Prelude – Kenya

Some say human life began in Africa. Artiste took a sip of his water as he considered this. Africa was old but he couldn’t imagine human life, young and fragile surviving in this land. One thing he was certain of though, sweat started in Africa. Artiste allowed himself the pleasure of wiping his brow as his group commenced their stealthy advance through the bushland. The smoke in the distance that had caught the attention of the park rangers was starting to dissipate. Whatever had happened was over. Artiste, his brother and the other rangers were tasked with guarding the native animals of the park from poachers. He had received his training a few years ago and had been at it ever since. It was a job that carried with it both risk and reward, but today was clearly more the former.

Phillip gestured to the men take extra caution and he threw Artiste a grim smile. Artiste knew his brother was not happy and he couldn’t blame him. They had lost the spotting plane to some kind of mechanical issue and were now going in blind. The fire had been large enough that it was obviously not being used for cooking, which left the likely scenario of poachers. Poaching or hunting, had always been a part of life in Africa but as people began to realise that there was money to be made in tourists coming to see the animals, jobs had opened up to assist in keeping the animals alive. It wasn’t always easy and far too often they had failed, but they had slowed the killing and this was something. Poachers were a problem that couldn’t be solved by killing the poachers but often, that was how it ended. Most of the time the poachers were just trying to make money to feed their families that had been born in a part of Africa that was unlucky enough to not be deemed tourist worthy.

The group’s pace slowed as they started moving around the edge of the bushland that was obscuring the cause of the fire. Being wary of an ambush may have meant their progress was a little slower than they would have liked, but safety was always a concern. After all, they all had family depending on them and experience taught them that a little extra caution would hopefully mean they would all get back to their families, safe and sound. Artiste had been so focused on his movements that he had failed to notice Phillip having pulled up at the sight of something on the ground. Whatever it was had clearly spooked him as he gestured wildly.

“Michael!”

That got Artiste’s attention. His brother hadn’t called him Michael in years. Not since a visiting superstar footballer had called him Artiste in front of the other village kids. From that day, Artiste was his name. Artiste stopped cold, and then, once certain that there was no danger, he shifted across towards his brother. Phillip was clearly agitated and indicated a patch on the ground. Animal tracks were one of the first few things you learnt to spot growing up. A game from the old times, Artiste remembered his grandfather showing him how to track different animals. Animals, people, cars, everything left tracks on the earth. At the time he had just thought of it as a game, however it had proved to be a useful talent when he had applied for this job.

Phillip was the most experienced of the group and was an amazing tracker. Several times it was that skill alone that had saved their squad from ambushes. Phillip gestured to the tracks, all too clear on the ground. These were definitely animal tracks, but tracks from no animal that Artiste had ever seen before. There were also tracks from something that could almost have been men but weren’t. Heavier and larger, they were doing their best to disguise their numbers but it was clear there were a fair few of them. Whatever Artiste and his squad were walking towards was, far outside of their training and as a fear grew in the pit of his stomach, his thoughts went straight to his wife and child.

Every man in the squad was now more on edge. Rifles were at the ready and safeties were removed as the squad edged up on the clearing. The smoke had started to thin out but the smell of animal poaching was distinct. This place reeked of it. You could hear the crackling of the fires as they took up position to emerge and apprehend, or kill whatever was there. Hopefully surprise would be enough in this case. Another sound was heard from the clearing and the men began to relax at an instant. It was a sound they instantly recognized. It was the sound of vultures feeding. The group, still alert broke from cover as they caught sight of the camp.

It was a charnel house. The poacher’s vehicles had been overturned, burnt or completely destroyed. The poachers had been camped here, that was obvious, and it appeared that they were seemingly going about their gruesome business when they were attacked. The carcasses of the poachers and the animals they had killed lay strewn around the remains of the camp. There was no difference between them all any more. Now they were all just food for the scavengers.

