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Jungle Rules

Fiction
Julius Erzbrenner

Jungle Rules

At dawn’s first clearing of the eastern sky, the youth arose. Dew drops from a large leaf quenched his thirst; a raw egg satisfied his hunger. Then, picking up his knapsack and his father’s gun, he vanished in the jungle’s undergrowth.

In the greyish twilight of daybreak, white mists, thick and impenetrable, were still clinging to the hills, the ridges and the primal forest canopy. Soon these last remnants of the night would be driven off, along with the scores of stars which now still stood above, a twinkling phalanx in retreat before the dawn’s advance. The youth sometimes imagined that this vast and uncountable field of lights was how the great metropolises of old must have looked – before their fall, before their final perdition.

The jungle was thick, but he was no stranger to it; his step was swift like a gazelle’s and light like a jaguar’s, and so he made good ground, only another fleeting shadow in a deep maze of tree, fern, leaf and liana. Soon the sun rose higher, the morning light glistened up above between the tree tops, and the sounds of pompous birds and labouring insects filled the air, a violent and inescapable buzzing and whistling, drowning out all subtle sound. The youth knew he was being watched, his every movement followed closely, his breath and scent alerting prey and predator alike. Though he had learned the jungle’s ways since childhood, he also knew it was hostile ground – a field of  merciless battle, a maelstrom of being in which the forms of vitality whirled ever round in deadly dance, manifested only to be devoured again; mating, birthing, killing, feeding, perishing, a ceaseless hurricane of life and death – and he, but a youth, did not think for a moment that he was out of reach of its devouring jaws.

Emerging from the forest onto a sun-lit cliff-top, the youth paused to survey his surroundings. Before him, an endless sea of emerald stretched far to the horizon. This was the vast, wild interior, a seemingly unbounded green hell. Few men knew what forgotten and elusive secrets, what remnants of past ages, toxic abominations or buried treasures it contained under its suffocating growth. Rumours went around of overgrown cities, long abandoned, or sealed underground labyrinths containing incomprehensible artifacts forged by the counternatural will of a bygone age. Out here was the realm of the bushmen, lonesome adventurers who sought the jungle’s mysteries, but also of savage half-men and of beasts known and unknown. The boy knew he’d be well advised to tread carefully, and to have eyes in the back of his head.

He couldn’t say what had driven him out here, away from his home on the windy coast. Some stirring in his blood, perhaps an instinct – or mere youthful eagerness? It didn’t matter; he did not question himself. As he spotted a thin column of white smoke rising from between the trees some miles away, he knew which way to go.

Speeding off and onwards into the thicket, he took the long rifle from his shoulder and started working the lever. The weapon was old and required a significant charge of energy to unleash its destructive potential; the youth would have to work away on the lever for quite some time until it could be fired. Originally, it would have drawn its charge from a battery pack, but this had been lost without possibility of replacement, and so the youth’s uncle had modified the gun to be hand-loaded instead. It was a powerful weapon, his father’s most valued possession, and yesterday the youth had borrowed it – without asking first, that is – for his foray into the wilderness.

The boy was still building up the charge when he came close to where the smoke was rising. As he crept up a tall rock, working the lever but careful not to make a sound, he gained a good overview of the clearing ahead and the strange scene in its midst.

Three men were kneeling on the ground with their backs to him. They wore fur loincloths and crown-like hats adorned with flowers and feathers; their bodies were painted with crimson spiral patterns. Their heads bowed, they seemed lost in some repetitive prayer chant. Savages, the boy thought to himself.

Before them a large stone altar was heaped up, similarly adorned with flowers, feathers and bones, and framed by burning torches. Atop it lay a blocky orange helmet. Faded paint and some rust indicated that it had been here for some time. The visor was closed, but in the darkness behind it the boy could make out the uncanny grin of a skeletal face.

A strange thing to worship, he thought. Maybe the savages had slain the helmet’s owner, or simply found it somewhere as it was? It was known that some tribes had taken to worshipping the Old World’s remnant artifacts, hoping to share in their mysterious powers. But the boy thought he could put it to better use. His uncle, well versed in divining the workings of techno-relics, could probably extract some useful components. A good prize to take home. Still working his rifle’s lever, the boy wondered how he should acquire it. He could simply shoot one of the men, but what of the other two?

Suddenly, as he was trying to think of a plan, he heard a voice from right behind him whisper in his ear: “That’s a very nice rifle.”

