For the Scatterlings and Orphanages Africander Fiction Challenge by ludditerobot
For all previous parts, go here.
Continued from Part 38.
“This is ridiculous,” I hissed. The situation had already spiraled out of control, and it only promised to get worse. I knew that the longer we delayed, my current predicament would be nothing compared to the what Mr. Harris and his people would find when they returned to what was left of their homes.
“Se você ferir o Sr. Harris, teremos que impedir a Ally de a matar!” Maria shouted at me. “Não entende?”
That’s when the vampire seemingly came out of nowhere and attacked us.
The vampire slammed into Maria and the pair of them fell to the ground in a tangle. Maria shouted in what sounded like surprise and the vampire roared in what sounded like anger.
I took to my heels.
Behind me I heard the sound of combat as both the vampire and Maria scrambled to their feet and yelled at each other in a mixture of languages. I ran for one of the mudhuts and began pounding on the door, although I was careful not to pound too hard for fear of breaking it down, terrifying the occupants, and putting a yet another nail in the coffin that held my secret.
I desperately shouted, “Let me in. Let me in right this instant!”
Despite the ruckus of the fight and my own near-hysterical pleading, the hut remained stubbornly dark and the door firmly shut.
The thought occurred to me that perhaps the inhabitants of Joe decided to flee rather than trust their fate to Mr. Harris and his people. It would go a long way to explaining why there were no signs of life within the village. If anyone was in residence, basic human curiosity would have moved someone to at least crack open a shuttered window to witness the chaos now underway in the center of the village. Even if the local population thought it best to stay out of sight while Maria battled the vampire, one would think that someone would have made their presence known, albeit accidentally, in an effort to see what was happening during my own argument with the Slayer.
Thinking that perhaps I was begging for aid from an empty hut, I attempted to open the door. I growled when I realized that neither shoving nor pulling did any good. The door was either locked or jammed shut.
I cast a glance over my shoulder to see Maria and the vampire trading blows.
I steeled my nerve and backed up a few steps. If whoever was inside refused to open the blasted door, then I would just have to kick it down and be damned with terrifying anyone inside. Anyone who’d refuse to offer aid and shelter to a terrified stranger while a vampire ran loose in their village didn’t deserve an ounce of politeness from me.
I glanced once more over my shoulder to make sure Maria and the vampire were still distracted. It wouldn’t do to have either witness my attack on the hut, albeit for different reasons.
Maria and the vampire had captured each other in a mutual headlock. From the way their muscles strained, it seemed to me that both parties were trying to throw their opponent to the ground so a coup de grace could be delivered. Since they were locked in mortal combat, neither one was paying attention to me.
I smiled in relief as I turned back to the hut.
If Maria gets killed, I thought grimly, I won’t have to worry about anyone finding out about my secret.
The horrifying idea caused me to freeze just before I let loose with my kick.
Did I just wish a young girl dead because her survival would cause a world of problems for me? I asked myself as shame began a hot burn through my being.
Why, yes. Yes, I had.
Dear reader, I fully admit here and now that I have done many questionable things in my life, both before and after the incident in Joe. I also admit that I have held opinions, thought thoughts, and felt emotions that could be charitably termed as rather improper. However, I can honestly say that fervently hoping for Maria’s death — even if it was nothing more than a fleeting hope before sanity intervened — was easily the most evil thought I’d ever had to that point and the darkest emotion I had ever felt.
In short, I confess that I became a cowardly murderer in my heart.
I ask you dear reader, is there anything worse than wishing death on an innocent young girl? The fact that the young girl in question was a Slayer only made it worse. After all, I had been born and raised a Watcher. The thought itself should have outraged my bloodline. It was the vilest betrayal against everything that I was supposed to be.
I choked on half-a-sob as I realized that no matter what happened, I was bound to lose. If Maria died, it meant that I failed to do my job twice over as both a Watcher and as someone who had been cursed by Miss Summers’s fateful decision in Sunnydale. If Maria lived, chances were very good that Mr. Harris would find out about me. Once Mr. Harris knew, I could rest assured that Mr. Harris’s allies in both Mali and in London would know shortly thereafter.
My only forlorn hope was convincing Maria not to tell anyone about our argument or the fact that I had a Slayer’s strength behind my punch. How I would manage this with the insurmountable the language barrier between us I had no idea, but it was the only chance I had — short of Maria’s death — at keeping my secret.
