Temple of the Bat-GodbySabledrake©
A hard yank at the rope made her stumble.
She almost lost her footing and ran unsteadily ahead several paces to catch up, not wanting to fall. If she did, they would either drag her, or carry her and she couldn't stand the thought of their hands on her again.
Underbrush lashed at her bare legs. She felt twigs snag and rip the lacy fabric of her nightgown. Wet leaves slapped her arms. Her bare feet stubbed their toes on roots, trod on stones that gashed their tender pink soles, squelched through mud.
The night air was warm, and thick with the moisture of the rain forest. She was sure that her nightgown must be clinging damply to every contour of her body, but she had never been less concerned about modesty in her life.
Around her, she could hear her unseen captors calling to one another. Their language was unfamiliar to her, but their delight in their prisoner was evident nonetheless. Their laughter, their anticipation ...
She was grateful for the hood in that it at least prevented anyone from seeing the tears that rolled unchecked down her face, and muffled any of her involuntary cries.
At least the ones who had her ... at least they were human.
In the distance, and growing more distant with each clumsy lurching step, came the screams from the camp. Fewer screams, now, and only from female throats. The men must all have been dead. The women would be soon, though by the sound of their terror and agony, they would welcome death when it claimed them.
So far, she had been untouched, except for what contact had been necessary to subdue her, bind her, and cinch the hood over her head.
What might await her at the end of this nightmare journey could well leave her wishing she had shared the fate of the native women at camp. For them, at least, it would be over.
She thought of Camila, her maid. Was Camila already dead? Hopefully, if so, she had died quickly, and had not had to endure unnatural violations.
And what had become of her father? Of Nick?
Thinking of Nick brought a lump to her throat. It seemed impossible that only a few hours ago, she had knelt beside him in the big tent, tending to his wounds. That he had kissed her.
It had all happened so fast.
Before the blood and death, a cloying green heat hung over the camp.
Insects made a steady, pervasive drone as they sought out sweat-shiny, unprotected skin. Even the sound of the river seemed stifled by the oppressive swelter of the day.
Faith Calloway fanned her face with one of her father's rumpled maps. The result was a listless stirring of the still air, offering little relief.
Then, hoping that the flush in her cheeks could be attributed to the temperature, she turned back to Nick.
Nick Stone. Features as rugged as his name. Strong jaw. Cleft chin. Granite-grey eyes. His scuffed leather fedora was set aside, and his belt, from which hung a gun and a hunting knife, had been draped over the back of the chair in which he sat, shirtless and stoic.
"This might sting a little," Faith said, opening the bottle of iodine.
One corner of his mouth rose in a wry, slanted grin. "Can't hurt worse to clean them than it did to get them."
Strange to be so close to a half-dressed man. Oh, she was used to it with the workers, brown-skinned natives who went around all the time bare-chested in loose-fitting white pants and sandals. But this was Nick. A white man, an American.
And they were almost alone, the two of them. As alone as they could be in a camp that consisted of two dozen or so workers, all going about stacking firewood, fishing, and loading rifles. The women cooked and washed clothes down by the river. Faith could hear the musical tones of their speech, and the sharper, brisker voice of her father issuing orders.
The canvas sides of the big tent were folded up in hopes of enticing a breeze through the inner layer of gauzy mosquito netting. It wasn't like they were hidden from view. There was nothing indecent about it.
Still, her hands trembled as she carefully painted Nick's cuts and scrapes with the reddish-brown iodine. He only showed his pain once, an indrawn hiss between clenched teeth, when she reached the worst of the wounds.
"You could have been killed," she said, not as a condemnation or judgment of his ability, but in sober realization.
"I told your father that this would be a dangerous trip," Nick said. "As ambushes go, we got off lucky. Only two men dead, if Tulio lives through the night."
"I don't think any of us ever doubted the danger."
She had to kneel beside him to dab iodine onto a long shallow scratch that ran just above his waistband. Her gaze kept wanting to stray lower, and with resolute effort she kept it fixed on her task.
"Gutsy of you to come along," he said.
Was that actual approval, or mockery? She couldn't be sure.
"My father's been talking about this for as long as I can remember. It's his life's dream to find Tzikatal. I would have hated to miss it."
