Abasi watched the hunter chasing a gorilla with serious eyes.
The sun was retreating back to its home in the heavens causing fantastical shadows in the deep green forestas Abasi watched the hunter fire a shot at a silverback gorillabarreling through the thick underbrush.
A loud crack was followed by the sound of the gorilla’s roar of defiance in the distance. The bullet missed. The gorilla disappeared into the growing night. Abasi studied the hunter’s features from his hiding place to see his reaction to the gorilla’s challenge. None. He ejected the empty shell and held his rifle loosely against across his chest in a port arms position and listened to the sounds of the night.
Abasi estimated the hunter was about five feet, six inches tall, and weighed all of 135 pounds dripping wet. Not exactly a big game hunter he chuckled to himself. Getting serious (his name meant serious) he wondered what drew the hunter to this mangrove forest where hunting was forbidden and the trees critically endangered due to habitat loss?He strained his brain trying to recall the last time a hunter came through his land.He thoughts came back to the present when the hunter set out again, clumsily working his way through some ferns heading south towards the Congo Basin.
Staying behind the hunter, Abasi gently pushed Monkey Brush Vines aside as he cautiously followed him. He paused in a patch of Passion flowers when the hunter stopped and raised his rifle, slowly swinging it back and forth in a small arc like he was expecting to be attacked at any minute.
The thing about Abasi is he liked the peace and shelter the gorge provided anddidn’t want things to change.But this hunter was an immediate threatto his family and friends and couldn’t be ignored. He rushed forward with both arms up over his head just as the hunter began to turn around and crushed him in his powerful arms before tossing him around like a rag doll. As his consciousness slipped away the hunter marveled at the sheer size of the silverback that got him!
Jack clung to the remnants of the raft as it carried him toward the waterfalls directly ahead. He could hear the thunderous sound of the fast-moving water as it cascaded down the 200-foot drop into an abyss.
In his terror things seemed to slow down as he remembered the raft hitting an underwater snag that threw him and Harold into the churning waters. The raft broke into sections under the mighty flow that dashed it into several protruding boulders. Harold disappeared in the swift current. Jack was able to hold on to a small section of the raft and desperately tried to paddle towards the high bank.The current was too strong. Through the frothy water ahead he saw trees growing along the rough edge of the cliff overlooking the view below.If he could grab one, he had a chance. A small chance. But better than nothing.Then the tree was in his path, splitting the powerful flow and he screamed while lunging for the trunk.
The day had started out ominously when Harold burnt their last fish to a crisp destroying breakfast.The had to settle for their last slivers of beef jerky. The trip had taken longer than they thought it would and they started running out of supplies three days ago.They were lost. Harold had the only compass and he managed to lose it in the river days ago. They got diverted from the river they had charted out and were on another river leading to an unknown destination. Both men were aware of the giant waterfalls in this part of the country and had plotted their course accordingly to avoid them.
Jack held onto the tree trunk for dear life.
He dared not look over his shoulder. The sight could unnerve him and sap his courage and strength. His head was pounding in tandem with the deafening roar of the water. The tree’s slimy bark was peeling away as he grabbed onto it for dear life.Summoning up his last reserves he clawed his way up the trunk and reached the first limb where he was able to wedge his body into the crook between it and the trunk. His heartbeat slowed down as he realized he survived. He was going to make it. Someone would see him stuck in the tree when they came searching for Harold and him. They both told their parents where they were going – they even gave them a map – and how long they would be gone. When they didn’t return a search party would surely come looking.
Two days passed and Jack was still on the tree.That made it nearly a week beyond their estimate.What was taking the searchers so long? He was hungry and exhausted.
When he woke up, he was being carried on a stretcher towards a waiting ambulance. He was saved! He kept thanking his rescuers and telling them about Harold.It was so good to see his parents and sisters greeting him as he was loaded onto the ambulance. Poor Harold he thought.Then he saw his girlfriend Abby who leaned over and kissed him on the cheek.
When the search party finally discovered Jack’s body in the tree one of the men noted the smile on his dead pasty white face.
I nervously eyed the dealer as I settled into my chair. It took all of my will power to resist wiping off the ribbon of sweat that trailed down from my high forehead. I knew Frankie and Sal were watching me closely. Looking for signs of fear. Their boss, Big Boy Roy Zizzi was sitting at a nearby table sipping Bourbon and playing footsies with a red-hot blond who laughed shrilly at everything he said. I waited for someone to explain the rules of the game I was about to play.