First, however, I’d have to work out how to ensure Maria’s survival.
I spun around to take stock of the situation. Maria and the vampire had broken apart and were now trading blows. The vampire seemed rather intent on pounding her into the mud. He was yelling in a mixture of French and another language at her in what I assumed to be a stream of threats. Maria, by contrast, seemed distracted. She kept glancing over at me. Clearly she expected me to somehow intervene.
Given the fact that I had accidentally bloodied her mouth during our own scuffle, it was a reasonable hope on her part. There was one small problem: aside from my brief session with Bunmi, I didn’t have a scrap of combat training. I couldn’t see how something so ephemeral as instinct could possibly guide my steps. As far as I could tell, I would be far more of a hindrance than a help in this situation.
As my mind desperately reached for something that would tip the battle in Maria’s favor, I suddenly remembered my abandoned bottle of holy water. “Hold on! I’ll be right back!” I shouted at the Slayer.
My yell momentarily distracted both of them. As I turned away to scramble for the mudhut where I took shelter from the rain earlier in the evening, I saw the vampire sweep out his leg and hook Maria behind the knees.
Damn, damn, damn, I thought as I ran for the hut. I was right. Even though I had not gone anywhere near the battling pair, I had already caused problems for the girl.
Once I reached my original shelter, my superior eyesight easily spotted the plastic bottle I had stowed on the window ledge. As I snatched it up, I suddenly remembered what Mr. Harris had said. Makes for a hell of a holy hand grenade if you’re in a tight spot.
The memory of that statement, the stressful situation, and the utterly ridiculous notion that this small plastic bottle could somehow turn the tide in Maria’s favor caused me to giggle helplessly while my shaking hands pried off the cap. Although I highly doubted that a plastic bottle thrown at the vampire’s head would cause any physical damage, perhaps I might be able to distract it with the pain of a holy water spill.
I scurried back out into the open with the bottle clutched in my right hand. I was so terrified by what I was about to do, and so hard did I shake, that I feared I would drop the bottle into the mud and lose my only distance weapon, as pathetic as it was. Worse, I feared that I would miss my target and what small aid I could provide would be lost without doing any good at all.
When I came upon the battle scene, Maria and the vampire had separated. Both parties were bleeding and seemed exhausted as they engaged in a delicate dance. The vampire was attempting to somehow get around Maria, but the girl resolutely kept her face to him and refused to let him pass.
Good Lord, there’s not nearly enough holy water in this bottle, I thought as I watched the pair warily circle each other. I dearly wished that I had a barrel of the stuff, if only because I thought that it would take that much holy water to burn our vampire to ash. Or, failing that, I was fairly certain a sturdy barrel thrown with Slayer strength at the vampire’s head would knock the evil bastard out long enough for Maria to slip a stake between the his ribs
Now that neither vampire or Slayer were raising a ruckus by trading a Babylonian mixture of words as well as blows, I realized that aside from the sound of the fight in front of me, all else was quiet. Another realization quickly followed. I had not heard Radar call out a warning that a vampire had broken through the line scrimmage set up by Mr. Harris just beyond the edge of the village and was heading in our direction.
I hesitated for a moment as I tried to assign a meaning to this deadly silence. My heart thudded in my chest as it occurred to me that I was indeed right. Joe was most certainly a trap. However, I was obviously in error by believing that the vampires had lured Mr. Harris and his people here so their undefended village could be destroyed. A more rational explanation was that the real battle had happened before we arrived. Slayers who’d been assigned to watch the Gao vampires and their allies could have been captured or killed shortly after nightfall while we were still in transit and running so grievously behind Mr. Harris’s original timetable.
I shuddered to think that Mr. Harris’s tiny band had been attacked the moment they were out of sight Maria and myself. The vampires even now could be merrily feasting on our only hope for rescue.
I knew with a sinking heart that no one was coming to save either Maria or myself. Despite Mr. Harris’s promise that I would have nothing to worry about, it appeared that in the end we had been abandoned thanks to pernicious fate in the form of the wily Gao vampires and their evil human allies. I hyperventilated with desperate sobs that I didn’t dare allow to progress to wails of despair as I cautiously circled the still-dancing duo. I would have only one chance with my makeshift hand grenade, so I knew I had to make it count.
