Part 1: A Mission to Die
The sound was like no other Captain Pryce had heard in his life. Far too deep and guttural to be made by any human, and judging from the stampeding animals that were headed towards the camp, it was unlikely to have been made by anything friendly. As he jumped out of the path of a zebra he caught sight of the animal’s eyes in the lamplight as it sped past. Pryce had seen the zebra when they’d been spooked before but in this poor animal's eyes he had seen a different kind of fear; a pure unadulterated terror. What could be the cause of such a commotion, and was it linked to that sound, Pryce mused from a safe spot among some crates.
Suddenly the sound rang out again; so loud that it was clearly audible over the stampede. Pryce unholstered his old service revolver and headed in the direction the roars were coming from as the stream of animals ran the opposite way. Despite the fear of the animals he reasoned the worst it could be was a large lion. Dispatching a lion would be child’s play if he stayed downwind of the creature. Pryce had shot a man-eating tiger during his time in the British Army and the locals had practically worshipped him like a god. To be known as the slayer of a perfectly normal animal that the locals were for some reason afraid of would be a rather useful feather in his cap, it might stop them attempting to burn the missionary camp down every few months if they knew they’d have him to deal with, for example.
An oil lamp had been knocked over by the stampede, causing some of the tents to ignite and flames were now licking at the night sky like snakes tongues. Apart from the stampede, which had now died down to a trickle of occasional stragglers, he was the only living being walking round the camp. Had the missionaries taken their cue from the animals and ran too or were they hiding somewhere? In search of answers Pryce scanned the wrecked camp in the light from the blazing tents. Whatever had happened to the missionaries he knew that at the very least they’d have to head back to Mombassa for more supplies. What little there was that could be salvaged from the camp was far too heavy to be moved miles across the continent by manpower alone so would have to stay here now all the horses had run off after hearing that abominable roaring. Then Pryce spotted a pair of boots poking out from under the canvas of a collapsed tent. He ran over to the canvas and quickly pulled it aside, then promptly vomited.
Under the canvas was Father Thomas or more accurately, most of Father Thomas. Where the Minister’s stomach had been there was now a bloodied mass of intestines and other guts splayed out and ripped apart, but it was the expression on the man’s face that would stay with Pryce… The Ministers face was frozen in a mixture of terror and shock that made the look in the zebra's eyes earlier seem insignificant. Had Father Thomas been slain by the roaring creature? There was only one way to find out, and Jones didn’t like it one bit. Only humans kill for sport so if the minister had been killed by a beast it was bound to have eaten something, he reasoned, and that meant he would have to plough through the bloody mess to look for missing organs. If there were none then the killer was likely a human. That was not a possibility Pryce could discount until he had evidence; the natives had proved in the past to be hostile to the missionaries work in many parts of the country so far. You’d think being part of the British Empire for so many years would have had a calming effect on them, but far into the rural areas the old ways still persisted in some pockets. So, after wiping the vomit from his lips, Pryce kneeled beside the body and started so untangle the warm guts from the other organs. The liver was there, as was the stomach, but the heart…
Jones suddenly noticed warm breath on the back of his neck and the sound of heavy breathing coming from behind him.
“Do… Not… Move…” hissed a voice coming from a crate in front of him.
Suddenly the crate burst open in a volley of gunshot, splinters and smoke, behind him Jones heard an animal like yelp.
“Damn it to hell! Blasted creature escaped!” barked the man who had been lurking in the crate. “Come on! Don’t sit round gaping like a codfish! It’s injured so that will make it easier to catch!”
“Wh-what? What just happened? What was that thing? Who are you?” Pryce spluttered in exasperation.
The man from the crate took a puff from a large pipe that had apparently been lit the whole time and set off purposefully in the same direction that the thing behind Pryce had run.
“So many questions. If you could try to keep up I will endeavour to answer them. Oh and keep that revolver at the ready, there’s a good chap. Anyway, one question at a time.”
Still confused by the man and his somewhat unexpected appearance on the scene, Pryce decided to follow. At least the man seemed to know what he was doing and Pryce certainly did not want to end up like Father Thomas.
“First of all, who are you?” he asked when he had regained his composure.