The boy spun around, only to find himself staring up the barrel of another gun. A man was holding it. He had long, wild hair and a bushy beard; six rings adorned his nine fingers, and several bags and ammunition belts were slung around his body. A bushman! “Mine’s just an old bullet thrower. Primitive compared to yours. It bangs loud?” The youth nodded.

“Then best not fire it. The rest of the tribe will be nearby, they’ll gladly take our skin – let’s keep quiet. Come with.” The stranger led the youth away until they were out of earshot of the savage priests.

“Wanna tell me who you are?” the bushman asked, casually shouldering his weapon.

The boy defiantly puffed up his chest. “I’m the son of Peer Goodlord, who leads my village’s war council! My mother’s father was Jorn Tebbe, first of rank among its founders.”

The stranger gave off a hearty belly laugh. “Ho! True nobility then, eh? So tell me, Goodlord’s son, what’s a green boy like you creeping ‘round the jungle for?”

“Tell me who you are, first.”

“Just a seeker o’fortune, as is plain.” The bushman gestured toward his gun and bags. “But if you must know – my beautiful mother, rest her soul, was but a slave whore to a desert warband. And my father – well, could’ve been any old dog.” He flashed a dirty grin behind his beard.

For a moment, boy and man stood silent, mustering each other warily. Then the stranger shrugged: “Ya know, boy, I was gonna take that helmet for myself. But – I like ye. So you’ll help me get it; we’ll share the spoils. Dealy-o?” He stuck out his hand. “You’d never bag it alone, anyway.”

Relucantly, the boy admitted to himself that the bushman was right. He couldn’t take those savages all by himself. And although he didn’t show it, he also liked the man: His jovial demeanour reassured him; the lazy way he held his weapon made him appear trustworthy. And so the boy shook the stranger’s hand: “Dealy-o.”

Around noon, the two made their move. It fell to the boy to act as distraction, although he still took his rifle along, not willing to part with it. As he emerged from the brush, holding up his hands as if to parlay, and the three shamans arose, startled by his sudden appearance, the bushman struck from the shadows. With the cold precision and calculated force of a veteran, one by one the half-men were dispatched with quick, dispassionate thrusts of the stranger’s knife. The youth had expected more of a fight – but after merely a moment of frantic action the clearing lay silent again, save for birdsong and the rustling of leaves.

“Good effort, boy,” the bushman quipped, wiping his knife on a savage’s loincloth. He picked up the helmet and shook it, unceremoniously ejecting the rotten head inside. It skipped across the ground, shedding shreds of black, leathery skin along the way.

This was an old combat helmet, the bushman explained, worn long ago by fighters who would leap into battle from great flying machines. Nothing special; the matching armour suit would’ve been a much better find. But it should fetch an alright price on the travelling bazaars.

The youth didn’t care much about the bazaars. In his mind he saw images of great, forgotten wars, cataclysmic clashes between legions of elite men in mechanical armour, duelling it out in burning forests and among the clouds. He wanted to ask the stranger to tell him more about the Old World’s wars, but a sudden rustling behind them caused boy and man to whirl around.

Yet the clearing lay empty, save for two bleeding corpses. Only two? There! – a trail of blood led off into the brush. Leaves and branches were still moving where the third man appeared to have just made his escape. The bushman raised his weapon, as if to fire after him – but then dropped it again, having no target. The shaman was gone. Boy and man turned to look at each other.

“Honest mistake.” The stranger scratched his beard, looking embarrassed. “He’ll raise a ruckus soon. No point going after him.”

“What do we do?”

“Well, kid – I hope you’re good on your feet.”

As if in response, the sound of drums arose from deeper within the jungle, and wailing voices cried out in anger. The wounded man had alerted his tribe – now the war path lay open, and soon the whole savage lot would descend upon the clearing. The stranger grabbed the boy’s shoulders, shoved him off into the bushes, and the two picked up the pace.

Soon they were barreling through the brush at full gallop, vaulting over fallen trees and clambering up mossy slopes while branches and thorns struck at their arms and faces. From behind them they could hear the half-men’s wild war cries drawing closer – the entire tribe seemed to be out on the hunt for the two fugitive blasphemers. The boy knew well what fate awaited him should he fall into their hands – he was determined to, quite literally, save his skin, and thus ran like the hounds of hell were on his heels. In front, the bushman was speeding ahead like a madman, forging a path through the jungle’s twilight without looking back.

