to get up and walk around a bit with very little pain and next to no dizziness.
But hunger was beginning to get to him. The villagers seemed to consume nothing except the warm fruity soup they’d used to bring him back to health. It was no wonder they were all so thin and weak.
He tried to broach the subject with the woman, rubbing his stomach and pointing at his mouth, but she only nodded and brought more of the thick heady soup. He shook his head, tried again, but she only looked at him with puzzlement and shoved a cup at him.
A couple of days later, Hawthorne thought about the grotesque little idol he’d found in the jungle and approached the old man about it. The old man simply shook his mangy head emphatically and walked away.
The language barrier, Hawthorne thought bitterly, was becoming a serious problem.
He lived amongst them during that time like a strange well-regarded pet or an idiot relation. After the novelty of his existence ceased to be entertaining, the villagers still treated him well, but most of the time they simply continued their meager lives and paid him little mind.
At night, they all gathered in one place, around a fire that flickered pale in the jungle blackness. They spoke to each other softly, each in turn. Even the children got a chance to speak. He could not guess what they spoke of, since the words were monosyllabic and they were not given to physical gestures or body language. But each session would end with the man who’d nursed Hawthorne to health—the village elder, he reckoned—facing the dark jungle, raising his arms above his head, and uttering in a strong, decisive voice a phrase that sounded like at-boog-shum-stay.
A ward, Hawthorne wondered, against the evil that lurked in the darkness? The horrible skull-headed ape? Did they consider the monster some sort of god?
And it occurred to him eventually that they never ventured far from the confines of the village. The children that went for water were never gone longer than a few minutes, and the men that went in search of the big round fruit that made up the whole of their diet invariably arrived back within an hour of leaving.
No warriors or hunters, like other jungle cultures he’d encountered. No religious ceremonies, aside from the village elder’s nightly proclamation to the jungle. They were a microcosm, these people, existing solely within shouting distance of each other, with no interaction of any sort with a world outside the village.
They were doomed, Hawthorne thought. Emaciated, de-populated, with very limited resources. He knew, sadly, that he was among the last generation of these people. Whatever they were before, whatever kingdoms they ruled, whatever glories lay in the dusty past, it was all over. And he could do nothing for them.
And Hawthorne’s thoughts turned, for the first time in days, to the man he pursued. The realization shook him: for the first time in two years several days had passed without the black thoughts of vengeance weighing heavily on his mind.
He would have to leave. He would have to find a way off this island and back to civilization.
Late the following afternoon, the sky darkened early with the threat of rain and Hawthorne sat brooding in his open-walled hut, watching the villagers go to and fro in preparation for their nightly ritual. The children approached and stood there staring at his white skin and bristly black beard until he irritably shooed them away.
They scattered, and he turned my eyes to the wall of silent jungle. Inky shadows crept there, a stealthy blackness slowly closing in on the village. The rain began, pattering lightly at first, then gradually gaining strength until the thick trees drooped under the weight of it and water sliced sideways into his meager enclosure.
He stared at the jungle and allowed the dark mood to overtake him for a little while. The rain grew colder and swept higher into his hut until the lower part of his body was soaked, but he still only stared at the lengthening shadows of the jungle, the silver needles of water spiking on the thick leaves, rolling off to the lush jungle floor.
The old man and his mate—Hawthorne had decided some days before they were a sort of couple—trotted by the hut, holding large fronds over their heads to keep off the rain. They stopped and looked at him, and the old man barked a few words. Hawthorne pulled his gaze away from the jungle and met the old man’s eyes.
“Suu-man-tee,” the old man said, pointing at the sky. ‘Suu-man-tee!”
Hawthorne nodded. “Suu-man-tee,” he said.
The old woman laughed, apparently delighted at the attempt to speak a proper language. She pointed at the sky, like her husband, then at the frond and then at Hawthorne. “Suu-man-tee!”
The old man groaned, as one would when trying to deal with a complete imbecile. He jabbed the old woman in the ribs, barked a command at her, pointing at his frond and then at Hawthorne. She nodded and ran off to the hut the two of them shared at the far end of the village.
Hawthorne said, “Oh. No, no thank you, sir. I shall stay right here under the hut, I don’t require an umbrella.”
“Suu-man-tee,” the old man said again, pointing at the sky.
Hawthorne started to protest, but thought better of it. He smiled resignedly, said, “Very well, then. Thank you.”
The old man smiled back, said, “Than-kwew,” and nodded happily.
And then a horrified scream at the other end of the village cut through the rush of rain.