Still kneeling, she stoppered the iodine and put it aside. As she was about to rise, Nick caught her hands in his.
"I need to get the bandages," she said, and now her voice shook as well as her hands.
His grip was at once tough and tender. He leaned forward so that their faces were only inches apart.
The sounds of the camp now seemed very far away. The muggy air was harder than ever to breathe, or perhaps it was something else that left her breathless.
"Faith," he said again, in a low murmur that was like a spoken caress.
"Oh, Nick," she sighed. She moistened her lips, swallowed, and edged forward just a little ... just a little ...
... and he crushed her to him, finding and claiming her mouth in a hot, hungry kiss. She heard a small, startled cry that she realized was her own, an "ooh!" that turned into a "mmph!"
Her palms had instinctively gone against his chest to hold him away, but the feel of him, so solid and warm, the mat of dark-blond hair curling crisply beneath her fingers, robbed her arms of any strength.
Nick slid from the chair so that he was on his knees as well, both of them on the bumpy canvas floor of the tent.
Her arms somehow twined around his neck, their bodies pressed close. Only the thick khaki of her blouse, with its many pockets and epaulets, and the formidable stiffened cups of her brassiere, were between their pounding hearts.
He reached up and unpinned the bun at the back of her head, freeing her hair to tumble in waves around her face. He had told her, a few days ago, that the color of it was somewhere between cinnamon and nutmeg.
A storm of pent-up curiosities and yearnings brewed in her. Oh, she knew the way of a man and a woman ... she knew it in theory, at least ... but had always told herself that such things would have to wait until marriage.
But in that moment, as his tongue probed along her lips, teasing them apart, Faith found herself ready to fling all thoughts of waiting until marriage aside. She wanted to pull him the rest of the way to the floor of the tent and twine her limbs around his. To surrender. To give him all that she had to give, and gladly take all that he offered.
Before she could express any of this, her father called, "Nick? Faith?"
They sprang apart as if scalded. This time, Faith knew, her rosy blush could not be blamed solely on the heat. She fussed at her hair, tangling it as she tried to hastily tuck it back into a demure arrangement.
Professor Calloway ducked under the tent flap. He took in the scene, eyebrows raising to furrow his high forehead.
Faith's blush deepened. Nick had gotten back in the chair, and she had picked up the bandages, but the iodine she'd coated his injuries with was smeared ... and the front of her khaki blouse was stained by it in several places. In the fading light, the stains looked like blood. She felt mussed, flustered, hot and bothered.
"I'll take over from here, shall I?" Professor Calloway inquired. Behind his spectacles, amusement twinkled in his eyes.
Faith didn't trust herself to speak. She gave him the box of bandages and, without daring to look at Nick, fled the tent.
A mild but welcome cooling breeze had finally arisen. The tarnished blue of the sky was giving way to burning orange and dark crimson. Already, shadows pooled and gathered beneath the trees. Small animals rustled in the underbrush as the nocturnal creatures began to stir.
The women dished up meals of flatbread made from coarse-ground corn flour, cooked fish and sliced fruit. They chatted and flirted with the male workers. If not for the alert and armed men walking sentry around the edges of the camp, it would have been easy to mistake the mood for one of festive relaxation.
In the tent she had just vacated, Faith heard her father and Nick discussing their plans for the following day. Nick, true to form, wanted everyone else to stay safely here while he and a few of the best warriors went ahead to scout the area in case of another ambush. He reminded Professor Calloway that it was his job to take the risks.
She smiled at what she thought she sensed in his tone – that, for Nick, it wasn't entirely about the money anymore. Her lips still tingled with the aftermath of the kiss, and she hoped she wasn't just imagining that he had genuine feelings for her.
Faith ate her supper, then, as the spectacular sunset deepened toward night, retired to her own tent to change into her nightgown. Her maid, Camila, clucked over the iodine stains on her blouse and took it away to rinse in the river.
A strange, high, eerie cry made the fine hairs on the back of her neck prickle. It hurt her ears, that cry, the way the screech of fingernails on a chalkboard could drill directly into one's mind.
The camp fell briefly silent. There was a low gabble of consternation. Then the cry came again. Closer. Louder. Shrill.
Faith's eyes clenched into slits and she winced, putting her hands over her ears. That was no good; it was as if the noise shivered right through the bony shell of her skull.