Michael indicated for the men to spread out and search for any clues as to whom, or what would have done this. Artiste looked over the camp. These men had been eating when they had been attacked. Wholly unprepared for whatever had cut through them. There were arrows and slash wounds everywhere and some looked as though they had been burned to death. Artiste pulled one of the arrows from a body. It looked tribal but not a local tribe. He knew most every tribe in Kenya and the surrounding areas. He inspected the arrow. It was new. The wood was unusual and the tip, steel with edging designed to hurt if you tried to remove it. The fletching’s were done extremely well. Whoever had made this arrow knew what they were doing. He looked around. Slashing wounds, arrows, mingled with explosive devices made the whole scene somewhat surreal. There was no point to any of this. The hides had been left, nothing had been taken, and only death remained. He had seen many atrocities over his many years but nothing like this. Clear tracks could be seen leading away from the camp. Artiste inspected them for any other information they could garner. The attackers, no longer trying to hide their presence, had increased their rate of movement. The oily fire from the vehicles had made them wary of discovery. There was another thing that made Artiste’s heart sink. The group now contained the footsteps of men. Clearly they had taken some of the survivors with them.

An urgent shout from Prince Peter drew the group. They found him with what could only just be termed a survivor. The man was bleeding badly, and there were signs that the vultures had already discovered him and commenced their gruesome task, unconcerned with the fact that he wasn’t quite dead. The man’s pants were around his legs, suggested that he had been going to the toilet when the attack occurred. His eyes were wide but not conscious of the group of men that stood before him and he kept repeating one word over and over to himself. Madimos. Ogres.

As the park rangers looked to see if there were any other survivors, Phillip reported the incident and its location. Others would need to see this. Artiste could hear the anger in Phillip’s voice as he made his report. This was butchery and they had seen enough of it over their lives. Artiste, realised he was shaking. His smile was gone and he too wanted to avenge these men that lay scattered across the area. Africa was a beautiful place and was not without its darkness. Tribal wars over the years had left their mark on much of Africa and even in their small group, all the men had seen that violence in one form or another. Artiste wanted to rescue the men from whatever group had done this. Phillip had the same fire burning within but his maturity won out. They would track and gather information till they could gather additional forces. The squad composed themselves, much more cautious than before and headed out into the wilds.

The squad moved at a faster rate now, following the tracks that the creatures left. The rules of engagement for the park rangers were very specific, but today not one man cared. The attack had been beneficial in that it told a more accurate tale of the numbers they were tracking. They had counted twenty in the party, both man and beast along with two survivors from the poachers camp. Artiste was mentally going through every article, every book he had read and film he had seen, desperately trying to determine what animal had made the tracks they were following, looking for anything that would give them the edge in the battle to come. Time passed quickly as the squad moved towards their enemy. Though stealth was the key, they were making good time and gaining on their targets. They were supposed to wait for backup but no man in the group could deny the desire for revenge on the butchers they were chasing.

There was a gully ahead and the tracks clearly went down into it. Their progress slowed. Caution returned as their training overrode the anger that they all felt. Dropping to the ground, the group spread out to cover each other. Belly’s to the earth, they moved to the edge of the ridge. The air was unusually calm and the birds sang a happy song with no mind to the world around them. Artiste had moved closer to his brother. As always when there was trouble, the pair would be there for each other. Artiste and Phillip were the first ones to the edge of the gully and as the cautiously peered over the edge they were greeted by the one thing neither of them had been expecting.

Nothing.

No animals, men, prisoners, and no ambush. Not even tracks to show where they had gone. Just an unimpressive gully that was like so many that littered the national park. Confusion settled into the minds of the men that moments ago were ready to kill. This should not have been possible. A group that large could not simply vanish. For five minutes the squad went over every inch of the gully. Every sign told the same story. The tracks had gone right to the edge of the ridge and then simply vanished. No explanation could be found and as the men looked at each other, a fear fell across them. Though no one said it, Artiste knew that they were all thinking the same thing. Madimos.

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