The old man’s face went frozen, and Hawthorne leapt to his feet. Another scream, this one sharper, and before he knew he was running toward it, the old man trailing behind.
Chaos had erupted at the edge of the village, where rain had turned the dirt to thick mud. Women and men alike ran past , carrying children in their arms, faces contorted with terror, and now everyone was screaming. Hawthorne grabbed the arm of the closest fleeing villager and said, “What’s happened? What’s going on?”
The woman jerked free and ran, and Hawthorne had to dodge out of the way of a veritable stampede of humans. He pushed past them, ran for the edge of the jungle, for the spot that they all seemed to be running away from.
Another high-pitched scream, not of panic like the others but of desperate pain. Hawthorne went another few steps and saw violent, jerky movement in the rainy darkness surrounding the village.
For a moment, it looked like a young child, floating unaided in the air, kept aloft by currents of rain. But then he saw the black figure, shrouded by jungle foliage, and part of the blackness encircled the child’s head and whipped him cruelly back and forth. The old woman was there too, and she beat at the thing with her fists, screeching. From Hawthorne’s angle, it looked as if her rage was directed at the jungle itself.
A sickening crack echoed, and the child’s body flopped lifeless in the grip of the black thing. The old woman wailed and pounded her fists uselessly. Running toward them, Hawthorne shouted, “Stop!” but the old woman paid no mind.
The child reared into the air and flew, disjointed limbs like a ratty scarecrow, and splashed into the mud mere feet in front of Hawthorne. He skidded to a stop, checked the body, knowing already that the child was dead, neck snapped. Behind him, the old man screamed, “Ah-vee! Ah-veeeee!”
The thing came partially out of the shadows, just enough for Hawthorne to see its face gleaming white in the dull gray light. A skull, like the ape-thing, with impossibly huge fangs and eyes that burned purple-crimson. It looked directly at him, and Hawthorne felt his blood chill.
It laughed a strangely human laugh, and as Hawthorne started toward it, one black hand shot out and took the old woman by the neck. Again, the old man cried, “Ah-vee!” and then the woman and the creature were gone, melted back into the rain-soaked shadows.
“No!” Hawthorne reached the edge of the clearing just as they disappeared. “No, goddamn you!”
Behind him, the old man wailed in misery, dropping to his knees. “Ah-vee! Ah-vee!”
He moaned and cried, and Hawthorne screamed furiously, uselessly, at the jungle. He screamed until his voice was hoarse, overwhelmed by impotent rage.
The other villagers returned slowly, their faces blank with fear. One young woman put her hands on the old man’s shoulders as he sobbed, spoke to him soothingly.
And as suddenly as it had begun, the whole ordeal was over. Hawthorne turned away from the jungle and looked at the villagers as they gathered around their patriarch, all of them soaked by rain. The dead child’s mother cradled his broken body and cried miserably, louder and with more grief than even the old man.
Hawthorne saw shame in the faces of the men, but he felt no disgust for them. What could they do? What could anyone do? Even he, despite his fury, was not bold enough to go off into the jungle unprepared.
He approached the old man and very gently helped him to his feet. The old man’s sobs had diminished somewhat, and he looked more frail and helpless than ever.
Hawthorne put his hands on the bony shoulders, looked him in the eye, and said, “I will bring her back. I will save her, and I will kill that goddamned thing that took her.”
The old man, of course, didn’t understand. Softly, he said, “Ah-vee,” and Hawthorne realized with a start that was her name, Ah-vee, that was the name of this brave man’s wife. He didn’t know any of their names. He hadn’t even wondered about it. They saved his life, and he didn’t even know them.
The old man touched his narrow chest, and a sort of fire came into his eyes. He looked up at Hawthorne and said, fiercely, “Na-kwa-tay.” And then again, pounding his chest, “Na-kwa-tay.”
“Yes,” Hawthorne said, and put his fist against his own chest. He understood, with a completeness he would not have thought possible only an hour earlier, what the old man had said.
The next morning, with the sun hobbling up out of the east, Grey Hawthorne left the confines of the village. He took with him only two gourds filled with water, tied to his belt with vines, and the knife that had saved him.
Within minutes, the jungle became the whole world and the village might only have been some vague, fevered dream.
From a very early age, Hawthorne had honed his tracking and hunting skills, mostly from George Hawk, the old Indian who looked after the grounds of the Hawthorne family in Mississippi estate. George Hawk was dead now, like everyone else Hawthorne cared for, but the skills he’d taught proved over the years to be exceedingly valuable. The monster’s trail was particularly easy to track—broken tree limbs, crushed plants, and traces of blood, probably the old woman’s—and Hawthorne followed it north.
