The Color of Night
Two Ghouls, One Cup
“So tell me again Max, why the hell did I let you talk me into coming out here?” Tony swatted at an errant branch with his machete, keeping pace easily with the younger man. Beads of sweat clung to his scowling brow in the humidity.
“Because you agree to anything when you’re drunk, you big lush.” Even though Max didn’t turn back to regard his friend, he could practically feel the grimace aimed at his back. It made him smile. “C’mon Tony, it’s not like we’re traipsing around a Central American jungle on little more than a hunch, following a trail that’s over 3,000 years old and courting malaria every step of the way! You DID remember to get your shots, right?”
“Just once Max, just ONCE, I’d like to go somewhere without having to say “fuck you”."
“But your sense of camaraderie is what makes these trips so special!”
After several hours of following the barest hints of a trail and a map that dated back to a time before the Spanish expeditions, Max and Tony found themselves looking down a naturally formed embankment into darkness. The jungle beyond this point was primordial and impenetrable, save for a clearly hacked path that led towards the very heart of the temple they sought.
“I thought you said the 4th temple of Lamanai was hidden? As in, “people don’t know about it.” What the hell is this then?!" Tony’s scowl was threatening to become permanent.
Max shrugged, but looked worried nonetheless. “We’re people. We knew about it. Where do you think I got this map? Just keep your eyes open and mouth shut.”
The jungle path snaked its way downward into parts of Belize the sun hadn’t seen in generations. This place was ancient in ways that made a man feel like he was suddenly a bottom-of-the-food-chain trespasser. Stone markers peeked out of the tangled, rotted underbrush occasionally. Those spoke of a civilization that predated the birth of Christ by 1500 years, at least. Ancient indeed! For hours the two men traveled further and further from human civilization, delving into a world of feral darkness.
The ziggurat was mostly choked by thorny vines and encroaching trees. It’s pale stone facade did indeed resemble a skull, although that was hardly the first thing a person would notice. Human skulls, the real thing, were scattered around the yawning entrance of the structure. Thousands of them. Some stacked in pillars. Some in pyramid-like piles. Others formed morbid dunes, an endless tide of eyeless faces. A quick glance told Max that the age differences between some ranged from artifact to recent kill. Thousands of years of death sat here in evidence. Tony looked sick.
“If I had to guess, I’d say this represents about 20 to 30 kills a year for….a really long time.” Max wiped the sweat from his face. This place positively SEETHED with violence. He glanced back at Tony. The man was obviously affected, but held his own. A true warrior.
“As per usual, you’ve come to a more or less correct conclusion and yet still manage to appear ignorant, Maximillian!” The disdain-filled voice was accompanied by the sound of several rifles clicking over to full auto. A short, toad-faced man with a pince-nez stepped out from behind a tree, arrogantly holding a red clay bowl aloft. The very reason Max and Tony were there. Three Spanish thugs appeared from the brush, holding weapons. They looked equal parts nervous and angry.
Max let out an exasperated sigh. “Linas. What the hell are you doing here? Aren’t the Belize authorities still offering that million dollar bounty for your head?” His Spanish was clear and flawless.
Linas blinked several times in confusion and then suddenly became aware of his goons passing glances between each other. “Gah, you asshole!” He then hurriedly rattled off in Spanish “Don’t listen to him! He’s a thief! No pay if he gets the bowl!”
Suddenly a shot rang out, striking a tree mere inches from Linas’ head. The man shrieked and dove behind the thick trunk. Everyone else looked confused. Max turned to see Tony aiming from around a skull pillar. Tony’s eyebrows waggled with false innocence. “What? You said the guy was worth a million bucks!”
With grinding teeth, Max dove behind a skull mound as the hired help took aim.
“I swear to Buddah or whoever the hell you worship, I’m going to kill you!” Normally Tony would snap something witty back at Max when he’d spout stupidity like that, but the fact that both Max and Linas were shrieking it in tandem….Well, he’d let it slide this time.