Finally Big Boy Roy Zizzi got up and ambled over to me. His girth stretched the dress jacket to the point of tearing as he bent over and said,
“Myron my friend you’re a lucky man. I could have shot you in the back of the head and your body deposited in the desert by Frankie and Sal.But we’ve known each other for years before our little fall out here. You were my number one soldier. But your greed got the better of you. When I found out you were skimming money from two of my casinos.I had to take some swift action.The rules are simple.You get 10 chips. Bet any amount you want. But if you lose those 10 chips you get a free ride to the desert east of here.“
“Wait a moment! How can I win and save my life?“
“You have to double those 10 chips.Your dealer tonight is Belinda who just happens to be the best dealer in both of my casinos.She has a great sense of humor. So, let’s get this party started!”
I looked up and caught Belinda smiling. She seemed to be enjoying herself. I looked at the card shoe next to her hand. It held four decks. It was better than playing against one deck in my experience. Especially if there were other players at the table. But now it was just me and Belinda. I watched her quickly deal the cards. It was like watching water flow in one smooth movement.
My face card was a king. My down card was a four.She had an Ace. Her down card could be anything.Her hand hovered over the shoe as she asked me what I wanted to do?
“Stand,” I replied.
She flipped over her down card. “Eight!” she almost purred. I lost the first hand and found myself staring down at the nine remaining chips with a mounting fear.
For 12 grueling hours I managed to stay afloat but was down to two chips. After a few hours I grew to understand that she could have won every hand but kept giving me last-minute reprieves.Frankie and Sal were slumped down in two chairs by the wall and Big Boy Roy Zizzi – to his credit – was still going strong at the table with his blond bimbo.
I took a chance and bet my last two chips. I was exhausted from the tension.Belinda’s mysterious smile gave me hope. My face card was a 10. My down card was a jack. Her face card was a seven. When she turned over her down card it was a six. She drew another card. It was a queen. She busted!
“Let it ride,” I told her. And I won the next hand. And the next. I was up to 16 chips and flush with excitement when Big Boy Roy Zizzi broke away from his blond bimbo and waddled over to our table. He looked at my 16 coins. Then at Belinda. He nodded. She nodded and smiled at me.I lost.
At first glance the cavernous hall looks empty. But if you keep looking, you’ll see souls emanating from the stone walls, dancing with the sunbeams streaming down from holes in the cathedral-like roof.Ancient ghosts linger in the shadows silently weeping about their cruel deaths.
If you look closely at the rafters, you’ll see sleeping bats storing up their energy to hunt in the night. Their droppings foul the granite floor, creating a stench that wafts through the hall with every breeze that filters through the shattered front door and the gaping holes in the wall.If you have the time and the will, I will tell you a story about this accursed building.
Historians date this ruin back to the 13th century. But the building’s history is still a mystery. You probably noticed that this building is almost entirely overgrown with blackberry vines and dense foliage that disguises its outward profile. Local families have been passing down dark stories about the decrepit ruins for centuries. I’m going to share with you the most enduring tale among them.
DANCING WITH DEMONS
Once upon a time the building was the home of a pagan cult that practiced black magic. The priests, as they styled themselves, lived in the nearby villages and congregated there to perform dark rituals and human sacrifices. I suspect they were Druids, but I have no way to prove that despite the whispers we heard at the Inn.
The priests always gathered on full moons. There were exceptions, but I’ll get back to them later.On those nights people were tortured and killed during a mass celebration that lasted until the early morning hours. Screams of pain and horror mingled with raucous laughter and heathen drums throughout the little valley on those terrible nights.
What made this cult so special was its initiation ceremoniesfor new converts.The applicant had to dance with demons throughout the night. If they survived, they became members proudly describing the demons as their gods.Most of the time the supplicants didn’t make it through the test with the hell spawn and their bodies were rent into little pieces that the members quickly ate in a gruesome feast before the sun rose.
I hope I wasn’t boring you. You look tired. Was it the walk over here from the Inn? No. You’re sure you’re, okay?Did the well-trod trail here give you pause? I only say this because I see a glimmer of fear in your eyes.You seem uncomfortable.
For good reason.
To resume the story… the cult never died out. I’m brother Judas and it’s my pleasure to invite you to dance with demons this very night. We’ve had a hard time attracting converts in these modern times, so we had to adjust. Now we take whoever visits our valley to dance with the demons (who must be satisfied after all) and if they survive, we increase our ranks. If they don’t our secret lives on. By the way your tiredness isn’t from walking. Remember the beers we had at the Inn? I gave you something to relax. You have a big night ahead.