Deep in his heart, he found that leaving the strange village behind troubled him. Doubly odd, considering that in the short time he’d spent there he learned next to nothing about them.
By the time the sun hung silver midway in the sky, the ground had begun to slope gently upwards. He drank some water without slowing his pace, set his eyes on the way before him. He had no way to know what lay ahead, but pushed that knowledge out of his head and concentrated on following the thing’s trail.
The oppressive silence of earlier still reigned, even worse now that the shuffling and moaning of Weberly behind him was gone. Trudging single-mindedly through thick fronds and wet vines, in that total vacuum of sound, he had never felt more alone.
When the descending darkness grew too thick to see, he finally stopped and drank some water and slept right there on the jungle floor. His slumber was deep and untroubled, the slumber of total exhaustion. He awoke at the first inklings of light creeping through the trees, drank more water, and set off again, ignoring the rumbling of his stomach.
The hours staggered by and the sun rose higher and hotter above the jungle and the ground sloped steadily upward, upward, until he realized with a start that I was practically scaling a mountain.
The realization gave him impetus; he quickened his pace, breath coming harshly now, lungs aching, leg muscles screaming to stop. The jungle began clearing on either side, the soft supple ground giving way to black rock and loose dirt.
The incline sharpened, and he was forced to climb with his hands, pulling himself up by rocky crags and tenuous holds. Two fingers on his left hand were practically useless, still being braced, but he made the best of it. He kept his eyes front, never more than a few feet above, concentrating intently on what had suddenly become a serious climb.
After an hour of that, his will gave out. He stopped there on the side of the massive rise, practically vertical on its side, pressed his face to the cool black rock and rested. His arms and legs trembled with exertion.
He allowed himself to consider the fact that he would not likely survive to leave this place. Strangely, the thought brought him some dark comfort. He closed his eyes and allowed the fantasy to play out in his mind.
Until the face of the man he hated came to him and he opened his eyes and let the hate sluice into his heart. His thirst for revenge refused him the comfort of dying.
He looked up and saw the top of the mountainous hill above him, not more than twenty feet.
With a bitter laugh that echoed across the black face of the cliff, he resumed my climb, and five minutes later was at the top.
He rested there for some time, lying on his back and staring up at the dark gray sky, oblivious to his surroundings. Something like sleep came over him, but only briefly. He was vaguely aware of something, an odd sound that he couldn’t identify, but he ignored it. After a bank of black clouds had moved entirely from one edge of his vision to the other, he sat up and took a long swig from one of the gourds. And then he looked around.
The plateau was hard and rocky and obsidian stone glimmered like shiny black stars in the night sky. The jungle here was different somehow, and it took a moment to fathom why.
The trees were thicker. Twisted and malformed, with pale fronds that shimmered in the light like fat wet toads. A breeze, soft as the folds of a shroud, rustled through the fronds and through his sweat-soaked hair, drying the sweat of his body until he felt almost chilled. The air smelled stale and burnt.
He pushed himself to his feet, and the sound he’d half-noticed earlier became clearer. Any sound at all, after the maddening silence of the jungle below, should have alarmed him, he know, but sheer exhaustion had made all sensory input meaningless then. But now he listened, and his hand strayed to the knife in his belt.
A low, dull whining, coming from somewhere in the jungle. Not human or animal, but something mechanical perhaps, vibrating with a deep monotonous tone. He felt it more than heard it, shivering through his bones, like standing on a train platform when the train arrives. It was a sound incongruous to this place of horrible, merciless nature.
The old woman’s body, mauled and mutilated, lay sprawled in the black dirt at the edge of the jungle.
“Ah-vee,” he said, softly. And then, with more venom, “Na-kwa-tay.”
He did not hesitate before stepping into the jungle.
As Hawthorne moved silently amidst the damp, twisted trees, the dull whining grew steadier, and he wracked he brain to think of something, anything, that sounded even remotely like it. The last notes of a factory whistle, maybe, stretched out unendingly and amplified a thousand-fold. Or the cry of a blue whale, captured on phonograph and reproduced artificially.
But neither of those was quite right. It was a sound that had no precedent in his experience, growing louder and steadier and more insistent the closer he came to its source.
The misshapen trees gave way very suddenly and he found himself in a large clearing of burnt earth. He stopped mid-stride and gazed with widened eyes upon the source of the whining sound.