Bullets were striking off skull piles, sending shards of bone in every direction. Max had managed to maneuver around to one side of the mound he was using for cover whilst taking a minimal number of lacerations. It helped that the goons were bunching up. Professionals would have circled around, cutting off any chance for escape. Tony was holding his ground for the moment and doing a great job of drawing most of the gunfire. That gave Max a moment to scan the area for Linas. The creepy little ferret was an excellent marksman, but still left the heavy lifting to whatever redshirts he’d bought that week. Max frowned. A shadow darting across the treeline towards the three thugs caught his eye. It was bigger and faster than Linas though…
The two remaining gunmen both turned their weapons on the foliage that suddenly seemed to grow teeth and eat the third hapless thug. Tony was able to distinctly pick out a few frantic words in Spanish….something about jungle demons and eaters of flesh. Not something he wanted to get involved with. As he turned to look for Max, his gaze locked with a withered human-like creature that had been trying to sneak up on him. It had deep red, almost brown skin and fangs the color of polished obsidian. Two empty black pits stared back at him. No soul stirred in that expanse, only hunger and death. The creature stank of rotting meat. Tony suddenly had a fairly clear idea of what had placed all the skulls in the area. He reached for his sword and silently uttered a prayer.
Tony’s skill with his blade spun a defensive barrier of whirling steel in front of him. To its credit, the monster didn’t foolishly charge forward, rather it attempted subtle feints to the left and right. Tony adjusted as quickly as he could, keeping his sword between himself and the ghoul, but it was tiring work. He glanced back to see what was going on with the “hired help”. Both men were laying on the ground, minus their heads and from the gaping holes in each chest, probably missing hearts as well. The other ghoul was nowhere to be found. Where did it go? Tony’s attention snapped forward as his opponent attempted to slide sharply to the left and hook around his defenses. It howled in anger as his sword cut a neat line across its torso. Tony grinned defiantly and pressed the attack. If he could angle the monster in such a way that gave Max a clear shot…
Wait, where WAS Max?!
Surprisingly enough, the jungle opened into a large open area that ran in a long northwesterly line. It split the jungle into two distinct sections, which probably meant a river had once been here. Max could see Linas about 30 yards up ahead, trying catch his breath. Where exactly was he expecting to go?
“What the hell were you thinking Linas?! You’d just pay a few hard up locals to help you steal that Grail? Nevermind the guardians you’d rile up, that’s someone ELSE’S problem, right?”
“It’s YOUR problem actually!” Linas was sprinting full bore down the field. Damn that little prick could run when he wanted to…And what the hell did he mean by “YOUR problem now?”
Stepping out into the clearing, Tony could just make out a dark spot descending in the distant sky. Straining his ears, he was fairly certain it was some sort of helicopter. Probably evac for Linas. Certainly not for those poor bastards back at the temple. Tony narrowed his gaze and clenched his bloodied fists. “Son of a bitch must pay…”
From a safe distance, this probably looked hilarious. A short, bespectacled suit, screaming like a small girl whilst clutching a bowl to his chest followed by an angry Scotsman trailing behind, uttering a nonstop train of obscenities and waving an old pistol. Behind him, loped a shriveled monster, nearly keeping pace despite the bullet in each of its kneecaps. Benny Hill meets John Carpenter. Ahead of them, a military helicopter was trying to touch down in the fairly narrow space between the two jungles. Max thought about taking a shot at Linas, but didn’t want to risk hitting the Grail. Plus that thing behind him….Good lord, was it catching up?!
Linas reached the chopper just as it settled into the tall grass. Not even bothering to acknowledge those onboard, he dove directly into the open cargo deck, cradling the Grail in his arms.
“Careful you idiot! If you break the soul battery, I’ll dump you back into that jungle until you find me another one!” The old man’s wheelchair slid forward. His face contorted in a mixture of anger and obvious impatience. “Carlton, deal with those stragglers, now!”
A man in his early 30’s stepped off the helicopter, landing stiffly in the grass. His face was slack and pale, his eyes empty of any life. Moving with mechanical precision, he lifted an incredibly heavy, shoulder-mounted RPG and walked a few paces away from the chopper.