Maria finally spotted me cautiously picking my way around the edge of her battle and I thought sure I spotted a quick smile of relief on her face. I noted with horror that her hands were devoid of stakes, a sure sign that she had somehow lost them during the struggle still in progress. The only good thought I could grasp onto was that I could rectify Maria’s weaponless state easily enough, since I could still feel both of my stakes jammed securely in my back pocket. All I had to do was hurt the vampire enough to get him to back off. Then I could run over and hand Maria one of my stakes.
Pleased that I had a course of action to follow once I threw the bottle, I began earnestly seeking a position that would give me a clear shot at the vampire and would also place me within dashing distance of Maria.
I had just found the perfect spot and was getting ready to make my desperate throw when Maria suddenly darted forward and into my line of fire. I managed to stop myself in time, although I fear Maria’s ears were subjected to some very blue language pouring from my mouth.
What happened in the split second that followed seemed to occur in slow motion. As Maria closed in on the vampire, I realized that she had left herself wide open to attack. The vampire proved me right when he threw a punch that knocked Maria off her feet.
I heard a sickening crack when the blow made impact. The Slayer stumbled back and then crumpled to the ground before my disbelieving eyes.
The vampire then turned its yellow eyes on me and began screaming hoarsely in a mixture of French and another language. The way he waved his arms and stomped his feet made him look like a small child throwing a temper tantrum. He seemed quite furious about his predicament, even though he had just knocked a Slayer out and could have easily attacked and killed me in my dumbfounded state.
I didn’t bother to puzzle out why the vampire wasted precious seconds yelling at me instead of attacking. His mistake was my only chance.
I flung the bottle as hard as I could at the miserable bastard’s face.
The vampire must’ve realized that even one such as I wouldn’t throw a water bottle at it unless it contained a rather nasty surprise. At the very last moment, he attempted to avoid the missile. He wasn’t entirely successful. The bottle smashed into the left side of his face, which resulted in an impressive explosion of smoke and a scream that shattered the night.
While the vampire clutched at its face and howled, I realized I had to silence it and silence it very quickly. Even now its companions could be running to save him. I had to grab Maria and find a hiding place for both of us before his cavalry arrived, but I couldn’t do that before I dealt a fatal blow to the vampire. The last thing either one of us needed was to leave an undead witness to our flight.
“Oh, hell,” I muttered as I yanked a stake out of my back pocket, held it in front of me with two hands, and ran full tilt at the vampire. In short, I charged like a rhinoceros.
Even though it was in agony, the vampire still had the presence of mind to step out of the way of my clumsy attack and blindly lash out with a fist. He caught me in the temple. The blow had just enough strength behind it to not only knock me over, but to actually cause my body to skip along the muddy ground like I was a flat stone on the surface of water. I miraculously managed to keep hold of my stake, despite my bad situation.
Although the bones in my skull and neck felt like they had been cracked and the skin on my face felt like it had just been exfoliated with a cheese grater, I forced myself to my feet.
Over the ringing in my ears, a noise that was not intimately tied to my life-and-death struggle broke through to my consciousness. I heard shouting and a sort of rhythmic thumping. The cacophony that had suddenly erupted indicated to me that somewhere in the night Mr. Harris and his people were at long last engaged in battle. However, the strange, echoing acoustics caused by the closely placed huts gave me the aural illusion that Mr. Harris and his people were fighting somewhere within the village itself. Much as I dearly wished to look around to see if I could spot anyone who might come to my aid, I couldn’t afford to take my eyes off the vampire. He had stopped smoldering, but was still screaming and clutching the left side of his face. He swung his head around, in an effort to find out where I was in relation to himself.
I knew I couldn’t let him get his bearings.
I tried another charge.
This earned me not just another blow to the head, but also a wild kick that caught me in my lower back. I fell face first in the mud and bit my lip so hard to prevent a scream of pain from escaping that I tasted blood. I had the presence of mind to scrabble forward on hands and knees. I fully expected the vampire to fall onto my back and sink his fangs in my neck. That fear never became reality and I was able to somehow scramble some distance away and again regain my feet.
