Removing his slouch hat, sweat streamed from Kold’s shaven head, and dripped from his goatee. Massive and strong as a bear, he signaled the men for a brief halt at a crossroads. They had entered Bhustan swift and hidden like venomous spiders, but Kold still watched their back trail. If discovered, they could expect a prolonged skin-peeling death.
Verdant greenery draped everything but the sky overhead. The call of paradisiacal birds and swarming insects stung the air. A scent of damp rot wormed into Kold’s nostrils and he cursed, noticing rust attacking his blades again. He was a city man and these were hazards only dreamt of in the north.
Alien and hostile as this realm was, Duke Larkspur’s promise of reward was too great to deny. The Duke cloaked the mission in patriotism, but power and gold was the true calling. All twelve of Kold’s slayers accepted the assignment with grim determination, they knew the score. A thirteenth soul, bound and gagged, was forced along.
The prisoner, a bald dusky-skinned priest, motioned for water.
Kold signaled a halt then yanked the gag demanding, “Which way to the temple?” before offering the cured bladder.
Gulping, the old priest pointed and said, “This path is death. You seek blasphemy.”
“I’ll risk your blasphemy,” said Kold.
“You think slaying the god will stop my people?
Kold wiped his sweaty brow and snorted, “I do.”
The dusky priest looked skyward crying, “He speaks. His will cannot be silenced. Always he speaks.”
Replacing the gag, Kold then made the gesture to renew the march.
Newly fallen trees made for a tight passage down the trail. Kold noticed he no longer heard the cry of birds. He halted the men. Several nocked arrows as others drew swords. Silence mocked their preparations.
Kold narrowed his gaze at the impenetrable forest. The loud buzz of an invisible fly passed by him.
A slayer facing Kold, paled as his face went slack, letting drool run. Twisting, he fell, revealing tiny darts piercing his exposed neck. Then another man dropped and another.
Ducking amongst fallen logs, Kold drew his sword and tomahawk.
The dreaded hiss and thwack of a dart stuck and vibrated beside Kold’s face. “We gotta move,” he shouted to his men. “Throw down!”
For a mad moment, the slayers loosed everything within reach at their unseen foes, before dashing down the trail. Thrown chaotically, arrows and stones bought precious seconds, the darts paused and seven men survived the ambush.
A high pitched chorus rolled out wrathful and untamed.
Looking back Kold saw them, cannibalistic pygmies, armed with blowguns and copper knives. The tiny men swarmed through the underbrush, their painted faces a mask of hate. Almost naked, they would be vulnerable to the larger men’s swords.
The slayers fled several hundred yards before Kold realized he no longer had the priest. It didn’t matter now, believing he was on the trail to the ruined temple of the Monkey God, he urged his men on.
The pygmies knew the jungle better than Kold and his slayers, twice he was cut off and reversed course through the reaching vines and fronds. The whoosh and buzz of the darts stuck in trees beside him and the fear of poison was almost as bad as the prospect of being eaten.
Finding the trail again, Kold hoped he and his men could outrun their diminutive foes, but as they raced down the snaking path, the high-pitched cries endured. He lost three more men to the darts. Rounding a wide bend, his men halted.
A rickety rope bridge spanned a deep canyon. Across lay a complex of temples encroaching upon the jungle. Below a murky green river replete with crocodiles cut through the red-brown clay.
Looking down one of the slayers, poked at the decayed wooden planks. “Here?”
“There’s what we came for,” said Kold.
A slayer grimaced, “So what? We won’t make it out alive.”
“Get across that bridge or I’ll break your neck.”
The savage cry of the pygmies drew nearer. They would be upon him and his men in mere moments. The threat of darts in their backs was too real. He had a dangerous plan.
The slayers gingerly trotted across the bridge as Kold slashed at the support lines until they hung on only by threads.
“Hold on you sons o’ whores,” he cried, as he made the final cut.
A throng of pygmies came around the bend screaming as Kold’s knife freed the bridge and he was swept down and away.
The other slayers braced as the bridge slammed against the canyons merciless face. One lost his grip and fell to the river below. His cries grew louder, then were silenced as the reptiles below took him under for a death roll.
