There was silence in the shack for a while.
The driver snorted and peeked through one of the numerous holes in the plank wall. Kelvin and Obi looked like they wanted to burst with questions but the stern look Chioma gave them kept them at bay.
“Okay then.” I said finally. “I guess I should keep away from this ring when you bring it back out…”
“It will be on top of a Staff.” Jenny cut in.
“Okay. Keep away from anything you bring out of the water; Staff, Ring, whatever. Will do.”
“The thing now is, how do I get to the river without being mauled?” Jenny asked thoughtfully.
“Hey, where’s our phones?” Obi asked, searching his pockets.”
The Driver raised his hand, looking cautiously at Kelvin.
“Go on, Kelvin said.
“Threw them into the river when we got here.” He said, grinning although blood still trickled from his lower lip where Kelvin had hit him. “Maybe Ms. Jenny can get it too when she gets to the river, eh?”
Kelvin was about going for him again but Obi held him back. “He ain’t worth it man. Look, I for one am tired of being held up in this shack with my captor at my mercy and the door free and clear! I’m leaving!”
“But Obi, the beast…”Kelvin started to say.
“There is no beast!” Obi shouted. “There hasn’t been any noise outside since we came here! If there was a beast we would have heard it by now! It would have roared, or attacked the door!”
“The beast is the mad man that attacked us this evening, Obi!” Chioma said, “He’s probably laying a trap for us!”
“How can the beast be the mad man?
The assistant foreman?” Obi shook his head. “All I know is that I am in pain and I need to get out of here!”
He came to the door and started to struggle the knob with me.
Kelvin rushed in and tried to help, whether me or him, I wasn’t sure.
Jenny and Chioma started shouting for us to stop and the driver started laughing.
Suddenly the door burst open. The force of it threw me and Kelvin to the ground.
Obi however was still standing and so was the first person to come face to face with the man animal. He had transformed but not fully.
He stood tall and muscular; his skin normal except for dark spots here and there, his face a monstrous contortion of man and leopard.
His jaw protruded slightly forward and when he snarled I saw his mouth was full of sharp hard looking pointy teeth. He took a step forward and his knee joint moved out of sync, bending backwards in an unnatural way. His eyes were brown and cat-like and his hair long and unkempt, apparently the remains or beginnings of the glorious mane I used to see in his manifestations. Behind him, a single ugly long stump protruded from his back, tearing through his already tattered jeans, a poor reflection of his magnificent tail. The moonlight shone behind him into the shack, giving him an unearthly glow.
“Oh my g-“Obi began but his words were cut short. The man-animal grabbed him by the neck, pulling him towards its mouth. Then it sank its teeth into his left shoulder. Apparently the pain Obi now felt was worse than what he felt previously because he screamed violently into the night air.
Jenny and Chioma grabbed each other, screaming, and ran to the back of the shack, even as the driver walked casually to the front.
I and Kelvin struggled to our feet.
The man-animal continued to chew on Obi’s shoulder, and then suddenly stopped. It flung Obi aside and spat out the blood it had been ingesting on the floor.
“This blood is tainted!” It growled, spitting out some more. “The man must be on drugs!”
“That would explain his resistance to the knock-out powder,” the driver said, still walking towards the beast. “He must have been a drug addict. His body would have been a little impervious to the effects of the chemicals…”
“Spare me your chemistry lectures!” It said. “I see they overpowered you already, Idi0t! Why didn’t you take your gun with you when you came to check on them?” and with that, the beast threw a gun at him. The driver caught it deftly.
“It wasn’t my fault.” He grumbled. “I had everything under control. But these two…” Here he pointed at me and Jenny and grinned. “…they are special.”
I thought fast. The man-animal was blocking the doorway. If he got us trapped in here, our fate was sealed, but if we could scatter, some of us could get away. While I had been struggling with Kelvin and Obi at the door I had realized my hands were growing hot. Now I mentally commanded and they ignited.
I rushed at the beast quickly, putting all my strength into one punch aimed at the man-animal’s snout while I shouted, “Run!!!” to the others. There was movement at once.
The driver, seeing me approach, quickly stepped out of the way. Jenny, Chioma and Kelvin, hearing me shout, followed behind, heading for the door.
The man-animal however, didn’t move.
I struck him hard, my fiery fist hitting him squarely on the snout. I cheered inwardly that I had found my mark but the cheer was short lived. The blow knocked its head to one side but that was it. My hand felt like it had been stopped short by a massive pound of flesh.
I heard the others stop short behind me and the driver jumped up and shouted in glee.
The man-animal looked at me for an instant then grabbed my still flaming hands. I winced in pain at the steel like grip but tried not to show any further emotion. The man-animal grabbed the other hand and studied both of them.
“Impressive.” He said. “Your powers are intriguing, Seer.” And he sq££zed harder, looking into my face as he did so.