As I whirled around to face my opponent, the thumping sounds coming from Mr. Harris people and the sound of my own pulse in my ears seemed to blend. In my overheated and confused imagination, it felt like a heartbeat was thudding up from the earth and through the soles of my booted feet. The shouting had likewise been transformed from a chaotic mixture of incoherent babbling to something resembling a chant.
This hallucination, I thought, could not be a good sign for the state of my physical or mental health.
I was about to make another mad charge at the vampire when I realized two things. One, I had lost not just the stake in my hand, but I had also lost the second stake that had been jammed in my back pocket. Two, the vampire was still roaring in pain, clutching the left side of its face, and stumbling about rather clumsily.
The loss of my stakes caused a surge of panic. The vampire’s obvious distress caused a surge of hope. It appeared Mr. Harris was right. My water bottle was indeed a first-class holy hand grenade.
I tried to stay on the vampire’s left side as I stumbled around to look for one of my lost stakes. I couldn’t conceive of trying to attack without some sort of weapon. Considering I had yet to even touch the nasty bugger, giving it a go with my bare hands seemed like suicide. I might as well slit my wrists and invite the vampire to drink as much as he wished from me.
What I would love to tell you, dear reader, is that I did find one of my stakes. I so pine to spin you a tale of how I picked it up and, much like King Arthur drawing the sword from the stone, felt a surge of rightness and purpose in my second Calling. I want desperately to say that in that moment I embraced all that I was and all that I could be by marching resolutely up to my debilitated opponent and, after an impressive display of physical prowess during which I beat the vampire into the mud, I shoved the stake with all my might into his unbeating heart and basked in the victory of his ashes. I so desire to finish my story of daring-do by saying that I turned my face to the sky, let the rain wash away the blood of battle, and let loose a howl of triumph.
I am compelled by honesty to admit that reality bears absolutely no resemblance to the above paragraph.
If you began reading my memoirs expecting this to be the story of a heroine who at long last embraced her destiny, I’m sorry to say dear reader that you are about to be sorely disappointed.
I blame the rain and the mud in my eyes for practically blinding me. I blame the ringing in my ears, my headache, and repeated blows to my head for throwing me off balance. I blame the pain that radiated from every wound and every joint for making me clumsy. I blame my exhaustion for robbing me of my awareness of my surroundings. I blame my unease in the face of my irrationally acting enemy as he flailed, yowled, and spun around.
I blame Maria for lying like a lump on the ground in what turned out to be the most inconvenient spot possible if I wished to continue unimpeded skirting the vampire and looking for my stake.
Most of all, I blame the rhythmic drumming and chants for disorientating me so thoroughly that I had no chance of finishing this fight with a shred of dignity.
I stumbled backwards and forwards over the uneven ground while I tried to keep the vampire in my peripheral vision and scan the area immediately in front of me for one of my lost stakes. It is during one of these sweeps that the back of my ankle came into contact with the still, solid form of Maria. Although I tripped over my own feet, I would have managed to stay upright if I didn’t feel a second impact right behind my knee.
I fell backwards with a yell and landed on my bottom in the mud with a teeth-rattling thud.
The vampire’s face whipped around to face me as both his arms flailed punches in some desperate hope that I was in striking distance.
It was then that I saw just how much damage my holy hand grenade had really done. The left side of his face was such a ruin of raw burns that it looked like the flesh had melted away. His nose had been reduced to one nostril. His left jowl had been ripped away, exposing teeth and jawbone to the air. But most horrifying was this: his left eye had been utterly destroyed and, because the eyelid was burned away, all I saw was a blackened hole where an eye should be.
I let out a blood-curdling scream at the sight of this. The noise was enough to tell the vampire exactly where I was and he began to unsteadily lurch towards me.
I initially crabbed backwards, but quickly realized that my retreat left Maria vulnerable. Given the vampire’s state, he might decide to snatch up the girl and drain her in a desperate bid to gain a little strength from her blood. Even though he was steadily closing on our position, I desperately threw myself forward to lay hands on the downed Slayer.
Just as I leaned over Maria’s body so I could position both of us well enough to wrestle the unconscious girl into an awkward fireman’s carry, I saw the stake in her hand. I didn’t even think to question where the stake came from or how it so happened that the previously weaponless Maria had managed to grab hold of a stake while she was supposedly unconscious. The only thing that registered was that I now had a weapon in easy reach.