Undaunted at losing his sword, Kold climbed the bridge snapping every other plank on the climb. The last two slayers above him were almost to the top when they too cried out.
The pygmies on the far side cheered, but Kold could not tell why.
The rope bridge shook and throttled. A head sized stone whipped past Kold as another glanced his shoulder. “Careful up there!”
The foremost slayer fell, bloodied, almost hitting Kold on the way down.
Scanning upward, Kold saw a score of monkeys casting stones at the last slayer and soon enough at himself. The last slayer was brained and fell directly at Kold.
Swiftly kicking off the cliff, Kold narrowly avoided being hit by his own man and then a barrage of stones. He pushed himself sideways dodging the stones, but the monkeys never let up. There was no chance of climbing up with these missiles coming, they would hit him eventually.
The old priest now standing with the pygmies called to Kold, “I told you this was the path of death! You’ll not survive your blasphemy. Prepare for your deserved end! To become crocodile dung!”
Below the wicked crocodiles smiled, feasting upon his men; above monkeys of a dozen varieties tossed stones gibbering and shrieking.
He made the choice rather than letting fate decide. There was only one way to go, down.
“You will follow me!” he shouted at the priest.
Pushing off with his legs and a grasping a dagger in each hand, Kold dropped into the murk.
Olive colored water forced into his nose and he was blind a moment before glimpsing the swift approaching death. Slim river dragons darted forward. Kold jammed a dagger in the nearest and held fast as it rolled in pain with his knife. The struggle forced the other crocs to hold back. As the beast slowed and a second closed in, Kold repeated his assault.
Something nipped at Kold’s long coat but missed his flesh. He kicked and stabbed furiously, puncturing a primitive brain. Another monster snarled and shook its open jaws at him but held back as the river current let Kold drift away.
Daring to look up through his torn and dripping slouch hat, the ruined bridge was almost out of sight. Kold hoped the priest thought he was dead. The priest would learn of Kold’s indomitable will soon enough.
Some miles downstream, the canyon walls lowered and Kold swam to shore on the temple side. It was risky, but he knew he could follow the river back, exacting his vengeance along the way. Perhaps he would force all of the monkeys into the river and let the remaining crocodiles devour whichever one was the monkey god.
As Kold worked the rust from his blades and pondered his plan of action, a long dugout canoe cruised upriver. It bore a dusky woman bound in thick hemp ropes as a dozen pygmies rowed against the current. A shaman sat in the rear, feathered headdress upon him, flitting in the breeze. The woman, likely a peasant from some unfortunate Bhustani village downriver, remained silent. While her people were his enemy, Kold couldn’t bear the thought of her being a meal for the ravenous pygmies.
Racing ahead of the canoe, Kold found a spot where a stout vine looked like it would take his weight and give the distance he wished.
The canoe drew near, as the dozen tiny men slashed their oars through the river.
Timing it as best he could, Kold swung out as the canoe passed. He landed squarely in the center, capsizing the narrow vessel, sending the occupants into the drink.
The woman with her arms still bound was face down and helpless as the caterwauling pygmies spat, seeking their own weapons to fight the big man. Kold stood only waist deep, but they could not touch bottom.
Slamming his daggers upon the diminutive swimmers, Kold reminded himself that war was about winning, not honor. It didn’t seem fair, but Kold never played fair, he played to win. Out of their element, the pygmies were swiftly dispatched and the river ran red with their blood.
Kold drug the woman from the river and placed her on the slick shoreline. Back into the river, he retrieved the dugout and hauled it to shore. He hid it among the fern fronds and undergrowth as the woman coughed, watching him. Picking her up, he cut her bonds, admiring that through all of this she had never screamed or cried out. She wasn’t drugged or in shock, just accepting of her fate.
Beautiful in her own way, she lacked the sensuous allure of women back home in Tolburn, but Kold couldn’t deny a certain grace and dignity she held. Her dark hair and piercing eyes held a warmth and vitality rarely found in the bordello’s of Tolburn. Her silken gown was modest and she wore no jewelry save a tiny ruby upon her forehead.
She questioned him in an unfamiliar tongue and Kold shook his head grunting that he couldn’t understand her. She changed languages, but he still shook his head. Trying a third time, she asked, “Who are you? What do you want?”