“Yes, that was rather rude of me not to introduce myself earlier. I am Marmaduke Wetherell, adventurer, explorer and big-game hunter. You are, I believe, Captain Ignatius Pryce, formally of the British Army.” Wetherell plucked an oil-lamp that had escaped the stampede from a pole and handed it to Pryce “Hold this close to the ground so we can follow the beast's blood; there’s a good fellow.”
“How did you know my name?” asked Pryce, dumbfounded.
“I asked one of those jolly nice missionary chaps if there was anyone else around and only you and the late Minister were mentioned.”
“Oh, good, so the others escaped.” Pryce perked up at this news; it would be difficult enough to explain the deaths of everyone apart from him to the authorities let alone explaining that they may have been killed by a hitherto undiscovered nocturnal beast that only eats hearts, which he hadn’t actually seen. Even now a few minutes after it had been breathing down his neck it seemed rather unbelievable, so how ludicrous would it seem when he reported the incident to the governor in a few days time? He’d be locked up for sure; if not in a prison then in an asylum. Monsters didn’t exist; this was the start of the twentieth century. The British Empire, and to a lesser extent the tin-pot empires of lesser countries like France and Germany, had spent the last century crossing off the bits on the maps that said ‘here be dragons’ and replacing them with more prosaic things like the name of some government official and the letters ‘sia’. Monsters didn’t exist. Sure there were some fierce and formidable animals out there; ‘nature red in tooth and claw’ to quote Tennyson; but dragons, vampires, werewolves and all manner of other such beasts were just the stuff of novels, employed to prompt a shiver down the readers back before bedtime.
“Sorry, I should have made myself a bit more clear, really. Chap had been sliced clean open by the beast, I disturbed it with a gunshot, but that was too little too late. There was this one nice chap who hadn’t been rummaged around in and was just bleeding to death.” said Wetherell in a matter of fact way before he struck a match to take another drag at his pipe. “Anyway, spilt milk and all that, any more questions? I rather think we have the brute cornered in that forested area ahead so you had best be quick as silence is a hunter’s greatest tool.”
Pryce felt like his own heart (thankfully still in his body despite his close encounter with the beast) was trying to force its way out via his ribs; he was in trouble now. Nobody in their right mind would believe his story; things were just going from bad to worse. It then occurred to Pryce that he hadn’t asked Wetherell the most obvious of questions:
“So what is this beast?”
“There-in lies a tale,” Wetherell answered while loading a large and lethal-looking gun, “The locals call it the Chimiset, but to many it is known as the Nandi Bear. It can leap to the top of buildings in a single bound. Its huge claws, of which we had a demonstration earlier, are so sharp they can disembowel an elephant in one swipe. It will eat only the hearts and brains of its prey and will smash open skulls as if they were hard-boiled eggs to get at the brains. A single beast can kill a whole heard of animals in one night, and it will not distinguish between animal and human prey. It will kill and kill again because it thinks it is greater than man and that it has nothing to fear from us. I intend to prove it wrong!”
Pryce groaned; he had been dreading something like this. Things could hardly have been worse if Wetherell had said this Nandi Bear was made out of 100 corpses sewn together and shot fire out of its backside. What was he doing? Everyone else was dead and he was about to walk into a forest to go after a mythical beast with, from the sounds of it, superhuman strength with a pipe-smoking nutcase as his only protection. However, if they did manage to kill this beast then that would mean Pryce would have evidence to back up his account. People would have to believe him if he presented them with the pelt of the animal.
As they entered the forest Wetherell beckoned Pryce towards him and whispered “Keep close to me, hold the lamp in our left hand and your revolver in your right. If you see anything coming up behind us shoot it; I’ll cover us in front. Walk slowly so you make less noise, and for goodness sake don’t talk. That is very important. The second anyone talks it gives away our position. Turn the lamp down as low as it can go too.”
Pryce did what was asked of him and the two men followed a game track into the forest. What struck Pryce most about the forest was how quiet it was. Even in the middle of the night he would have expected to have at least heard the chirping of an insect or frogs croaking. The forest was completely silent. Pryce was still musing on this when the oil lamp burned out leaving them in darkness.
“Oh shi-” Pryce whispered to himself before he could stop himself and then came the roar.
Then another, and another, and two more all from different directions as if answering the first, the two men were surrounded.
“Five of them… I hope you’re a good shot.” Wetherell hissed.
To Be Continued….