Max could hear the ghoul getting closer by the moment. Any second now there’d be teeth in his spine, something he was damn sure wouldn’t be covered by his HSA. The helicopter was in full view now and Linas had scurried out of sight. Suddenly a man in army fatigues walked out from the helicopter’s silhouette and lifted….holy shit, was that a rocket launcher?!
As the projectile sailed straight towards him, Max dove to the side and smacked his head on probably the only rock within 5 miles. The ghoul attempted to follow suit, but found its damaged legs just a fraction of a second too slow. The explosion tore the monster in half and sent Max sailing through the air as he tried to rise. The entire world suddenly felt like he was viewing it through a bad filter, with lousy audio to match.
“Bring him.” Snarled an unfamiliar voice.
Being dumped onto the hard floor of the helicopter was probably the LEAST horrible thing to happen all day. It still hurt though. Somehow, Max found his voice. “These folks your boss, Linas? Old guy looks like a douche.” His head lolled to one side in order to get a better look at army boy. "Zombie, huh? Can’t say I’m surprised. I bet Wheels here is “boss of the month” on a regular basis"
The old man sneered and looked as though he was about to issue Carlton an order to do something painful, when a very different voice interrupted them.
“Oh believe me sweetie, he has his moments.”
From the pilot seat rose a young, flame-haired woman, dressed in a form-fitting flight suit. The front was unzipped just enough to get a man’s attention, which of course it did.
“Evening, ma’am. I must apologize for my idiot cousin. He slipped his leash and has apparently gotten himself lost on your helicopter. I’ll just retrieve him and be on my way, thanks. Nice flight suit, by the way.”
“I’m not your cousin, you asshole!” Linas staggered back towards the front of the chopper. “This man is nothing but trouble. A waste of space and certainly not worth the air he breathes, Mr Faust!” With shaking hands, he passed the red clay bowl to the old man. “As promised, one ancient Mayan soul battery, or Grail, if you will. A fine specimen I might add and-”
“Are you seriously starting a lecture, Linas? Because I certainly don’t plan on dying to the sounds of you butchering first world history.” Max rolled his eyes.
The red headed woman smiled. “Mmmmm….I don’t think that will be an issue sweetheart. We have a friend that’d like a word with you actually.”
“Can you do that Mmmmm thing again? That was pretty good.” Max grinned in spite of himself.
She returned his smile, but in a more predatory fashion. Her eyes flickered with a faint orange light. The fuck was that?
Faust snorted, apparently tired of the conversation. "Carlton, please restrain Mr Calibur in the cargo hold. Miss Bondurant can play with him later, once Victor is finished. His attention turned to the red clay bowl that he cradled gently in his spidery hands. “This will do wonderfully. The remains Victor has managed to claim for me will serve as the perfect repository for all this succulent soul-energy.”
Linas paled visibly. “Victor….Logue? There, ah…there won’t be any need for me to tarry along once we get back to the airport. I expect my payment is already there?”
Faust waved a hand dismissively. “Yes, yes. You continue to be of use, Mr Gárdonyi, so your payment awaits. Along with continued opportunities to serve us!” His voice didn’t make that sound like an offer.
Max spoke up quickly. “Hey, any chance I can get a job application with you folks? Ol’ Fausty makes it sound so appealing. Will there be a test later?” He tried to twist his left arm out of Carlton’s grip. “Miss Bondurant can give me an oral interview!”
Her laughter was warm and sultry, but had an edge to it that hinted at darker things. “We’ll see if Maxie earns himself some playtime later! Now be good for Carlton. We used to date, until his accident. He’s still pretty clingy.” She slid back into the lengthening shadows cast over the cockpit, swaying her hips seductively. All three men watched her go. The zombie made a sad noise.
Moments later the helicopter lurched off the ground and slowly started its ascent. Max found his arms pinned by Carlton’s inhuman grip. The zombie started back towards the rear of chopper. Faust chuckled to himself and wheeled towards the front. Linas did his best not to be noticed. The twat.
And then everything went (even further) sideways.
Fun Fact #1: Ghoul heads are surprisingly aerodynamic.