“Name’s Kold. I needed the canoe.”
“I am Vashti. Thank you for not letting me to drown, but you have interrupted my fate,” she said plainly and without emotion.
He cocked his head, declaring, “I don’t let women die if I can help it, specially if it’s my fault.”
She nodded and wrung the river from her silken garments.
“What was your fate?” he asked.
“I am to be given to the gods of divine right, as a sacrifice. If I do not fulfill my destiny, a great doom will befall my people. Before the moon wanes, I must make it to the temple of Mahmackrah.”
Kold rubbed his jaw, “Uh-huh, where is that?”
“Upriver. Only those to be sacrificed are allowed entrance.”
Kold did his best to wipe the spreading rust from his blades. “I think we are going to the same place. Come with me, maybe I can sort this out.” Turning, he gave a grim face and put a scarred finger to his lips, “But you stay quiet if I say so.”
She nodded, following close as he stalked through the tree line beside the river.
That night, they took shelter in a dense copse of trees. Kold didn’t dare light a fire to even dissuade the biting insects, so they held to each other beneath his cloak as rains like the tears of a weeping goddess pelted them. And for a night, they forgot the rest of the world around them.
By mid-afternoon the trail lifted as the river cut a deep canyon into the jungle floor. Kold knew they were nearing the temple complex where the monkeys had stoned him and his men. Alert and suspicious, he crept silently along the trail, prepared for the worst. Vashti was always beside him, hushed as ever. Her dark eyes scanning for sign as capable as his own.
He sensed she did these things only to please him, not because she was concerned or worried about the pygmies. The Bhustani people’s myriad gods and conception of karma annoyed him. In his way of thinking, death was only a question of fractions, a slice of a second or inches, not a universal harmony or casting of the die. People died because he killed them, not because it was ‘their time’. This job was like so many others, except this time a supposed deity would fall under his knife. This time it was for a greater good, a monkey god would die to save thousands of his countrymen’s lives. Never before had the stakes been so high, the chance for failure so real.
The caress of her hand across his cheek shook him awake. They had reached the borders of the temple grounds with a few scant hours of daylight left.
There were no signs of sentient life apparent. From this angle it seemed the jungle had reclaimed more than Kold perceived earlier. Every structure was covered in vines and strangling greenery.
“Which is the temple of Mahmackrah?” he asked.
Vashti looked over the crumbling vine-choked ruin and pointed at the largest structure. “It would be that central peak.”
“Does anyone live here? Will there be any guards?”
She shook her head and spoke with authority. “None besides the children of Mahmackrah. I am to be left at the gates for him. Now you must do the same for me,” she ordered. “I answer your thoughts. What we shared is all there is, nothing more exists.”
Kold suddenly doubted she was just a peasant girl to have such a tone. “Vashti, I didn’t save you from the pygs just to feed you to some damn dirty ape.”
“For yourself then?”
He grinned at the truth of it.
She slapped him across the face with just enough force to make his grin grow. “You cannot fight my fate, nor steal me from my duty. If I fled from this honor, my people would suffer an apocalypse.”
“Seems one of us is gonna be awful disappointed.”
Vashti frowned, “What do you mean to do? Why are you here?”
“Just to see for myself if this god exists.”
She drew back raising her hands defensively, “You are a man of blood, you seek to do him harm.”
Kold shook his head, as he trapped her frantic arms, “I didn’t say that.”
“Your tongue lies but your eyes speak the truth.”
He growled, “And If I could slay this god, would he still be worth your devotion?”
She drew back, “We choose not our fate nor our beliefs, they choose us.”
He cursed at that, while she swept a branch at him. Kold ducked and was still met with a stinging thwack to the face. He underestimated her agility.
Opening his eyes, he saw only the swaying bushes left in Vashti’s wake. He ran after her, following the broken and shaking leaves over any actual sight. The thickness of the jungle blended every shade of green. More vines and fronds slapped Kold in the face, but he could hear Vashti’s labored breath, he was gaining on her.
Snatches of daylight teased ahead and then a clearing opened. Vashti was waiting with a large brown ball.
Kold had just enough time to register her weapon of choice as the coconut struck him in the forehead.