More than once, the youth’s long rifle got caught on some low-hanging vine or hindered his way through narrow passages. Slowly the stranger increased his distance, and soon the boy lost sight of him in the shadows of the brush, only catching glimpses of him, following the trail the man left or just going by instinct, struggling to keep up. He could already feel the savage warriors’ hot breath on his neck, his heart pounding desperately, as the bushman’s cry bellowed from up ahead: “Kiddo! You comin’?!”

Suddenly the boy was out under the open sky, and there stood the stranger – on the far side of a gaping abyss. Down below, whitewater roared violently through a narrow creek of naked rock running straight through the forest. A small waterfall upriver was covering everything in a glistening mist. The youth wondered how the man had made the jump. It seemed an impossible distance. His unwieldy gun weighed heavy on his shoulder.

“Throw me the rifle, kid!” The stranger’s words were almost drowned out by the water’s roar. “Hurry!”

Impossible, the boy thought. He couldn’t part with his father’s weapon. But he couldn’t make the jump with it either. And yet – if he died out here and the savages got it – what good would that do anyone? Thus, gritting his teeth, the boy hurled the long rifle across the crevasse like a spear. The bushman caught it with his left, grinning with satisfaction.

“I’m coming across!” the boy shouted. As he stepped back to get his run-up, a swarthy figure broke through the thicket only a stone’s throw away. The savages had found them. Driven by sheer thirst for life, the youth, his body taut like a tiger’s, sped off towards the abyss and jumped.

But the creek was wide, and the boy was still young. As he flew through the sprayfilled air, passing through all the rainbow’s colours for a moment, he quickly realized he wouldn’t make it. Chest first, he slammed into the creek’s opposite edge, his knees crashing hard against the rocks. All breath knocked out of him, he struggled to hold on, but the ground was slippery and he slid backwards into the depths. At the last moment he caught hold of a sharp, protruding rock. As he held on for dear life, his fingers slowly sliding off the wet stone, the stranger appeared above him. The boy’s rifle was slung over his shoulder. He looked at the youth with a strange, dispassionate expression.

“Help!” the boy pleaded. It was all he could say. But the bushman didn’t move.

“You’ll be alright, kid,” he said – and, with a wink, added: “Nothing personal.” Then he turned away; in a second, the stranger was gone. Betrayal!

The boy felt his heart sinking. His fingers lost their grip; everything seemed to be moving very slowly. Then the world vanished in a splash of white as he dropped like a stone into the raging torrent below. Even as he struggled against it, the water’s force made him his plaything and he was swept along. Soon cool darkness enveloped him.

It was already dusk when he came to, washed ashore on a sandy river bank, feeling very weak, cold and alone. As his senses returned, he knew he needed a fire, but it would be unwise to start one out in the open. Best to find shelter first – maybe there were caves or overhangs in those mountains yonder. As he reached for his rifle, he remembered what had occurred…

Shame, indignation and anger rose from his heart, and he let them burn with grim determination as he swore revenge upon the two-faced stranger. He should have known better than to trust a bastard bushman so naively. How could he face his father now? No, he would have to get the weapon back – at any cost. Surely the man thought him dead. Tomorrow he would pick up his trail…

Steaming with righteous fury, the boy gathered his strength and made off towards the mountains. He needed to hurry – the jungle was already hungry for his soul. As the heights drew closer and the forest grew less dense, he suddenly spotted a faint light in the distance, some way up a mountainside…

It couldn’t be, the youth thought, clenching his fists. Did the bushman have the same idea as him, holed up in a cave just there? This was his chance! They boy would wait out the night, and when the stranger left the cave in the morning, he could – but no. He’d never stoop to being a bushwhacking thief. He wouldn’t be so ignoble. First, he would try to settle things honourably.

As he crept closer to the cave, it became clear a fire was burning inside. In its dancing shadows, the boy could make out human shapes strewn across the rocky ground, all motionless, in the mouth of the cave: Savages, and a good dozen of them. All were dead, their painted corpses riddled with ghastly bullet holes, their blood spattered across the stones. There was no doubt – the stranger had to be here.

The boy took cover at the entrance. Then, mustering all his courage, he shouted: “Bushman! Are you there? I’ve come for my father’s gun!”