“I am not a Seer.” I managed to gasp, the pain becoming unbearable.
“I told you, matching me in raw power would be useless but apparently you are either hard of hearing or stubborn” he said. He let go of my left hand and held on to my right.
“You want to fight me?” He growled
“Ah, but he in you says different! A fight it is, then. I will repay you for the cut you gave me on my lip earlier today. Come, the shack’s air stifles me!”
So saying he wrenched me out of the shed like I was a five year old reluctant to go to school. He yanked me out and threw me unto the sandy banks of the river Niger. I yelled as I sailed through the air, and landed on my face and chest on the river bank. I spat chunks of sand and mud out of my mouth and turned around to see the driver gesturing with his gun for the others to come out of the shack. In front of them, approaching menacingly, was the man-animal.
“Stand up, seer.” He said.
I pushed myself to my feet and looked around me. We were at the River Niger all right, still on the Asaba axis, with the huge pillars of the great River Niger Bridge standing tall in the distance. The river was calm and devoid of any floating vessels, at least at this point. The banks itself was lined with debris and plant life which suddenly developed into thick vegetation a few feet after the shack. There was no sign of life in sight, save for the shack itself, the kerosene light still glowing valiantly inside.
Further down the river bank, away from the bridge, was a solitary parked car. There was enough moonlight for me to make out the blue Camry.
“There you are.” I said to myself.
“Are you ready?” the man-animal said, settling on his haunches as if he wanted to spring at me.
I looked at my hands; the flames had gone out a long time ago. Not as if when they were on fire they had had much impact. I thought: Chukwudi the Stronger, if you have any more tricks up your sleeve, now would be the time to show them.
“Stop!” Jenny shouted, running towards the man-animal. It turned its attention towards her and she fell to her knees, pleading.
“What do you want, sea creature?” He asked, turning its gaze back to me.
“You asked me once to help you, remember? I don’t think you are a bad person, I don’t think you really want to do what you’ve been doing. Let me help you, please.”
There was a moment of silence as the man-animal contemplated what she had said. He’s eyes suddenly softened and became shiny with tears.
“No one can help me.” He said with a gruff but sad voice. “No one can help me. Not anymore.”
His features relaxed and for a moment, I saw the man trapped in the beast’s body. He looked sorrowful, repentant but resigned to his fate. He looked up at me and his face was full of tragedy
“I met an old man two nights ago,” He said, “A learned old man, well versed in his art. He came out to help my latest victim and I attacked him without hesitation. It was while I was drinking his blood that I realized; he was the one I had been searching for my whole life.” He laughed mirthlessly. “A little calmness, a little more self restraint, and he could have helped me. But no. I had to eat.
I had to feed this accursed appetite. And now his blood flows in my veins and curses me to madness. I thought I couldn’t control the beast before, but now? Now I just want to die.
I have killed five people today, seer, two of which you know of; and yet my appetite is not sated. I feel the animal within me has been-corrupted. I want to die but it won’t let me. I am in hell here.”
“Give her a chance,” I said, “It’s not over yet. Let her help you.”
The man within the animal looked at me and smiled sadly. And then he was gone. In his place was the snarling beast again, all rage and power.
“No!” He snarled. “I do not need help! I am power! I am splendor! And I will devour my enemies, starting with you and then her!”
“This ought to be fun,” the driver said, coming up with Chioma and Kelvin. “Come this way Ms. Jenny. You turn will come soon enough.”
Jenny was sobbing on the sand. She got up from her knees weakly and made as if to turn towards the driver; but suddenly she sprang forward and made a mad dash for the River.
“Hey! Get back here!” the driver shouted, pointing his gun. He was aiming for Jenny’s back when Chioma screamed out at the top of her lungs. Even the man-animal was startled.
The scream threw the driver off his aim and he fired two shots at Jenny, missing each time before Jenny dived into the water. The Driver cursed and fired into the water but Jenny was gone, disappearing beneath the waves. Soon, not even a ripple remained.
The driver marched angrily towards Chioma and struck her in the face. She collapsed to the floor and I rushed forward but something exploded at the side of my head and I found myself sailing through the air again. I landed a few feet away, groggy but refusing to pass out.
Blood ran down my cheek from where the beast had struck. I looked up and saw the beast was walking towards me.
“Leave them to settle themselves.” He said. “We have our own matter.”
I struggled to my feet as I saw Kelvin rush to Chioma’s aid. She had pushed herself up to her knees and I saw her put her palms together to pray, even as Kelvin stood between her and the gun wielding driver. I heard the driver laugh.
The man-animal followed my gaze and saw the scenario. He roared with laughter and turned back to me.
“Your lady friend has the right idea. Perhaps I ought to give you time to pray.”
I bent down and picked up a clod of earth and threw it at the man-animal. It raised its hands to protect its eyes and I grabbed a large stone I had seen on the floor and charged. The man-animal brought its hands down and knocked the stone out of my hand. It grabbed me by the shoulders and flung me back towards my friends. I landed a few feet away from the driver, my back hurting like hell. It dawned on me that the beast was just playing with me.