He awoke at dusk, the red fleshed sky bruising into deep purple. She had taken nothing from him and he could readily follow her trail into the lush foliage. This time the trail was brief and opened back upon the temple city.
The distant sound of chattering and raucous squawks filled the night sky. Decayed pyramid peaks loomed against the jungle as Kold stole from shadow to shadow, never outlining himself against the fading horizon. Rounding the corner of a slumping mausoleum, he beheld a bizarre scene.
At the cavernous doorway to the pyramid of Mahmackrah, Vashti was bound outstretched between two pillars as dozens of the children of Mahmackrah, the monkeys, cavorted about her. Vashti’s head wilted as if she was only held aloft by the taut ropes.
A trio of the pygmy shamans stood close by, keeping a steady beat upon tiny kettle drums as the old cursing priest was joined by six more carbuncled old men. All of them were chanting to the monkey god for answers, even while the monkeys pelted them and the girl with stones, fruit or filth. They waited for a sign from the monkey god who dwelt within.
And a voice from inside did sound out, but never in any form Kold could understand, just brief shrill grunts and calls, much like the other monkeys outside, though this was deeper and of rich timbre, heavy and ominous.
The priests and shamans continued despite the monkeys light assault.
Kold laughed, they were not getting an answer yet. He moved in closer until he was almost upon the priests. Across the ravine he could see many torches. The pygmies or possibly even other Bhustanis waited for word from the god. But they would not enter the sacred city. His luck held for the moment. At least, there would be few enough enemies for him to contend with.
Chortling and grunts echoed from inside the temple, and Kold had to wonder at what the creature was and how large it might be. He looked for any other weapons he might be able to use beyond his remaining daggers, but the priests had nothing he could steal but a small hammer left aside, presumably from rebuilding the bridge. Guessing it could be a useful weapon if thrown, he slid the stout handle through his belt.
Using a cautious approach, Kold crept up behind the chanting men.
One priest, the farthest one back, turned to look at the dagger man, his eyes growing wide before the daggers fell. The chanting men and throbbing drums could hardly be heard above the cries of the monkeys, and Vashti still never looked up.
Kold dragged the thin dead man into the gloom where he wouldn’t immediately be seen.
Monkeys chattered and taunted as the priests cried aloud waving their swirling torches. Brief notes of sound came from the temple, but still nothing that sounded like legible words, just deep animalistic dirges.
Kold circled back through the darkness to the rear of the holy edifice, sure enough there was another entrance inviting blackness amid the sonic bombardment of the monkeys cackling.
Daggers drawn, one underhand and the other overhand, Kold entered the midnight temple. He glimpsed furtive shadows dancing all over the ornately carved walls, across the voluptuous bosoms of multi-limbed statutes of the many Bhustani gods. The stench inside was almost unbearable and he was aware that where once had been a polished marble floor was now soft loam from a hundred years of composting dung and debris.
Firelight from the priests torches crept in weaker that the sound of their chants and drums. Kold was sure they could not see him inside, ready to kill their god…if he even existed.
A screeching body flung itself upon him.
Kold slashed the thing to ribbons before realizing it was just a bold monkey, incapable of granting the deep calls that echoed above him from a hundred directions. He pondered the temples acoustics and charged at a strong low note.
It issued from a rectangular vent. Squinting in the darkness, Kold saw it was a hollow tube flowing from a second level tier in the temple. But he could not see stairs leading up yet. But things were not as they seemed.
Kold’s eye caught movement at the gaping temple doorway.
A figure borne of unholy night stalked from out of the shadows. For a moment it looked as if the writhing jungle had come alive, so shaggy and amorphous was the great ape. Oversized fangs jutted from its mouth and its pallid eyes glared a primeval hate.
Of course this was the monkey god, a beast standing tall as a man on horseback and weighing perhaps as much as rider and beast. Never had Kold seen such a formidable animal save the short-faced bears of the north, and this creature, he knew would be much more clever.
The huge ape roared its challenge and stalked several paces closer.
Kold backed up against the wall where he could not be attacked from behind. Despite the creature’s formidable size and strength, he had to trust to his weapons and skill. If the thing charged him he would bury his daggers in its heart and rip them out.