The NFL should seriously look into a ghoul-headed ball design. Them suckers practically float! This one seemed to, as it sailed through the closing cargo door. It bounced off Carlton’s noggin almost perfectly. It probably hurt too, if Carlton’s suddenly slack grip and staggered stance were any indication. Max used the momentary confusion to be confused, but also to slip his left arm free. The arm that had an infamous FN M1910 up its sleeve. He pivoted and fired the gun into Carlton’s face.
Fun Fact #2: Zombies don’t need faces to beat the crap out of you.
The first punch took Max off his feet and into the chopper’s ceiling. It hurt. The second would’ve probably killed him, except that Faust was screaming something at Carlton Noface that had fully garnered the zombie’s attention. What….?
“…that head before it explodes!”
Max glanced down at the ghoul head he had nearly forgotten about a moment ago. Was that a canister lodged in its mouth?
The zombie dove towards the rolling ghoulnade as it slid towards the bay door. The same door it had come sailing through actually. Linas, in the what was probably the only useful moment of his life, frantically pulled the emergency latch so that both Carlton and the ghoul head rolled right out. The explosion followed close behind. The helicopter listed sharply as a string of very unladylike curses erupted from the cockpit. Max took several steps towards the open bay, but then turned and leveled his pistol, THE pistol, at Linas.
“I-I…just saved you Max. No need to spoil sport with your soul-eating handgun! Call it even, man.” Linas’ eyes were darting around scanning for anything that might save him at this point.
Max leveled the gun at him and pulled the trigger. The gun clicked. Linas screamed and immediately began frantically clawing at his chest. “Only seven shots, you big baby.” Max grinned and stepped out of the open bay door. “Next time I’m saving one for you!” Linas blinked and looked down. He was fine.
As he fell, Max could distinctly hear a very un-Linas-like “FUCK YOU” from up in the helicopter. Man, he sure did bring out the best in people. Time seemed to slow as the ground rushed to meet him. The end was here, all the adventures led to this: a glorious fall from the heavens into primordial jungle. He would vanish into the green and be consumed by the very planet whose myths and legends he had always strived to understand. His death would be a mystery itself! Countless future explorers and artifact hounds would speak of how Maximilian Calibur, famous archaeologist, had gone into the dark heart of Belize, never to return. Maybe one of them, perhaps a plucky, young lad, almost as handsome as Max himself, would find his remains and piece together this last epic tale…
The chopper had only risen about 6 feet so the fall wasn’t that bad.
Max lay in the grass, marveling at how all the different parts of the body could hurt in different ways at the same time. The sun was marching slowly towards the horizon, but still cast its gentle warmth upon him. Silver lining, one might suppose. A cold shadow passed over his face rather suddenly, revealing a battered Tony Akira staring down at him with a quizzical expression.
“You get my message, Max? I stuffed it into that Ghoul’s cabeza, since I know how much you like getting head.”
Max started to laugh, despite how bad it hurt. “I had just finished telling a beautiful woman how she could give me an oral interview.” He was laughing uncontrollably now, watching the chopper grow smaller in the distance and the thunderous expression on Tony’s face grow worse by the second.
“You motherfucker. You scotchdick, skirt-chasing, dirty motherfucker! You leave my ass to fight a 3000+ year old MAYAN GOD, while you go play class reunion with Twattly Von WhoGivesAFuck and his league of hey-we-brought-a-chopper assclowns and after I NEARLY DIE from my LIFE OR DEATH struggle, barely defeating a ghoul that apparently ate his Wheaties EVERY FUCKING DAY since the dawn of time…just so I get to play WINGMAN by accident? HELL’S NO, SON! HELL’S NO! Where is that gun of yours? It’s going straight up your ass. Right now. Up. The. Ass.”
“Thanks for the save, Tony.” Max’s laughter at his friend’s tirade grew weak and he coughed.
Tony stopped in mid-froth and gave Max a serious look. “Broken rib?” Max nodded. Tony looked off towards the setting sun. It’d be dark in an hour and most of their supplies were damaged or ruined beyond use. He sighed and slowly wiped a hand over his face.
“Just once Max, just ONCE, I’d like to go somewhere without having to say “fuck you”. Good thing I have such a great sense of camaraderie." Tony shook his head, trying hard not to smile. “Try not to run off while I get a fire going.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it, buddy.”