Michaelbrent Collings is an internationally bestselling author, multiple Bram Stoker Award Finalist, and one of the top indie horror writers in the US. He hopes someday to develop superpowers and maybe get a cool robot arm.
Today I have an exclusive excerpt from Michaelbrent Collings’ latest book, Predators. Enjoy!
It had been long since the last olamiyo. Certainly longer than Leboo’s lifetime, and perhaps longer than that of his father or even his father’s father, too.
But it did not matter. Because of the lions. Because of their cubs. And because some things demanded a response.
This was, strictly speaking, not even a proper olamiyo. Those hunts – the men of the tribe sneaking out at dawn to hunt the lion on the savanna grasslands – were a thing of the past.
Leboo had snuck out with the others, to be sure, each of them knowing somehow that such was right… that it was the only way to do this with any chance of success. The dawn had painted the land, blooded it with reds and oranges as the empikas – the men chosen for the hunt –crept out on silent feet, each holding spear in a hand that was dry and steady. Each of the men was ilmorijo – there was not a junior warrior among them, and certainly, none who was still a child.
They were the proud men of the village, the strong men of the tribe.
Yet, in the end, when the prey had become predator, the hunters the hunted, they ran.
Only Leboo did not run. For he was Leboo – named as one born outside the village, one whose mother had not had time to leave the bush when her time came. He was born in this place, born in the savanna, in the wild.
The wild was his birthright.
And now, he feared, it would be his death.
Only the lions kept him from running. Only the lions pushed him onward. The way they were, what had happened to them… it was all so wrong. That was why Leboo called the council in the first place, just a few days ago.
The men of the council had nodded. They had agreed. The young men had whooped and shouted – “Of course, of course, we will come, we will right this thing!” – while the older men simply nodded, knowing a nod sufficed and knowing already that none of the younger men would actually go.
This was a thing of fathers. A thing to avenge the fathers of the pride – and the mothers and children that had been lost.
And so… the hunt.
The hunt began at dawn, it continued through the day and into the night. Tracking became more difficult. This was a hot place, and the dry season had been long, but nights still got cool at this time of year.
None of the men shivered. None suggested they return.
Then they found their prey.
No. Then they found us.
It was night. Torches had been lit, but all knew that the tracking they did was for now only for show. The lions would be watching, and the men had to show them that they would not relent, would never give up this hunt.
In the dying light of the last torch, in the twilight between man’s fire and the darkness, Engai Narok – the good god, the Black God – became his vengeful alter-ego. Engai Narok closed his benevolent eyes, and Engai Na-nyokie, the Red God, awoke.
And that was when they came.
They were dark as night, almost invisible but for that single moment in the last embers of flame. Then their eyes glowed; twinkled like stars fallen to earth.
But one by one, those stars died. And with the death of those fallen stars began the death of the men.
The screams were not the worst. Nor was it the sense of those falling around Leboo, not the obscene feeling when a man is torn to pieces and a small piece of nature torn with him. It was not even the warmth that splashed across him, which he knew was the blood of his brother, Maitera.
What will Sankau say, when he does not return? Will his wife cry for him? Will she weep?
Will my wife weep for me?
No, the worst was not the blood, not the screams or the death.
It was the laughter.
It began an instant before the hunt became a slaughter. A cackling, hungry bark of a laugh. The laugh became two, then five, then ten, then twenty…
Great Engai Narok, how we misjudged.
But it would not have been different had they known the number of their foe. The lions demanded justice, and nature required that evil be punished.
Those who survived the first attack ran. Leboo did not know if any survived. He only knew that suddenly, he was alone. The foe had followed those who ran. Foolish of the other men to flee that way. Here, in this place, in this land where life was measured in years, yes, but also in seconds, it was death to run.
Running was what the food did.
So the men ran, the foe followed, and Leboo was suddenly alone.
And, alone, he tracked in the night. Something had gripped him: a madness, perhaps, or perhaps simply a sense of what must be destroyed, were the universe to return to its senses.
He continued forward. He was no longer looking for what he had originally sought. Not justice, not even punishment.
He would do what had been done to others.
He would kill their children.
The trail was hard to follow. It was night, and nothing was quite so dark or so lonely as night in this place. But Leboo was of this place, and the darkness and loneliness were old friends who did not stop him, but seemed rather to beckon to him, to urge him ever forward.
