Hellstrom followed Broughton at a run, the two men pausing only occasionally to ensure that they hadn’t lost the trail.
Broughton skidded to a stop, chest heaving as he leaned against a tree to catch his breath, “Must have been the easiest hunt these things ever had. They’re leaving a trail my grandmother could follow.”
Hellstrom nodded, then suddenly pushed the Major to the ground as a small dart buried itself in the tree above his head. In one motion he knelt and threw the dagger from his boot, killing the savage creature and pinning it upright against a tree, “We must be closer than we thought.”
Both men approached the creature, its features just human enough to increase the revulsion they felt at their first sight of the dreaded proto-human. It would have been tall if it could stand up all the way but was clearly more suited to a four-legged gait like a gorilla, walking on heavy knuckles. It was almost naked, wearing nothing but a loin cloth, and a small strap to carry the blowgun and darts it used to hunt prey of any kind. Its brow was heavy and its bones and muscles were massive.
“By the Mother, I think if my dagger had been a little more to the center it would have bounced off this thing’s breast bone,” Hellstrom remarked in quiet wonder.
Broughton moved closer until his face was only inches away from the creatures, “My grandfather told me stories about them but I never imagined. It’s horrible.”
Then he carefully took a dart from the creature’s pouch and smelled it, recoiling as if he’d gotten too close to a fire, “Poison, probably paralytic. They like fresh game.”
Hellstrom nodded as he heard the drums in the distance. He had always imagined the Near-men as animals in his mind but the reality was far worse. This was different than a lion hunting a man. These things might not be human, but they weren’t animals either. They had weapons, clothes, music and no compunction about hunting other men.
“Come on, it’s not far, we have to hurry,” and with that the two men began to move again. This time much slower and with greater stealth.
Ariel took a small step back, eyes narrowing as the group of conscripted sailors suddenly turned on her in a mob.
“You said this place was inhabited by Near-men? Well you can stay and be something’s dinner but we’re leaving.”
She had known it was a mistake the moment she’d said it, if nothing else based on the looks Corporal Windmere and Mr. Sawyer had given her. Once the things had shown up, the men would be too concerned with the fight to think about running but now, with time to consider their options, the Constant, floating gracefully in the lagoon so close at hand seemed like a heaven to them.
A different man from the first found his voice as they continued to slowly advance on the small girl, “I’m a carpenter. Bad enough I get roped into some sea voyage by being knocked on the head, but now you’re telling me I’m supposed to stand here and wait for those things to find us? The Captain’s already dead. We should go back to the ship. Maybe have a vote about what we do from there.”
Ariel took another tiny step back and felt the incoming tide splash against her ankle, she was running out of beach.
The sound of the drums had gotten louder and louder as the men slowly made their way to within sight of the Near-men’s camp. It was now felt more than heard, building to a crescendo, to a conclusion both men instinctively knew would mean the horrible deaths of their shipmates.
Suddenly they could see it. The sun had gone down and the camp was alive with activity. Women (if indeed that was the appropriate term) hunched over a table topless, working to prepare a grisly feast. Nearby, some of the younger Near-men were stretching the skin of what had once been a man on a rack, so that when the sun rose tomorrow it could be tanned and turned into clothing.
One of the women turned toward the large pot in the center of the camp, where the hunters danced in orgiastic glee, parting for her to put the leg of a men, severed at the hip, into a fire. Other women continued their work at the table, cutting the skinned man apart.
The two men watched stunned for a moment before finally registering what was happening. They were witnessing the death of the naturalist, Doctor Greeland. He had been staked out, naked and spread-eagle on a table. He had been skinned and now he was being carved up like a Christmas ham.
Suddenly their reverie was broken by a scream. It was the Royal Cartographer, releasing all the pent-up horror of what he had witnessed into the night.
The Major lightly touched the Captain’s shoulder, whispering, “I think the good Doctor will keep them tonight. We should wait until they settle down with a full belly and slip in.”
But he recognized the look on the Captain’s face, he had been taken by one of his rages and Broughton knew nothing could reach his heart when it turned to stone, “I’ll be damned if I’ll sit here and watch them feast, taking the chance that no one else will die. Damn them. Damn us all. We are going to attack.”
After moments of indecision that felt like hours, it was instinct that ultimately decided the tense standoff on the beach.
One of the men, the filthy carpenter, had reached out and touched Ariel as he made his comment about a “vote” deciding what would happen on the ship next. She wasn’t a fool. She knew what would happen to her, one of only two women on board (and likely the only one to survive the mutiny) if order was broken and cowardly scum like these men took control.
Suddenly, a lightning bolt struck the ground out of the overcast sky, turning the beach beside the men to glass. They recoiled for a moment, then surged forward. Someone yelled, “Get her!”
Before they heard the second thunderclap, the carpenter was on the ground, convulsing terribly before dying, covered in terrible burns, most of his hair gone and what remained standing at weird angles.
Suddenly a terrible wind swept in from the sea, knocking several of the mutinous conscripts off their feet. They hadn’t been afraid of her before. A tiny slip of a young girl. Now they looked on her as a terrible goddess, the men she’d knocked down with her wind not even trying to rise to their feet.
Her voice cracked with anger, “Mr. Sawyer, burn those boats. No one leaves until Captain Hellstrom returns and rescinds his last order. Corporal Windmere, put these wags in the line but put a row of your men behind each block of them. They can either fight the Near-men if they come and die like men, or run back onto your bayonets and die like cowards. It makes no difference to me.”
For a moment the two men stood stunned but only a moment. They were actually relieved. For experienced seamen, there was nothing more terrifying than being under a weak command, one that let the mob have their way. Now that she had proved her strength, they were like an old bay, comforted by their harness as they pulled a carriage.
As the Corporal put the stunned sailors into position, Ariel looked down at the small pouch of trinkets and snarled, picking it up and hurling it into the sea. She had thought it helped her, the chalk, the magic circles, the thaumaturgy she’d learned at university. Now she knew that her power was as primal, in its own way, as Miss Medeirra’s that her anger, her rage, gave her more power than she ever dreamed possible.
Turning her back on the mass of men, on the island, she stared into the flickering light as Mr. Sawyer fired the boats, clenching her fists to stop her hands from shaking, inwardly terrified at the force within her she had tapped.
In the distance, a thunderclap pealed in answer to the rage and fear inside her.