Since I now had a new option, I looked up to find out whether I’d be better off fighting my severely wounded enemy or running. Unfortunately, the vampire’s proximity to Maria and myself decided for me. He was far too close for me to make a clean escape with Maria weighing me down. Since my desperate plan to drag Maria out of the line of fire was doomed to fail under these circumstances, I snatched at the stake like a lifeline. I felt inexplicable hard resistance against this theft and, out of sheer instinct, I sharply twisted stake out of Maria’s death grip and won the brief tug of war.
This action caused Maria to leap to her feet with an outraged yell. Since she had been playing possum, she had no idea just how close the vampire was and he fell on her with a flurry of awkward punches.
While the pair of them scuffled, I climbed to my feet and clutched the stake to my breast. I simply had no idea what to do.
Maria suddenly kicked the vampire away and next thing I knew, I was entangled in an obscene embrace with the vile creature. I struggled mightily to break free, but it snatched at me with clawed hands and dragged me to the ground. Next thing I knew, I was on my back and the vampire was scrabbling to firm up its grasp on my head while it incomprehensibly muttered and wailed. I knew that if the vampire had gained sufficient purchase on my head, it could easily twist it and break my neck. In a desperate attempt to save my own life, I lifted my hands to break his hold on me.
That’s when I realized that I still had the stake clutched tightly in my right fist.
I can only credit instinct for what happened next.
I jammed the stake into the vampire’s shoulder joint as hard as I could.
The vampire reared back with a scream of pain, nearly yanking the stake out of my grasp. Lord knows how, but I held on and was able to yank it free. I then grasped the stake in both hands, held it in front of me, and jerked myself into an awkward upright sitting position. Against all reason, the stars aligned and my wild shot hit home. The hard resistance I encountered as I shoved the stake into the vampire’s chest suddenly gave way to no resistance at all. My forward momentum carried my face into the cloud of vampire ash and stretched all the muscles in my back as far as they could go. Suddenly, my upper body recoiled and I was yanked backwards. My moment of triumph ended with the back of my skull thudding into the muddy ground and the rain pouring on my face.
As I lay there stunned and in pain, I realized that all the noise had stopped and that silence had once more claimed the night. Terrified and feeling utterly alone and unaccountably betrayed, I released sobbing breaths while trying to draw as much air into my lungs as I could at the same time.
Maria — it had to be her — released an undulating cry that echoed throughout the village.
For a reason I couldn’t quite put a name to, I felt a surge of fury. Perhaps I was angry because I thought the blasted girl was attempting to take credit of my hard-won fight. Perhaps I was angry because I had been beaten to a near-pulp while Maria played dead not more than a few feet away. Perhaps I was angry because I knew that there was no way I could account for my sorry state and the fact I was still conscious despite the beating I obviously endured to reach it. Perhaps I was angry because I knew my body’s ability to quickly heal itself would betray me to even a blindest person.
In short, I was angry because circumstances had backed me into a spotlighted corner and I had nowhere left to hide.
I gritted my teeth and painfully crawled to my feet. I wasn’t entirely sure what I had planned to say to Maria once I managed to get into a standing position, but I was very certain that it wasn’t polite.
I never did get the chance to speak my mind.
The second I managed to stand upright on my own two unsteady feet, Maria’s undulating cry was taken up by an echoing chorus of wild, untamed, female voices. Almost two dozen young girls of various ages emerged from the shadows like ghosts. Every single one of them was dressed in pristine clothes of purest white. As I slowly spun around and my eyes drank in the sight of them, I realized that not one of them had spent the night fighting for their lives.
I was halfway through my turn before I finally saw some familiar faces. Dave, Akella, Dr. Mboto, and Sue were still wearing the clothes they wore in the jeep. By contrast, Nagessa and Bunmi had changed into the dazzlingly white clothes worn by their sisters.
My jaw slowly became unhinged and my eyes grew wider as that undulating, barbaric cry picked up in volume. The shutters and doors of the village’s mudhuts were thrown open and the lanterns inside were lit. Joe’s inhabitants hung out the windows and stood in front of the doors of their homes as they joined in with a rhythmic clapping and a musical chant of their own. They punctuated their noisy contribution by grinning, nodding, and waving at me, as if pleased with the role they played in destroying in my life.