He followed the trail of the many, to a place that as a child the elders had always counseled him to stay away from. And now he understood why; understood what hid there.
Water sounded, murmuring around him as he went deeper into this place, this gash in the world. A sound that meant life, that meant growth. But here, it was the signal of doom. For of course they would shelter here.
He continued, the walls of this place closing around him. The stone on all sides stood silent and dark, blocking what little, pitiful light there had been above.
He continued, the blood pounding in his ears, thrumming through him, shouting, Run, run, run!
He continued and finally found them.
They were up late, the children. Rolling around, wrestling and playing as children will. They were small, and it would be so easy.
He crept forward. He had lost his spear somewhere in the fight – killing the beast that killed his brother? – but he still had his long knife. That would be enough.
He snuck closer. Three paces away from the nearest of the young.
And again Engai Na-nyokie showed his displeasure. The Red God winked, and a sudden wash of moonlight flowed into this place and fell upon Leboo.
The light fell on him, and once more, those starlight eyes glowed. The eyes of the young, who saw him for the first time, and who turned to face him with teeth bared and murder in their eyes. Even now, so young, they would kill – as, indeed, many already had, murdering and sometimes eating younger brothers or sisters as they competed for their mothers’ affections.
It was one of those loving mothers he now saw. She was young herself, but already strong and large – as all the mothers were – she had been resting in the mouth of a cave in the walls, watching her children as they played with the others. Now she stepped forward. Now she saw Leboo, as he saw her.
Help me, Engai Narok. Be my hands, and guide my blade.
He heard the lions roar, as clear as if they had been here with him in this dark place, and knew that the good Black God had spoken. Had said, “Go. Fight. Win. You will triumph, and balance will return.”
Leboo leaped forward, even as this young mother did. They clashed, blade and muscle, hand and claw.
When they withdrew from that first clash, he saw he had blooded her: her left ear was gone.
She made no sound, though. Not the merest whimper of pain. In her mind, she was still whole. That made Leboo take heart, almost as much as the cry of the lions in his heart. She was too stupid to know she had been wounded.
But I am smart. I am smart, and strong, and I will –
The thought ended abruptly as he realized how warm he was. His groin and legs felt like they were burning. Then his innards spilled from the long slit the young mother had opened in his belly.
Leboo looked down. He glimpsed his guts falling in dark, tumbling curls to the brown earth that lapped his blood.
He looked up in time to raise his hands against the next attack. The mother hit him in the center, and now he was not warm, but cold. He fell beneath her and felt her bury her head inside him, tearing, pulling.
He realized the lie. Too late, he realized the lie.
The lions had not been urging him forward. They had been calling him home.
But he would not go easily. He would leave his mark behind.
He grabbed the mother’s one remaining ear. Yanked it up and now at last she did scream. More surprise than pain, perhaps, but at least he had won that much. And would win still more.
He brought his blade down on her. He slashed from the left, from her now-deaf side. The blade bit into her temple, just behind the eye. She twisted away enough to avoid being blinded, but Leboo felt the knife bite down to bone. He pulled it forward, taking the skin off that side of her head. Dragged the knife forward, through cheek and chin.
Then the knife fell from his hands. The cold would let him do no more.
Strangely, the mother stood back.
Leboo was surprised. It was not these things‘ way to show mercy.
Then he realized what was happening as the mother called her children. Two of them, both girls – of course, the strongest and most terrible were always the girls, and the women they became – stepped forward. As had their mother, they buried their heads inside him, burrowing in and up, following the path of his soft insides, the best and easiest parts to eat.
Leboo was on the ground, face to the sky. In his last moments, he saw that not all the young men of the village had been fooled by the dawn departure of the warriors. Someone had followed them. A dark face peered down at him from atop the wall. A face he recognized.
Not a warrior. Not even a man.
Leboo had no idea how his daughter had followed him. How she had survived the attentions of the monsters who had made a mockery of the hunt, then followed and found him here.
Naeku. Naeku, look away. Look away, then run.
But she did not look away. Like the creatures, her eyes twinkled in the night. Not with the fires of death, but with tears.
Look away. Look… away… and…
The final instruction never reached his mind. The first of the children burrowed into his lungs and the breath left his body; then the life left his body, too, as she chewed her way forward, and took the first bite of his heart while it still beat inside him.
The heart stilled.
The lions were silent.
Only the laughter remained.
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