The gun-smoke hung in the air, stinging Reginald’s nostrils. He looked, saw Femi dusting himself off. Chike was the one who had been screaming; now he was whimpering. Femi tapped him, told him, “Shut up.” Chike managed to get himself under control as he sat up. “Sorry,” he said.
No one answered.
The soldier turned slowly in a circle, eyes scanning the forest. Reginald watched him intently. “What’s your name?” Reginald asked the soldier.
The soldier stopped. Turned and faced Reginald. With the sun behind him he seemed so large, like an unforgiving shadow.
“Nasiru.” A flat voice with just a tiny bit of a Northern accent.
“Well um…Nasiru, thanks for saving our lives,” Reginald said.
Nasiru cocked his head and looked at Reginald curiously, as though he said something strange, then he smiled and said, “You’re welcome.”
“You killed that thing?” Femi asked.
Nasiru’s eyes became clouded with anger and Femi shrank back as he said “I wish I did.” His voice was a low growl.
“What do you mean?” Reginald asked. “You shot it badly, pumped more than enough bullets into it; how can it still be alive?”
Nasiru felt as if he was talking to a bunch of kindergarteners as he replied, “Well, do you see its body anywhere?”
‘S-so,” Femi stammered, “you mean…” He found it difficult to state the obvious.
“Oh God,” Chike breathed.
“No, boy,” Nasiru said, turning to Chike, “God abandoned us a while ago.”
“What do we do now?” Reginald asked. They were all up. It felt good to ask someone else that question, someone stronger, and Reginald was grateful and relieved to see Nasiru taking control of the situation. Nasiru walked off into the bushes as Reginald bent and picked his Rosary off the ground, dusted it.
Nasiru stepped back into view lugging a large, black, back-pack and carrying two more AK-47 assault rifles. He dumped the back-pack on the floor, squatted and kept the rifles on the floor beside him. Opened the bag, turned it upside down and dumped its contents on the floor. Reginald’s eyes grew wide as he saw the rifle magazines, the two pistols and the numerous pistol magazines. Chike gasped, Femi just kept quiet. It seemed he had been drained of all capacity to be surprised, and who could blame him, after all he’d seen today; what could take his breath away?
“Now,” Nasiru said, “I want you to pay attention here; your lives will depend on it.” When he saw he had their full attention, he continued. “I am going to show you how to use this.” He raised a rifle.
For the next ten minutes, Nasiru gave them a crash course on how to use the rifle; how to eject, how to reload, how to fire. He dry-fired the rifle a couple of times. When he was done, he gave the two rifles to Reginald and Chike, fully loaded, with two extra magazines each. He picked a pistol and turned to Chike.
“No other rifle boy, so this will have to do.” He showed him how to use the pistol, how to reload, all he needed to know, in about ten minutes. Loaded the pistol and gave him three extra clips.
“Now,” Nasiru said, “I need to know your names.” When they had told him their names, he nodded. “Good. Now listen carefully. This thing that’s happening is…well, I don’t know how to describe it. But I’ve noticed something significant. I’ve noticed a kind of er…door, or a er…”
“Portal,” Reginald said, his heart beating fast.
“Yes, portal, thank you. Now this portal opens about every four hours or so; I’ve watched it open twice now. Which gives us about…” Nasiru consulted his wristwatch, “one hour till the portal opens and closes. We can’t stay in one place, and we can’t go to the portal until it is time.”
“How do we know the portal is there?” Femi asked.
“Believe me,” Nasiru said, “it’s there. Now if one of us is killed, the nearest man must pick his weapon.” Chike’s eyes grew wide at this; Nasiru ignored him. “Aim and shoot the beasts. Don’t shoot me. Don’t shoot yourselves.”
“I don’t understand what you are saying. What do you want us to do?” Chike asked.
Nasiru smiled wryly. His eyes sparkled. “These monsters invaded my check-point, killed countless people. Trying to escape most of us ran and found ourselves here. Cars drove in here. I’ve been here for more than twenty-four hours. We keep running, we’ll never stop. So I say let’s turn the tables around.” Nasiru looked them all in the eye, one after the other, infecting them with his righteous indignation, and then he spoke. His voice was flat.
“Let’s hunt the fuckers.”
The four of them set out, Nasiru in front, followed by Femi and then Chike. Reginald brought up the rear. The three of them were nervous; Nasiru was stone cold. His eyes constantly scanned the forest as he took one cautious step after another. The only sounds were the sounds of twigs breaking beneath their soles and the rustle of leaves on their clothes.
Not one insect chirped.
Not one bird called.
The forest seemed to be scared of breathing.
In time they saw the road ahead of them, a strip of tar that was the beginning of their doom. Black smoke still rose from the scene of the carnage. Some bodies still seemed to be in the vehicles. A window on one of the vehicles broke, the sound like a gun-shot.
It was down to the road.
Stay off it, you die.
Stay on it, you die.
Not exactly safe choices but in life, what was?
Nasiru halted them, motioned for them to stay down. He stared at the road, his brain working overtime, and when Reginald began to think they were going to change their plan (maybe Nasiru was getting cold feet; it was forgivable though), Nasiru whispered.
“Okay. I don’t really see a thing, although they are around here somewhere. I can smell them. We’ll make a dash across the road, head into the forest there for a bit to draw attention away from the bus. I don’t think these things are stupid.”
Reginald didn’t think so either.
“So we head in, and when it’s time, we’ll head to the bus. Now, the portal is only open for five minutes or thereabout, so when we move, we move quickly. We must not stray far. Stay close to me. Now,” Nasiru said, racking his slide back to chamber a bullet, “let’s move.”
