- Text Font:
- Text Size:
- Line Height:
- Line Break Height:
Anthropophagi are not born with a taste for human flesh. Neither are they, like the solitary shark or the noble eagle, born hunters. They must, like the wolf or the lion-or the human, for that matter-learn these complex behaviors from their parents or from other members of the group. Anthropophagi do not reach full maturity until the age of thirteen, and the interim between birth and adulthood is spent learning from elders. They are allowed to feed only after the kill has been picked over by the older members of the clan. It is a period of learning, of trial and error, of observation and emulation. One startling and rather counterintuitive fact about these creatures is that Anthropophagi are actually quite doting and indulgent of their young. Only in the most extreme cases-starvation, for example-would they turn on one of their own.
Such was the case described by Captain Varner that occurred in the hold of the ill-fated Feronia, and such a case was probably the genesis of the misconception repeated by Sir Walter Raleigh and Shakespeare that the Anthropophagi are cannibals. (So might we humans be fairly called, by that criterion, for, faced with starvation, we have practiced this selfsame unthinkable abomination.) And, like the mother bear with her cub, all members of the group fiercely defend the youngsters when a threat arises: The smallest are sequestered to the remotest corner of the den; the juveniles are consigned to the rear in any assault, whether it be for food or, in the case of that rainy spring night in 1888, in protection of their territory.
A juvenile straggler, then, it had to be, perhaps the same age as I-though two feet taller and several dozen pounds heavier-that had been slow to answer the summons of the one dropped by Kearns’s bullet, and had been cut off from the rest by the lighting of the ring of fire. Or perhaps, seized by the impetuousness of youth, he had not followed the herd into the killing zone but had determined to take a more circuitous route to the audacious invader, one that circumvented the fire altogether, bringing him round, unseen in the tumult of battle, to the little woods in which we crouched.
His assault was clumsy and amateurish by Anthropophagi standards, owing to his limited experience, to the excitement of the hour, or to a combination of both. Though we did not hear him crashing and stomping through the brush until a few seconds before he sprung from the deep shadows of the trees, those precious seconds were enough for Malachi to react.
He whirled around the instant it emerged from the trees behind us, firing without taking aim, for there was not enough time for that; if he had not fired when he did, I’ve no doubt Malachi would have succumbed, as would I and my gutted charge. The bullet struck the beast square in the chest, in a spot equidistant between the two black eyes, a mortal wound for a human, but as the doctor had pointed out, the Anthropophagi, unlike their human cousins, possess no vital organ between their eyes. The shot barely slowed him, and Malachi had no time to reload. He did not attempt that folly, but flipped the rifle around and rammed the butt into its snapping mouth as hard as he could. The reaction was instantaneous: The jaw clamped down in a violent spasm, shattering the wood with a resounding crack, the force of its tremendous bite-more than two thousand pounds, according to Kearns-ripping the rifle from Malachi’s hands. Blood poured from the monster’s wound, flowing down its heaving chest straight into its mouth, staining its teeth crimson. It lunged for Malachi with arms outstretched as it had seen its elders do, the killing pose, eyes rolling back as the arms came up, the digits of its massive claws splayed, hooked barbs spread wide for maximum effect.
Malachi stumbled backward… lost his balance… fell… In another half second it would be upon him. But I was only three or four feet away, and a bullet travels far in a half second. It tore into the triceps of the creature’s striking arm, throwing off the blow directed at Malachi’s head; the tips of its three-inch nails barely grazed his cheek. That was my first shot-as well as my last-for the headless thing abandoned Malachi and turned the full force of its wrath upon me, scrambling in the wet leaves and mud on all fours as it came, like some ghastly man-size spider. Quicker than I could blink, it smacked the doctor’s revolver from my hand, wrapped the other claw around my neck, and tugged my head to within inches of its champing mouth. Never have I forgotten, in all my long years, the horrific stench that exuded from its gullet, or its bloody teeth, or the excellent view deep into the recesses of its throat. My view might have been even better if not for Malachi, who had hurled himself onto the monster’s back. The doctor’s words echoed in my head, and those words saved both our lives.
If one should drop, go for her eyes, where she is most vulnerable.
I yanked the bowie knife from my belt and buried it to the hilt into the closest lidless, lightless eye. The Anthropophagi thrashed in agony, its throes throwing Malachi off its back and nearly knocking the blade from my hand. But I held on, giving it a half twist for good measure, before pulling it out and sinking it into the other eye. Blinded now, its blood spurting fountainlike, soaking its contorting torso, soaking me, the beast pushed itself to its knees, swaying back and forth while swinging its arms madly in a perverted parody of hide-and-seek.
I had cursed my fate on that seemingly endless night of the necropsy, had been forced, I felt, to endure the doctor’s interminable lecture, and witness the gruesome dissection of Warthrop’s “singular curiosity.” Frightened and weary beyond words, still I had paid attention. What else occupies your thoughts? he had asked, implying not much did beyond my appetite. But my answer had been an honest one: I watched; I tried to understand. Like this young Anthropophagus, I had learned by observing my elders. I knew, you see, the exact location of its brain.