He couldn’t take it all in at once, it was so immense. He could only process bits at a time, like one of the blind men of story, examining an elephant.
It was a craft of some sort, as big as a warship, of burnished silver dulled by years of exposure to the elements. Round and smooth, no hard edges or angles. A great section was jaggedly torn away and he could see inside, see gears and bizarre mechanisms unlike anything he’d ever seen before.
A vehicle, but he couldn’t begin to fathom what sort. The ground was blackened in its wake, and the horrible whining came somewhere from deep within its bowels.
A voice, coming from the shadows under the wreckage, said, “I’ve been waiting for days, Mr. Hawthorne.”
Hawthorne started, his hand tightening on the knife, and saw a figure crouching under the craft, not more than twenty feet away. It faced away from him, but he recognized the voice, the tattered clothing and considerable bulk.
“It’s spectacular, isn’t it?” Weberly said. “Unfortunate, however, that it has no purpose any longer, aside from pure aesthetics.”
“Mr… Mr. Weberly.”
The figure snickered. “Oh, so you remember me, do you? Stupid, fat Weberly. I’d have thought you’d forgotten me days ago.”
Hawthorne said, “I thought you were dead.”
“A reasonable assumption. I don’t hold it against you.” And the figure snickered again, in a way that Hawthorne did not find particularly reassuring.
The unearthly whining continued, and Hawthorne said, “What… what in God’s name is this thing?”
Weberly made a soft grunting noise and stood up. He turned around to face Hawthorne, his features still hidden in dappled shadows. He held his right hand close to his thigh, as if hiding something in his hand. “This,” he said, “is the engine of my destruction. It is the conveyance used by my people, and the faulty source of my present sorrow.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“We came here, long years ago, Mr. Hawthorne. We came with our own purposes—those purposes being irrelevant now—only to find ourselves the victims of malfunctioning technology. We crashed here. There were eight of us, then.”
“Mr. Weberly. You’re talking nonsense. You were stranded on this island with me, when the Constellation sank, and—“
“Eight of us. Enough to constitute what you might call a scouting party. You don’t believe me? No matter. As I say, it is irrelevant. We crashed here, and were forced to extreme measures to survive.”
Weberly paused, and even though he couldn’t see his face, Hawthorne could tell he was looking up, at the wrecked vessel above him. “Our race survives by assimilation. We… attach ourselves to a host, if you will. But the hosts we found on this island are, sadly, not of the sturdiest caliber. Over the years, we took whom we could of the islanders, until there was only a smattering left. Some of them fought. Some of them even succeeded in killing three of our number. But the island provided us with life-forms, however primitive, enough to see us through.”
Cold dread played through Hawthorne’s gut. He said, “Jesus. What are you? What have you done to Weberly?”
“It is my understanding, Mr. Hawthorne, from assimilating Mr. Weberly’s psyche, that you are a gentleman of sorts. And gentlemen do not interrupt, do they?”
Hawthorne’s hand had been on the hilt of the knife since stepping into the clearing. Now he drew it. He said, “You killed him. You killed Weberly, and the old woman and the boy and… God knows how many others.”
“Would you not do the same, Mr. Hawthorne, if your life depended upon it? We were meant to be conquerors, you know. And now, well… now, we are only bones, decaying in the heat and slime of this forsaken island.”
The figure took a step toward him, out of the shadows, and Hawthorne saw his face revealed in the stark glare of sunlight.
Like the ape creature, it was a chalk-white mask of bone, with soulless purple-red eyes and fangs that protruded obscenely. It was as if Weberly’s head had been torn from his body and replaced with this ghoulish grinning skull, speaking in Weberly’s voice, words Weberly could never have spoken.
“Up until your arrival,” the thing said, “there were two of us left. Just two. And then you… you killed my companion. She bled to death from the wound you inflicted, and there was nothing I could do to save her.”
It waited, as if expecting a response. Hawthorne said nothing, his horror tempered now by anger. The creature took another step toward him, his right arm coming away from his side to reveal a sharp spear, about three feet long.
Hawthorne held my ground and said, “You’ll receive no pity from me, you murderous parasite. I’ve come to kill you.”
The thing ignored him. It said, “Reduced, we were, to assimilating the bodies of dumb brutes. But it was life, still, for all that is worth. But even the dumb brutes, you may have noticed, have become alarmingly scarce.”
“The old woman you killed. Why? Why not… assimilate her?”