In a crouch, they ran across the road, the sun glinting off the shattered glass on the road, their soles slapping the tar, sounding like gunshots in Reginald’s ears. He felt like a sitting duck. Okay, a running duck. When they crossed Reginald found out that being there didn’t help his jangling nerves one bit. He felt terribly exposed; he felt like he was the one they were talking about in that old saying: Out of the frying pan, into the fire.
A few feet into the forest, they heard snarling behind them, and they turned around to check.
And a hand shot out and dragged a screaming Chike into the bushes.
They followed the thrashings and screams as fast as they could, deeper and deeper into the forest. Then they stopped and watched, horrified, and a little mesmerized, as the beast leapt onto a tree, holding on with one hand, while its other hand gripped Chike by the arm-pit, holding him like he was nothing but a bag of clothes. It flung itself upwards again as Nasiru fired off a burst at the beast. The bullets struck the trunk an inch from the beast, but it paid them no mind; it just flung itself onto another tree. Nasiru brought up his gun to fire again but Reginald shouted “No!” holding down the gun. “You’ll hit Chike!” Nasiru wanted to tell him that Chike was as good as dead, but he just glared at Reginald and then set off after the beast, with Reginald and Femi in tow. They kept glancing up every few seconds so as not to lose the beast.
Eventually they came to a small clearing where the trees formed a roughly wide circle. They saw the beast jump down from the tree farthest from them in the clearing, and they all stopped.
Suddenly, the beast brought up Chike, all bruised, bloody and battered, trying to make him stand straight. Reginald noticed his profusely bleeding face, and as the beast snaked out a long, black, ugly tongue to lick Chike’s blood, Femi dashed forward, screaming with rage…
…and another beast tackled him from the side. They rolled together, Femi trying to knock the beast off him with the butt of his rifle. It was like hitting a wall with a broomstick. Then, his scream cut through the air like a knife, as the beast sank its teeth into his chest.
Reginald and Nasiru, both shouting, began to fire at the beast. Unflinching, the beast got up and stood with a screaming Femi held up in front of him. Reginald and Nasiru separated, trying to get on either side of the beast to avoid hitting Femi, and when they started firing, the beast just turned swiftly towards Nasiru, and Femi gave a final, heart-rending scream as the bullets tore through his torso. Reginald stepped closer and raised his gun higher, hitting the shoulders, the neck, the head, his vision blurring, the beast bucking now under the assault as Nasiru didn’t miss a beat, just firing, trying to miss Femi’s body, and trying to avoid hitting Reginald. Reginald turned smoothly in an arc and aimed for the other beast holding Chike, as the beast holding Femi’s body threw it aside and dove for the trees. The beast holding Chike did a peculiar thing; it turned and shielded Chike with its body as it disappeared behind a tree trunk. The events of the past hours hit Reginald; the avalanche of emotions that had been hovering over him engulfed him and Reginald did not give a shit anymore what happened after now and he fired and fired at the tree trunk and he thought fuck it we are all dead anyway might as well go out like men we might as well die fighting and he pulled the trigger until he heard the click of an empty chamber and without missing a beat he brought out another magazine and slammed it into the chamber and he strode to the tree, firing, meaning to empty the magazine into the head of the beast.
And a monster landed in front of him.
Reginald screamed as he fell on his ass, gun flying out of his hands. He scrambled backwards on his ass, vaguely aware of Nasiru firing, saw the bullets hit the beast, as though in a dream, saw them penetrate its body, its neck.
And the monster did not even flinch.
“Oh God please,” Reginald breathed. He summoned every bit of strength he had left and heaved himself up off the ground and ran to where Nasiru was. Nasiru stopped firing, and as Reginald stood on shaky legs, hanging on to Nasiru for balance, they both got their first good look at the beast.
It seemed to be an enhanced version of the other beasts; it was tall, easily over seven feet. Its physique would have made the most avid body-builder go green with envy. It seemed to be covered all over with a fine down of hair. Although it was naked-all the beasts were- Reginald did not see any evidence of a sexual organ; its body might as well have belonged to a male-modeled mannequin. Now, Reginald could get a look at its face.
It had an oval-shaped face directly proportional to its body, sitting atop well muscled shoulders. Its eyes were nothing but black, gelatinous orbs, as shiny as twin black pearls. Looking into those eyes was like looking into a deep pit filled with tar. Tar and malevolence. The nose was almost non-existent. As for the ears, nothing was visible but two holes on either side of the head. Of the mouth, their was no trace, yet Reginald had seen what was in it and what it could do. Maybe, Reginald thought wryly, it seals it up when it’s done. The image of the lips/mouth sealing itself up, just knitting itself back together after work, threatened to wrench laughter from his guts, and Reginald feared that if he started to laugh now, he would not stop. He bit down on it.
This monster had…presence; there was no other way to describe it. For a fleeting moment Reginald thought about people who had such a presence that once they entered a room, things would stop and everyone would look just because. He imagined the effect of the beast in such a situation; a real showstopper. The laughter rose again and he clamped down harder on it. But damn it; this beast was more than a showstopper. It was a life-stopper.
As Reginald and Nasiru watched, the beast holding Chike came out with him in his arms. He looked dead, like he had died of fright. This beast carried him like an offering and presented him to his master, for surely that was what this monster was; the leader of the most brutal monsters in the whole universe. The monster took hold of Chike by his neck and held him up, facing Reginald and Nasiru, with his legs well above the floor, and it didn’t seem to be an effort. It might as well have been raising its hand up in a salute.
All was quiet as the monster seemed to regard them. Reginald felt they were being sized up, or sized down; whichever one. Even the other beasts were quiet and appeared subdued; who and what wouldn’t? The tension was open and palpable, as if everyone was standing on tightly coiled springs.
And then, Chike’s eyes popped open.
They were white.