Holding the hilt with both hands, I drove the knife home with all my strength, into the spot just above its privates. The thrust landed true. Stiff as a board the monster went, arms straight out from its sides, with arched back and open mouth, teetering on the precipice of oblivion before oblivion took him down.
I fell over too then, to lie beside the murdered beast, clutching the dripping knife against my stomach, shuddering in the aftershock of those fleeting, eternal moments of terror. A hand touched my shoulder, and instinctively I raised the knife, but of course it was only Malachi.
His face was streaked with mud; his left cheek bore three bloody stripes where its claws had raked. “Are you hurt, Will?” he asked.
I shook my head. “No, but it is. I killed it, Malachi,” I added with breathless obviousness. “I killed the damned thing!”
He smiled, and his teeth seemed very bright against the backdrop of his blackened face.
Kearns had been correct in his prediction: It was over in less than ten minutes. The gunfire over our heads dwindled to a few sporadic pops; the fire, having consumed quickly most of its fuel, and suffering from the steady onslaught of rain, petered out, leaving in its wake an undulating black curtain of smoke; and inside the circle itself was heard nothing but the gurgling and muffled grunts of the mortally wounded. The doctor appeared first, and, upon seeing the lifeless young Anthropophagus at our feet, his face lit up with surprise and alarm.
“What happened?” he demanded.
“Will Henry killed it,” Malachi explained.
“Will Henry!” exclaimed the doctor. He looked at me with wonder.
“He saved my life,” averred Malachi.
“Not just yours,” Warthrop said. He knelt beside the woman, felt for her pulse, rose. “She has lost consciousness-and a great deal of blood. We must get her to the hospital immediately.”
He hurried away to make the arrangements. Malachi picked up the shattered remnants of his rifle and wandered toward the smoking ring, before which Morgan and his men had gathered. I did not see Kearns. The doctor returned after a moment with O’Brien, and with me trotting beside holding the makeshift compress against her stomach, they carried her to the back of the truck.
“What do I tell the doctors?” asked O’Brien.
“The truth,” answered Warthrop. “You discovered her wounded in the woods.”
We joined the others standing in the no-man’s-land between the edge of the platform and the smoldering trench. No one spoke. It was as if we were all waiting for something, but none could say exactly what we were waiting for. The men seemed shell-shocked; their breath was shallow, and the color was high in their cheeks. Morgan lit his pipe with shaking fingers, the match light sparking in his foggy pince-nez. Warthrop beckoned me to follow, and then hopped through the billowing screen of smoke into the killing field. There we spied Kearns, stepping carefully through the tangle of albino limbs and the twisted headless torsos of his victims, their bodies steaming in the warm, moist air.
“Warthrop, lend me your revolver.”
I handed it to him. He kicked one of the creatures-a big female-onto her back, and her body jerked in response. A claw swiped feebly at his leg. Kearns jammed the barrel into her abdomen and pulled the trigger. He stepped over to another, poking it in the side with the toe of his boot, then, just to be sure, shot it, too. He cocked his ear toward the ground, listening for any sounds of lingering life. I heard only the hissing trench and the soft, whispery rain. Kearns nodded with satisfaction and handed the gun to the doctor.
“Count them, Warthrop. You, too, Will. We’ll compare our numbers.”
I counted twenty-eight bullet-ridden, shrapnel-torn corpses. The doctor concurred; he had counted the same.
“My number as well,” agreed Kearns.
“There’s one more, sir,” I said.
“Under the platform.” “Under the platform?” asked Kearns, startled.
“I killed it.”
“ You killed it?”
“I shot it, and then I stabbed out its eyes, and then I stabbed out its brain.”
“Stabbed out its brain!” cried Kearns with a laugh. “Well done, Mr. Assistant-Apprentice Monstrumologist! Very well done indeed! Warthrop, award this boy the Society’s highest honor for bravery!”
His smile faded, and his gray eyes seemed to darken.
“That makes twenty-nine. Assume three, perhaps four immature juveniles tucked away someplace safe, and we are at thirty-two or thirty-three.”
“About what we estimated,” said Warthrop.
“Yes, except…,” began Kearns in a rare moment of gravitas. “We’ll fetch a light to make sure, but I can’t find a female fitting her description. Warthrop, the matriarch is not here.”
Morgan had regained some of his composure when he joined us among the steaming carcasses. Strained to its breaking point by the events of the previous two days, there was not much of his composure remaining for him to regain, but enough for him to reassert-or attempt to, at least-a measure of his authority. His tone with Kearns was stern and uncompromising.
“You are under arrest, sir.”
“On what charge?” asked Kearns, blinking coquettishly.
“She is alive, Robert,” Warthrop said. “At least, she was when she left.”
“Attempted murder! Kidnapping! Reckless endangerment! And… and…”
“Hunting headless monsters out of season,” offered Kearns helpfully.