She wanted to scream in sympathy. Anything, just to make it stop!
When it finally did stop, she was panting in ragged gasps and shuddering all over, her skin stippled with goose bumps.
"Faith? Faith, are you all right in there?" her father called from the other side of the sloped canvas wall.
"I ... I think so. What was that?"
If he answered, she didn't hear. There was a sudden tumult of shrieks and shouts, the sharp report of rifles firing. Over all of that was a strange flapping-snapping noise that made Faith think of a starched sheet on a clothesline, whipped by a high wind. And the cry again, several cries shivering from several throats, like the cries of the damned.
She ran out of the tent without thinking – heedless of danger, heedless of the fact that she was barefoot, wearing only a nightgown – and jerked to a halt at the sight that met her eyes.
Creatures dove from the bruise-colored sky. Creatures as big as men, and shaped vaguely like men ... but shaped also like bats grown to hideously impossible size.
Their bodies were covered with bristling brown and black hair. Instead of arms, they had leathery wings tipped with a cluster of grasping fingers. Instead of feet, their legs ended in talons of some black, hornlike substance.
As they descended on the camp, their wings beat the air with that flapping-snapping sound. They screeched those unbearable cries.
Faith stood stunned, unable to move. By the firelight and the last dying westerly glow of the setting sun, she saw with merciless clarity a bat-thing rake its foot-talons at a worker, and rip fatal furrows across his belly.
Clutching himself, trying with little success to hold in his internal organs, the man sprawled on the ground. In the instant before the bat-thing's wings folded around its victim, Faith saw its muzzle plunge into the man's guts and tear out a dripping hunk of meat.
She whirled away, but everywhere she looked were similar horrors. A bat-thing crouched atop Eduardo, the guide, shredding strips from his face while Eduardo thrashed and babbled an incoherent prayer.
Eduardo's little boy, Javiero, whom Faith had been teaching English, lay dead with his body beside the fire and his wide-eyed head several yards away.
Ramon, one of the riflemen, shot a bat-thing out of the sky but then, as three of them surrounded him, placed the barrel of the rifle under his chin and blew his own brains out before they could savage him with their claws.
Inez, trying to crawl to safety with her long black hair hanging in her face and her pretty white dress in tatters, was seized from behind by one of the creatures. It held her pinned in place, and something long and rigid, something pink-red and glistening, poked out from the dense pelt at its groin.
Faith's shocked mind could not believe what she was about to see, not even when the bat-thing mounted Inez. The woman's scream pealed through the camp. Her head flung up, and for one ghastly moment her eyes met Faith's. She knew what was happening to her.
The creature drove against her in a frantic, hunching, convulsive movement. At the height of its frenzy, it darted down and brutally bit the back of Inez's neck. She collapsed, her spine severed so that she was paralyzed from the waist down.
But that did not stop a second bat-thing from flipping Inez onto her back and shoving her legs so far apart that her hips must have burst from their sockets. The bat-thing fell upon her, thrusting furiously.
Another woman ran by. Marcela. She had been stripped bare, her skin covered with long scratches. A waist-length black braid streamed behind her, and it was this braid that was her undoing. A flying bat-thing caught hold of it and hauled Marcela off the ground. Her feet kicked frantically at air, and then the bat-thing let her go. She tumbled into a cluster of its fellows. They surrounded her, bore her down, and she vanished beneath a pile of bristly fur and leathery wings.
Several of the workers broke and ran for it, scattering in all directions. The monsters gave eager chase, now seeming to take a cruel pleasure in hamstringing their prey and watching the crippled men still scrabble and crawfish toward the shelter of the trees.
Something grabbed Faith's arm and she jumped, screamed.
"We have to get out of here!" her father cried, tugging on her arm. "This way!"
Together, they ran around the tent and headed for the river. Behind them, the screams and gunshots and eerie cries of the bat-things continued. Professor Calloway fought through the wet foliage, into the shadowy gloom of the rain forest. Faith, gasping, hurried after him. She looked back against her will, a helpless and gruesome fascination drawing her eye as surely as a magnet draws iron filings.