I could feel its raw power anytime it handled me. Even the throwing about was tempered down. I knew it could grab me and snap my neck if it wanted. If it tired if this game anytime soon we would be goners. By now Jenny had been gone up to five minutes even though it seemed like five hours. Where the hell was she?
The driver was talking. He was pointing at Chioma and Kelvin with the gun and laughing.
As the man-animal approached me the gun went off and Kelvin yelled, clutching his left leg.
He fell to the floor and the driver resumed his laugh.
“You’ll excuse my acquaintance.” The man-animal said. “He’s a bit of a sadist. I’ve been meaning to talk to him about it but I think I’m beginning to understand the fun in it myself. There’s nothing more pleasurable than watching your enemy suffer!”
Make me feel! Chukwudi the Stronger said.
The man-animal launched a blow at me and I was about to dodge when it dawned on me. I stopped and let him hit me. The punch literally drove me to the ground.
“Mistimed that one did you?” He said as I felt him pick me up by the scruff of my neck. It hurt and I shouted out in pain but made no attempt to defend myself. The man-animal dug its fist into my stomach and I doubled over as he let me fall to the ground again.
“Pathetic!” He growled. “I thought I saw a fire there just now. I thought I saw one greater than you within those defiant eyes of yours but sadly there is nothing there.”
The man-animal retraced his steps, going back towards the praying Chioma and the yelling Kelvin.
“It seems, for now, that these ones will offer more sport.”
“You will not harm them.” I said.
The man-animal stopped in his tracks. “That voice…”
I stood up.
The man animal turned around. “Ah,” he said. ”There you are.”
Chukwudi the stronger stood with me.
I thought: Was the beating really necessary? I hurt all over.
Chuks the Stronger grinned. The man-animal saw the grin and snarled. “There you are, Fire. Come and be consumed!”
I could feel the power of Chukwudi the Stronger surge through me. I could feel the fire, not just in my hands but through my whole body.
I clenched my fists and they spontaneously combusted. I felt good. I remember when I fought Mr. A*****’s spirit guards, how it felt back then, to be alive, to be Stronger. And my doubts vanished. Here was another loud mouth that needed shutting.
“Well?” It snarled, “Aren’t you…”
I didn’t let it finish. I sprang forth and the heaviness left my legs.
The sand no longer sank beneath my feet and in seconds I was upon him. I dealt him a blow I knew he could have dodged but he stood his ground defiantly to receive it.
“Mistake” I thought as my fist connected with his snout. The sound cracked through the night air and his accomplice turned in our direction. The man-animal was thrown back and dropped like a fallen tree to the ground.
“Mistimed that one did you?” I said, dripping sarcasm and relishing the pain I had dealt him.
The man-animal sat up, looking bewildered.
His accomplice turned away from tormenting his captors and called out
“What’s happening over there?”
The man-animal stood up on his feet. He wiped his jaw and saw blood. And he threw his head back and laughed.
“My father! My father! Finally a worthy opponent! Do not interfere!” he shouted as the driver raised his gun towards me. “I will deal with him by myself!”
And then gathering himself, he rushed towards me.
I dodged out of the way and hit him hard on the back but he didn’t fall. He turned swiftly with cat-like reflexes and caught me on my ribs. I fell back but recovered quickly, struggling to my hands and knees. He laughed, seeing my pose and walked up to me his hands spread out in traditional wrestling style. I followed suit, now enjoying the danger, no longer thinking of Jenny or the others, only wanting to fight.
“I can see your hunger, seer.” The man-animal said. “You fear nothing! You want only the battle, the fight to the finish! You don’t know how much I cherish you right now, how much I desire to consume you! How much power I will gain by feeding on your flesh!
“I never knew you were this talkative!” I said and ran towards him.
We clashed in the sands, gripping each other by the hand and struggled for dominance, he towering over me but not finding me an easy conquest for Chukwudi the Stronger fought within me now. I could feel the Stronger laughing to himself, enjoying the test of strength as we pushed back and forth in the sand.
Finally he used sheer brute force to lift me up my feet while still gripping my hands and made to slam me on my back. As I fell I kicked out viciously and caught him in the chest. We both fell to the floor again and I heard him grunt in pain. My shoulders hurt and my hands felt like they had been put in a vice. I struggled to my feet and saw the man-animal was already up.
There was fury in his face now and I knew playtime was over. I saw the dull red flame that had encompassed him when he battled the old man; once again it covered his whole body.
I gritted my teeth and waited for his onslaught…
And then I noticed the water closest to us swirl a little, then the swirling became bigger.
The man- animal followed my gaze and looked out to the river. Sure enough there was a disturbance, something was moving beneath the water. And then she emerged.