There was a moment of silence; only the youth’s heart was pounding in the dark. Then a familiar voice rang out: “Boy! Is that you?” The stranger sounded weaker than the youth remembered. Still, it was him, no mistake. “I’ve underestimated you!”

“Give me the rifle,” replied the boy. “Keep the helmet. But the weapon is my father’s; it must return to him!”

Another moment passed in silence. Then pained coughing could be heard from the cave. The stranger’s answer came as a low groaning: “Alright. Come get it, then.”

The youth hesitated. “You’ve fooled me once already, fiend! Do you think me stupid? You’ll simply shoot me!”

“Suit yourself, kiddo. Me, I’ll stay right here.”

Carefully crouching behind the rocks, his heart pounding to his chest, the youth crept into the cave. As he peered out from cover, he saw the fire burning in the back of the cave – and there, seated against the wall, was the bushman, the long rifle in his lap. He seemed to be sleeping, his face hidden under a large hat. More dark corpses were strewn about at this feet, seemingly gunned down as they had charged.

“Come out, kid. Promise I won’t shoot ye,” he growled, as he put the rifle on the ground and pushed it away out of his reach.

Warily, the boy emerged from hiding. Flames of pride and vengeance were burning inside him. Maybe he would shoot the stranger instead…

“There’s your daddy’s gun. Didn’t help me much, anyway.” Again the stranger coughed, his whole body shaking. “But… You’ll have to do me a favour.” He raised his head and met the gaze of the boy, who, wary of more tricks, froze while reaching for the weapon.

“State your terms, thief.”

“Well – ye’ll have to shoot me.”

It was only now that the youth saw the large crimson stain on the bushman’s coat. His right hand, lying in his lap, was little more than a bloody pulp.

“Was high time they got me.” Again the bushman flashed his dirty grin, but his face was pale.

“Serves you right,” the boy replied, even though he wasn’t unaffected by the bushman’s sorry state and felt pity for him.

“Agh, don’t give me that. I told you it was nothin’ personal. You got a nice rifle, is all.”

“And so you’d leave me for dead? Truly, your father was a dog – there’s not a shred of honour in you!”

The bushman nodded, then let out a long sigh. “Yea yea, all true. And you’re a noble, no doubt. I could say it’s your fault; you’re too naive. But I’ll tell ye this instead, because I like ye, boy, honest.” He spat out a mouthful of blood. “This ain’t no place for scruples. The jungle don’t care, it’ll take you soon it gets the chance. Let your guard down, it’ll eat yer soul. Ain’t nothin’ to do with honour. Ain’t nothin’ personal, neither. Slave or princeling, all the same. It’s the jungle’s law, and it ain’t good nor evil. Remember that.”

The boy sat down beside the man. His rifle indicated it was loaded – but the stranger hadn’t fired it. “What happened with you?” he asked. Seeing the bushman’s suffering and having heard his grim request, his anger had subsided somewhat.

“They found me, is all. Too many of ‘em. But who cares now.”

“Let me bind your wounds.”

“Nah, what’s the point.”

“You don’t have to die here.”

“What, you wanna carry me home through the wilderness? Just look at me.” He raised up his arm, showing the bloody, bony mess that was his hand. “What good am I now? You want me to beg for my food? Barter for trinkets on the bazaar? Hell…” Again the man spat, this time to show his disdain. “I’ll take my leave before I stoop so low, slaveborn or not… No. Life turns sour when you cling to it, boy. But the good thing is, there’s always more. It sprouts from the earth, springs from the sea, no end to it… So don’t worry too much. It’s me today, you tomorrow… One big circus, round and round forever. Great and terrible. That’s all it is, really, all that we really are. And besides, you’re the lucky one today.”

“How so?”

“You get your gun, and the helmet, too. And who knows what treasures wait in an old bush ranger’s pockets? Come now, boy. I made my choice, it’s all right. Do what I asked ye. It’s true I wronged you, but – you don’t hold a grudge, do you? That wouldn’t suit a young lord.”

The boy arose, the gun in his hand. A bright light indicated: full charge. His anger had flown. He felt older, but lighter, too, as if a view of higher spheres had opened to him from the deep darkness of the stranger’s eyes. He nodded gravely, then readied the weapon. For a moment, the two looked at each other in the darkened cave. Finally, the stranger spoke:

“Maybe we’ll meet again. I’m not yet finished with this world.” He winked at the boy one last time, like it had all just been a big, lighthearted joke. “Farewell now, kid.”

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