When I finally completed my 360-degree turn back to where I last saw Maria, my eyes were assaulted by the sight of Mr. Harris and the ever-present Alexandrienne standing next to a pleased-looking Maria. Neither Mr. Harris nor Alexandrienne had changed into the ceremonial-looking white clothes of the Slayers, which made them stand out like they were shadows to the Slayer’s dazzling sunlight.
Mr. Harris stood ramrod straight with his bow in his right hand and an arrow with the arrowhead pointing to the ground in his left. The formality of his physical bearing was betrayed by the sly, crooked smile on his face.
Over the years, I’ve come to know what Mr. Harris’s terrifying smile means. It means that the Ethiopian Wolf has succeeded in luring you into his trap and he now had his jaws locked around your throat. The only question left for him to ponder was no longer whether or not he would hurt you, but how much pain he’d make you feel for being foolish enough to underestimate him.
Should you, dear reader, ever find yourself in the position I was in at Joe, I offer you the following advice: don’t bother running. It won’t do you a bit of good. He’ll only catch up with you and your final defeat will only be that much more painful and humiliating. Your best option is to gracefully concede and hope your capitulation will put Mr. Harris’s in a better temper when he delivers the coup de grace by snapping his jaws shut.
My mind was in such a confused tumult by recent events, and the noise around me so overwhelming, that I was unable to make sense of what was happening around me.
Mr. Harris suddenly lifted the bow over his head as a signal and the crowd around me fell silent. He fixed his one eye on me and took a step forward. His smile transformed into a broad grin, as if I was easily the most amusing creature it had ever been his pleasure to torment, and said, “Welcome to the family, Miss Swithin.”
I was so dumbfounded, that all I could do was stare at him.
The spell was broken by, of all people, Radar. The boy thrust himself between Alexandrienne and Maria and scampered to Mr. Harris’s side as he clutched a metallic object to his chest. When Radar reached his place of honor by the side of his mentor, he grinned cheekily at me and revealed that his precious bundle was nothing less than a video camera. As my eyes widened with the horror of realization, Radar put the video camera up to one eye, and shouted, “Say cheese!”
At long last, I snapped out of my paralysis. “You little bastard!” I hollered as I lunged for Radar. Next thing I knew, more than a dozen hands had grabbed hold of me and were dragging me to the ground.
“Mevyap!” Mr. Harris’s voice cracked like a whip through the noise of the scrum.
Those more than a dozen hands hauled me to my feet and spun me around until I was once more facing Mr. Harris, but not one of them let go. The Slayers who were not able to reach me had formed an outer circle around their sisters. I could see they were ready to spring forward and tear me to shreds on Mr. Harris’s command.
Mr. Harris studied me with no expression on his face for a moment. “Ally, tell the girls to take Miss Swithin to the Toyota,” he was obviously speaking English so I would understand the sentence he was about to hand down. “If she causes you problems, knock her out and then slap the chains on her when you get her to the truck.”
“Chains?” I hyperventilated.
“You don’t want chains? Then I suggest you behave and do what you’re told.” Despite Mr. Harris’s mild tone, the underlying threat was very clear.
Mr. Harris looked beyond me and my crowd of captors. “Doc? Follow the girls and once Miss Swithin is settled, check her injuries. Sue? Stay here and give Maria the once-over. I didn’t like the sound of the crack when the vampire hit her earlier.” Mr. Harris once more fixed his eye on me and said, “Qapla' batlh je. Yerjin.”
As Mr. Harris turned and walked away, Alexandrienne shouted what I assumed to be a translation of Mr. Harris’s orders in the barbaric tongue of tlhIngan Hol.
“What did he say? What did you tell them to do to me?” I wailed as my captors yanked me around and marched me out of the village. As the pressure of the crowd and the firm grip of those strong hands on my person forced me forward, I wildly looked around for a chance to escape.
There was none to be had.
Even if I could break free of the Slayers physically holding me, I would have to get beyond the additional Slayers that had taken up an honor guard position around them. I was able to get a glimpse of a grim-looking Dr. Mboto following us and another glimpse of Mr. Harris as he spoke to an elderly-looking native.
Knowing that I was vanquished, I stopped fighting before we reached the last house at the edge of the village.
My fate was now firmly in Mr. Harris’s hands. If his harsh attitude with respect to myself was anything to go by, I knew that he was not inclined to be gentle with me.