“This body, your comrade Weberly, has his faults, but he is certainly better suited to my needs than some frail old woman. So I left her there for you. So you could follow me.”
“Is it not obvious, Mr. Hawthorne? Weberly’s form is better than the old woman’s, and your form is better still. You are young and healthy. And truth be told… I look forward with tremendous anticipation to ingesting Weberly. With your stomach.”
With an angry hiss, the thing attacked.
Hawthorne dodged out of the way as the spear jabbed at his head. He had a moment to marvel at how quickly it moved—or rather how quickly it forced Weberly’s bulky body to move—before a meaty fist connected with his still-healing rib and he cried out in pain and stumbled back.
The thing pressed the attack, whirling the spear over its head and bringing it down at Hawthorne’s shoulder. Hawthorne twisted out of the way and the wood glanced off his forearm. He jabbed with the knife, missed, managed to avoid another thrust of the spear at the same moment.
The thing backed up, trying to create room enough to thrust again with the spear, and Hawthorne crowded him, knowing that the only way to survive was to stay close, too close for the spear to be useful. The thing said, “You are tired and weak, Mr. Hawthorne. You will die on this island. But I can extend your life. I can make your existence useful. Do not fight me.”
It leaped back one step and the sharp point of wood shot at Hawthorne’s eyes. He moved his head to one side and the wood sang by. With his knife hand, Hawthorne pushed the spear away and, before the thing could regain its footing closed in and slashed backhanded at its midsection.
It howled in agony in a voice eerily like the ape-creature, and Weberly’s blood arced out across the clearing. The thing stumbled back, and Hawthorne pressed it, smashing his left elbow into the ugly fangs. One of them shattered away from the skull face and black blood flowered down the thing’s jaw.
Hawthorne tackled the Weberly-thing around its shoulders and brought it to the ground. The spear fell away and, screeching horribly, it wrapped Weberly’s thick fingers around his neck and squeezed with desperate strength.
Hawthorne gripped the thing’s throat with his left hand and brought the point of the knife down again and again into its chest. The thing’s mouth was open in a silent scream and it fought furiously, squeezing his neck. Black spots danced in the corners of Hawthorne’s vision, but he didn’t stop. He was vaguely aware of a sound, a sound like some sort of barbaric primal screaming, and realized it was coming from his own throat.
With a last, furious burst of strength, the creature let go of Hawthorne’s neck and slammed a fist into his nose. Hawthorne fell back, stunned. Weberly’s hefty body convulsed, as if suffering an epileptic fit, and the creature gurgled strangely.
With a wet, ripping sound, the skull head began coming away from the body.
Hawthorne scrambled back, clutching the knife, and watched in horrible fascination as the head tore loose from Weberly, writhing and hissing. It pushed itself away from the ruined shoulders, taking with it what looked at first like a long fat section of spine. But as the skull head pushed out farther Hawthorne saw that it was in fact the thing’s true body—serpent-like, glistening black as pitch, emerging from the battered torso of the man like a worm coming out of a hole.
Overcome with revulsion, Hawthorne roared furiously and, from his prone position, launched himself at the thing. It had broken free from its host entirely, like some unholy newborn, and was beginning to slither away into the shadows of the crashed craft, when Hawthorne grabbed it by the end of its body. The skull head snapped around, growling in frustration, and lunged.
With his free hand, Hawthorne punched the head away, breaking its other fang, and began dragging its surprising bulk back into the clearing. The snaky body writhed and fought, but couldn’t break free.
He made it to his feet, struggling to keep a grip on the thing. He got both hands around it, and, with a tremendous effort, began swinging it around in a wide arc. The thing snarled and hissed with an unholy fury. Hawthorne laughed bitterly and swung, each revolution gaining momentum, and they spun around together with dizzying speed.
At the end of the last revolution, Hawthorne snapped the skull head hard against the hull of the ship, and bone splintered and cracked, black blood cascaded down the burnished silver, and the glistening black body went limp.
He dropped it, stumbled a few steps, and fell on his back, head spinning.
The dull whining from the crashed vessel whined on, some strange engine deep within its heart that would never stop. The rest of the twisted and burnt jungle was silent, as silent as the tomb that it had become. Hawthorne sat in the black dirt and looked at the lifeless bodies before him.
After a long time, he forced himself to stand up.
Conquerors, he thought bitterly. We were all meant to be conquerors. We were all meant to be kings.
He drained the last of the water down his throat, tossed the empty gourd into the shadows of the crashed vessel, and made his way through the pale wet jungle.