The bat-things had found Tulio, the wounded man Nick had brought back, the only other survivor of the ambush. Still drugged, he presented no challenge to them as they tore his flesh with their teeth and lapped up the blood.
With a whoosh and a thump and a shower of shedding leaves, a bat-thing dropped from a tree and landed directly in front of Professor Calloway. It rose to its full height, well over eight feet, and opened its wings to their entire twelve-foot span.
Up close, the creatures were even more monstrous. The head was furry, with triangular ears and a flexible black nose sneering up from thin, pointed yellow teeth. But there was something disturbingly human about its features as well.
Though batlike, though the high and piercing cries they emitted might be a form of echolocation, this one at least was not blind. Its eyes, large and brown and canny, flicked from the professor to Faith. Its sneer widened, and the cluster of little fingers at the top of its wings flexed greedily.
A stiff, reddish length of flesh emerged from low on its body, and she quailed. It would tear her father apart, and then it would do to her what the others had done to Inez, to Marcela.
"Run, Faith!" Her father must have reached the same conclusion. He spread his arms wide, blocking the creature's advance, and cast a desperate final glance over his shoulder at her. "Run!"
She took a faltering step back. "Father!"
Snarling, the bat-thing leaped in the air. The downdraft from the single powerful stroke of its wings blew Faith's nightgown swirling around her ankles. The bat-thing drew up its knees, the curved black hooks of its talons poised above her father. One hard kick, and he would be opened from collarbones to hips.
A gun roared, deafeningly close. Faith felt something hot streak past her, and in what seemed the same instant, the bat-thing's head exploded into gobbets of warm meat, bone chunks, and gristle. A sticky scarlet geyser drenched the professor, and splattered Faith.
Nick Stone ran up to them. Faith rushed to meet him, and threw herself into his arms, burying her face in his chest and trying not to sob. He embraced her, stroked her hair. He smelled of sweat, gunsmoke, blood and adrenaline. His heard thudded a rapid, audible drumbeat beneath her ear.
"Nick, oh, thank goodness," she gasped.
"Let's get you out of here," he said grimly, putting one arm around her while the other one held the smoking gun and his grey eyes swept back and forth, scanning the trees for another target. "Are you all right, Professor?"
"Incredible," Professor Calloway said, stooping to examine the dead bat-thing, which lay crumpled like a loose sack. His face was twisted in a sort of fascinated revulsion. "This shouldn't be possible –"
"Now, Professor," Nick urged. "If we can get to the river, we might be able to slip past them."
"What about the others?" Faith asked. "Camila, Marco, Lupe, Pedro?"
Nick only shook his head and looked grimmer than ever. He pulled Faith and her father away from the dead creature and hurried them into the forest.
That was the last thing Faith remembered, until waking to find her wrists being roughly bound by a man with dark skin and broad features. He wore a sleeveless dark-yellow robe under a leather cape, and a gold headdress crudely hammered into a design of interlinked bat's wings.
Other men, similarly attired, stood straight and alert in the dusk. They were armed with bows. She had recognized the fletching of the arrows as being identical to the ones her father had removed from Tulio's flesh.
She had still been able to hear the screams and unearthly cries from the camp, could still smell blood and smoke hanging in the humid air. She had looked desperately around for any sign of her father or Nick, and saw neither of them.
It was the last action she had a chance to take before the man in the gold headdress put the hood over her head, and secured it snug around her neck. She had been hauled to her feet and made to walk, yanked along by the rope that extended from her tied wrists.
Now, with the noises from the camp swallowed up by the whispering liquid rush of the river, her captors stopped. Faith did not immediately comprehend this, and took a few more blind, bumbling steps after the rope went slack. A hand closed on her upper arm, squeezing, and she froze in place.
The hand moved surreptitiously, fingertips grazing the side of her breast. Faith wrenched away with a revolted cry. Men laughed. The hand returned, no longer surreptitious. It closed over her breast in a painful clamp.
Another voice spoke, sharp and stern. The hand was hastily withdrawn.
Her rapid breathing puffed the bag in and out in front of her face. More hot tears streamed down her cheeks.
Where was Nick? He wouldn't let this happen to her ... unless ... unless ... and her father ... could they both be dead? She couldn't remember. Her last memory was of following Nick through the woods, and of just beginning to feel that they might escape this horror after all.