But the ape would have none of it. It grasped a broken head from a statue, large as Kold’s own body and it flung the boulder at the assassin.
Dodging low and right, Kold felt the smashed fragments rain across his back. He rolled to gain his footing but the brute was already there and picked him up by his left leg. It gazed at him upside down and roared again.
Slashing hard and fast as he could, Kold’s reach still lacked, he cut only the air.
Guessing the monster may have some of the same weakness as men, Kold kicked with his free right leg as hard as he could at the things nose. His squared boot tip smashed in, while teeth went down the creature’s gullet from the facial impact.
Dropped on his head, Kold dodged again just as the enormous foot slammed down. He struck with the dagger hoping to draw blood on anything he could. The blade bit across the ankle. The ape howled, kicking the dagger out of Kold’s hand.
Drawing the hammer, Kold launched himself at the giant ape.
Stumbling back, the monster held up its massive swinging arms and knocked Kold against the ground. It then leapt upon him, knocking the breath from his lungs. Crouching down, the ape’s slavering mouth retched open and screamed hot fetid breath on Kold.
His hammer hand pinned, Kold stabbed up with the dagger and buried it in the thick meaty muscle of the ape’s thigh.
It screamed and brought down titanic fists on Kold’s face, but still the man twisted the knife and the beast retreated to a far corner.
Kold sputtered and wiped blood from his own broken nose, unwilling tears ran from bruised eyes and he prepared for another attack.
Through bleary eyes, Kold watched the beast writhing and crying in the corner, clutching its thigh. He had cut the vital artery in its leg and the god was bleeding out incredibly fast.
It bawled once more, slumped and went silent.
Approaching on unsteady legs, Kold held his dagger and hammer at the ready.
Pale ape eyes followed him.
The blade opened the throat and there could be no doubt it was dead.
Then Kold could hear his own ragged breath and the shrill monkeys surrounding him in the dark. The priests outside still chanted and drummed, unaware.
The deep voice of the monkey god still reverberated throughout the temple.
Kold laughed. He hadn’t slain the monkey god after all, just a great beast. The monkey god was the voice echoing through pipes and horns lined about the walls. Here and there as a monkey chattered near an ancient mouthpiece, the sound was amplified and deepened.
The priests cast whatever answer they wanted from the booming sounds. Tradition held the Bhustani people in thrall and Kold knew how he would cripple them.
Taking the hammer in hand he smashed the dirging stone instruments again and again. Cracked frescoes and statues all felt his blows as he crumbled the work of ages.
The priests went silent from their chanting as they realized the monkey god’s voice was lessening every moment.
Kold counted ninety nine sounding tubes, as he called them, all embedded along the decadent frescoed walls in the temple. He destroyed them all.
Stepping to the open gateway, he called for Vashti, but she did not respond. Kicking a monkey out of his way, Kold pressed his way to the limp girl.
Bound between the pillars, she did not move.
Ignoring the shouting priests, Kold felt for a pulse.
A flame of bitter hatred flared then. Kold swore to never feel such emotions again. Casting his gaze at the screaming dead men, he charged and swiftly cut them down.
Before they were all slain, they did raise the alarm for their brethren across the bridge, who ran at breakneck speed across.
Kold thought to cut the bridge as he had before, but knew he could not reach it in time. He faded back into the jungle. He would make his way back to the dugout he had hidden and float his way back to civilization.
The Bhustanis brought more priests forward who could interpret the commands of the monkey god, but it never spoke again. Thus both the god and war that Kold sought to slay, died.
© David J. West 2012
David J. West was born with an innate love of books and weapons, pursuing a career writing speculative fiction had to follow. His published and forthcoming works include-controversial historicals: Heroes of the Fallen, Blood of Our Fathers weird westerns-Fangs of the Dragon, Dance the Ghost (With Me) shadowy terrors-The Dig, Curse the Child, and heroic dark fantasy-Midnight Sons, The Hand of Fate. His story "Hel' Awaits" appeared in the March issue of Swords & Socercery. He collects truths, swords, the finest art he can afford, and has a library of 6,000 + volumes because he likes the smell of old books. You can visit him at http://david-j-west.blogspot.com.